Measure for Measure Measure for Measure (Vol. 33)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Measure for Measure

Sexuality sounds a complex and insistent note throughout this play about marriage, celibacy, ungoverned lust, and unsanctioned love, and this issue has influenced recent criticism of Measure for Measure. Modern commentators have examined the influence of Elizabethan and Jacobean thought regarding human sexuality on the play's structure and characterization, its treatment of power, justice, and mercy, and the reconciliation of opposites implicit in the play's title.

Ralph Berry (1976-77) describes the structure of Measure for Measure as split into two worlds: the illicit underworld which "exists for the free gratification of impulses controlled or suppressed elsewhere," and the overworld which "is founded on government, restraint, morality, shame … discipline." While articulating the play's "doctrine" or lesson of shared guilt and mercy, Ronald Berman (1967) contends that the "Letter of Paul to the Romans … illuminate[s] both the sensuality and the righteousness of the [play's] protagonists." Similarly, W. L. Godshalk (1970) remarks that such opposite forces as "mercy and justice, … chastity and sexual license" are at work in the play, and restates the title as "measure must oppose measure," asserting that these forces move toward a fragile balance in Act V when the characters realize that sexual desire, "one manifestation of human love," is a weakness shared by all of them, and that—in theory at least—marriage turns this weakness into strength by combining the chastity of monogamy with the fulfilled desire of the marriage bed. On the other hand, Mario DiGangi (1993) challenges this solution when he observes that marriage is simply male-dominated Vienna's attempt to control female sexuality by applying laws to female sexual desire and pregnancy. Marcia Riefer (1984) and Amy Lechter-Siegel (1992) share DiGangi's scepticism, arguing, in the first instance, that the play loses its status as a comedy and, in the second instance, that the Duke retains his absolute control of the state when he coerces Isabella into marriage rather than permitting her sexual autonomy or condoning her views on chastity and justice.

Sexuality is an important part of characterization in the play. Katharine Eisaman Maus (1995) offers a general discussion of how desire operates in the play as an influence on the characters' inward and outward lives. More specifically, Karl F. Zender (1994) argues that Isabella's initial views on chastity are "sado-masochistic," while David Thatcher (1995) sees Isabella's concept of "natural guiltiness" as valid and well-meant but not as justification for granting her brother clemency. With regard to the Duke's deputy, Angelo, Harry V. Jaffa (1981) asserts that Angelo is a strict but reasoning dispenser of the Duke's moral code who rebels "against the authority he has hitherto represented" once his lust for Isabella overtakes him.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ronald Berman (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Law," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1967, pp. 141-50.

[In the following essay, Berman reviews the representative criticism regarding Measure for Measure and applies Pauline doctrine to the central issues of this "problem" play: reality versus the ideal, justice versus mercy, and the difficulty of making a clear distinction between good and evil.]

Coleridge found Measure For Measure "painful … disgusting … horrible", ignoring Dr. Johnson's detached appreciation of Shakespeare's "knowledge of human nature". Mrs. Jameson's saccharine idealization of Isabella opened the way for the "melting tenderness" and "tremulous sensibility" of William Winter (The Wallet of Time) and other virginophiles. The reaction of the present century to Isabella was predictable: Charlton noted drily that the lady was a hussy (Shakespeare's Comedies ) and Quiller-Couch added in his New Cambridge edition that her chastity was "something rancid". When the criticism of Shakespeare became more thematic and symbolic it was found by G....

(The entire section is 65,422 words.)