Measure for Measure
Often identified as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," Measure for Measure begins on a serious note, drawing audiences in with its focus on the moral dilemmas of its major characters. By the second half of the play, however, the tone shifts to a comic one, which distances audiences from the characters and their plights. This discordance is one of the issues that makes the play "problematic." Another such issue is the play's stance on law, justice, and mercy. In analyses of these themes, critics are unable to agree on what message Shakespeare intended to convey. Often, such discussions focus on the characters of the Duke and Angelo, who, as governmental leaders, are in a position to interpret the law and dispense justice and mercy. Other topics of modern critical debate include the role of sexuality in the play, as well as Shakespeare's use of substitutions in the play.
In examining the inconsistencies in Measure for Measure, A. D. Nutall (1968) states that the "Grand Inconsistency" of the play is that "between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement." Nutall examines Angelo and the Duke as rulers and heroes and maintains that it is possible to view Angelo as a good Machiavellian ruler, who retains a certain integrity throughout the play. The Duke, Nutall argues, is frivolous and cannot be taken seriously as a satisfactory hero. In exploring the attitudes of the Duke and Angelo regarding the law and its application, N. W. Bawcutt (1984) claims that Measure for Measure presents a dual image of the law, in which the law is ignored without consequence but may suddenly mete out harsh punishment with a certain arbitrariness. Mercy, Bawcutt demonstrates, is similarly presented in a variety of ways, whereas justice and the law are relatively indistinguishable from one another.
Other critics focus on how specific aspects of the law are treated in Measure for Measure. Margaret Scott (1982) reviews the play's vague law against fornication and cautions against approaching the play through the examination of Elizabethan marriage contracts. Jonathan (1985) studies the regulation of sexuality in the play, suggesting that, as in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, such regulation was a reaction of the State against the fear of anarchy.
In examining the apparent structural inconsistencies between the two halves of the play, Herbert Weil, Jr. (1970) argues that if the falling action of the play is viewed as light comedy, even farce, then the action does in fact "fit into a comprehensive design." Weil maintains that through the comic subplot involving Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone, Shakespeare prepares the audience for the comic reversals of the second half of the play. Furthermore, Weil suggests that Shakespeare deliberately altered his sources in order to engineer the audience's disappointment resulting from the failure of the action to resolve the characters' moral dilemmas. The purpose of this alteration, Weil asserts, was to highlight, through Shakespeare's parodying of the melodrama of his sources, the limitations of comic form and devices. At the same time, Shakespeare "stretches [comic conventions and implausible devices] into new possibilities." Like Weil, T. A. Stroud (1993) emphasizes the importance of the play's comic substructure, arguing that the comic plot initiated by Lucio was intended to balance, (and nearly does so, according to Stroud), the "quasi-tragic plot initiated by Angelo." Stroud stresses that an analysis of this doubling or balancing could resolve "some of the widespread critical dissatisfaction with this play." In her analysis of Measure for Measure as tragicomedy, Harriett Hawkins (1972) outlines some of the major discrepancies between the first and second half of the play and describes it as "a magnificent failure." Hawkins states that the most pervasive problem of the play is "that the memory of the characters, their speeches, and their conflicts between mutually exclusive moral alternatives simply cannot be revoked by the theatrical intriguing of a Duke. . . . "
The sexual relations between men and women play a major role in Measure for Measure. Kathleen McCluskie (1985) contends that the dilemmas in the play and the sexuality of its female characters are conceived of in entirely male terms: Mistress Overdone is a bawd, Juliet is obviously pregnant, and Isabella, in her nun's habit, denies sexuality. Only Mariana's position is ambiguous, since she is not a maid, widow, or wife. The organization of the second half of the play is designed to rectify this problematic status, McCluskie argues, and to reinstate Mariana within the male prescribed sex roles. Susan Carlson (1989) on the other hand, maintains that the play offers a "fragile" and "unusual" alternative to male dominated sexuality. This alternative, according to Carlson, is simply "the acknowledgement of qualities, options, and relations for both men and women not sanctioned by the standard sexual politics." In the end, Carlson notes, the possibility for the existence of this alternative, which challenges the play's male order, is eliminated.
In Measure for Measure, characters are repeatedly substituted for one another. Alexander Leggatt (1988) reviews some of these substitutions: Mariana for Isabella in the bed-trick, Angelo for the Duke, Barnardine for Claudio, and Ragozine for Barnardine. The critic maintains that the substitutions in the play either fail to achieve their intended purpose or are in some other way unsatisfying, concluding that the substitutions are both "revealing" and "fascinating" but incomplete. Additionally, Leggatt states that Shakespeare did not deliberately write an imperfect play in order to highlight the imperfections of his art. Hutson Diehl (1998) directly challenges Leggatt's view, insisting that this is indeed what Shakespeare has done. Diehl argues that Shakespeare explores, through the use of substitutions, the power and limitation of theatrical representation, and that in doing so, he creates a dissatisfaction in the audience's response to Measure for Measure. By creating this dissatisfaction, Diehl explains, Shakespeare uses the theater for "the project of reforming human behavior even as he acknowledges the limits of that project and distances his theater from the extremist views of radical Puritanism." Through Measure for Measure, Diehl concludes, Shakespeare inspires in his audiences a sense "of the infinite space that separates them from the divine."