Measure for Measure Measure for Measure (Vol. 65)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Measure for Measure

Classified by modern scholars as one of Shakespeare's “problem plays,” Measure for Measure has fascinated and perplexed audiences and critics alike for centuries. Set in the corrupted world of Renaissance Vienna, Measure for Measure is principally concerned with the subject of sexual morality, and is driven by Shakespeare's depiction of harsh early modern Viennese laws regarding sexual intercourse outside of wedlock. Its principal figures are the seemingly ineffectual Duke Vincentio, his severe deputy Angelo, Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for fornication, and Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella. While Isabella's entreaties for her brother's pardon do prove successful, critics acknowledge that many of the tensions raised over the course of the play remain open, resulting in a largely unsatisfactory resolution. Critical disagreement over the often contradictory manner in which the play confronts the theme of justice has been ongoing, as has the problem of the drama's structural cohesiveness, reflected by its discordant shifts in tone from comic to tragic. Overall, the debate concerning its classification, the critical struggle over ambiguities in Shakespeare's characterization, and the potent dynamics of marriage, celibacy, lust, and love continue to dominate current evaluations of Measure for Measure.

Recent critical discussion of character in Measure for Measure has typically focused on Isabella and Duke Vincentio, or on one or more of the play's minor figures. Linda McFarlane (1993) discusses Isabella's no-win situation in the play and mentions the limited choices—matrimony or chaste monasticism—offered to her as a woman, possibilities that echo during her notorious silence after the Duke's proposal of marriage. Carolyn E. Brown (see Further Reading) studies Isabella and Duke Vincentio from the point of view of psychoanalysis, concentrating on repressed sexuality as a dominating element in their relationship. Although a relatively minor figure in Measure for Measure, Lucio is nevertheless considered a significant foil to others in the drama. Charles Swan (1987) associates Lucio’s essentially comic character with a number of the play's ambiguities, noticeably in his subversive critique of the authoritarian Duke. Similarly, Kaori Ashizu (1997) highlights the importance of Barnardine, an apparently inconsequential man imprisoned by the Duke years before the action of the play and then forgotten. Using Barnardine's example, Ashizu maintains that the Duke cannot be envisioned as a completely noble or godlike governor, as a number of earlier critics have claimed.

Productions of Measure for Measure at the close of the twentieth century illustrate the play's interesting, if irregular, stage career, which has seen it produced along a continuum from a serious drama concerned with a woman's struggle to preserve her chastity, to an irreverent comedy that mocks society's hypocritical attitude towards sexual morality. Libby Appel's 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the drama places itself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum by resonating with both hard-edged sexuality and bawdy eroticism. Commenting on the performance, critic Nancy Taylor (1999) observes the drama's potential to disrupt boundaries of identity between individual characters in the play, eliminate barriers between audience and stage, and even blur the distinction between spirituality and sexuality. Highlighting David Thacker's 1999 production of Measure for Measure for British television, reviewer Stephen J. Phillips (1999) examines the cuts, transpositions, and characterization decisions Thacker made for the televised medium, and contends that Thacker’s adaptation of the play to the “conventions of television realism” weakened the production.

While thematic studies of Measure for Measure confront a number of varied issues in the work, easily the most absorbing topic to contemporary critics has been that of sexuality. Materialist...

(The entire section is 105,318 words.)