(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 critic Jonathan Dollimore (1985) emphasizes the trangressive quality of human desire depicted in the drama, which threatens the social order and is exploited by the Duke to legitimate authoritarian repression. Disruption of sexual norms also figures prominently in Susan Carlson's (1989) analysis of a feminine-centered sexuality that pressures the conventional, male-dominated sexual hierarchy of Measure for Measure. Barbara J. Baines (1990) links alternative sexualities with power in her study of Isabella's chastity. In a parallel discussion, Alberto Cacicedo (1995) notes the use of marriage as a means of limiting feminine freedom and denying autonomy in the repressive and highly-gendered society of Shakespeare's Vienna. Maurice Charney (see Further Reading) clearly voices the proposition that Measure for Measure is fundamentally a drama about human sexuality, and examines the erotic, if not openly sexual, relationship between Isabella and Angelo. Describing the work as “sadopornographic,” David McCandless (1998) explores the psychological dynamics of sexuality as punishment in the play.

Other topics eliciting recent commentary have included law, spirituality, and the troublesome question of the play's genre. Ervene Gulley (1996) offers a legalistic and meta-theatrical analysis of Duke Vincentio's performance in Measure for Measure, which, she argues, is deeply embedded in Shakespeare's conception of law. Maurice Hunt (1987) comments on the motif of earthly versus otherworldly love that reverberates throughout the drama. Confronting prior accusations of inconsistency of genre in the work, Gregory W. Lanier (1987) acknowledges Measure for Measure's problematic division between the comic and tragic, but sees in Shakespeare's balanced juxtaposition of these dramatic modes a structural unity. Likewise, Gideon Rappaport (1987) argues that Shakespeare depicts a coherent theme of virtue in the drama that vindicates its supposedly inadequate conclusion. Finally, Kate Chedgzoy (2000) surveys the stage history of Measure for Measure in order to glean insights regarding the play's resistance to the ordinary dramatic categories of comedy and tragedy.

Gregory W. Lanier (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lanier, Gregory W. “Physic That's Bitter to Sweet End: The Tragicomic Structure of Measure for Measure.Essays in Literature 14, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 15-36.

[In the following essay, Lanier presents a structural analysis of Measure for Measure, seeing in its divided form “a juxtaposition of two dramatic modes, tragedy and comedy, carefully poised to create a cohesive, resonant unity.”]

In 1949 E. M. W. Tillyard bisected Measure for Measure into potentially tragic verse and dissolutely comic prose; some years earlier G. Wilson Knight asserted that the symbolic sequence of transgression, judgment, and redeeming mercy provides an...

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Gideon Rappaport (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rappaport, Gideon. “Measuring Measure for Measure.Renascence 39, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 502-13.

[In the following essay, Rappaport responds to critics who view Measure for Measure as lacking unity, contending that there is sufficient thematic coherence in the drama's resolution.]

O place and greatness! millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee. Volumes of report
Run with these false, and most contrarious quest
Upon thy doings; thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dream,
And rack thee in their fancies.


In her call for papers for the 1980 Shakespeare Association Convention's...

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Charles Swann (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Swann, Charles. “Lucio: Benefactor or Malefactor?” Critical Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 55-70.

[In the following essay, Swann examines the ambivalent ideological function of Lucio at the close of Measure for Measure, particularly in relation to the authoritarian figure of the Duke.]

… I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors.

(Measure for Measure, II.i. 48-50).

In a recent piece, ‘Transgression and surveillance in Measure for Measure’, Jonathan Dollimore dismissed the blandness of one kind of interpretation of...

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Linda MacFarlane (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: MacFarlane, Linda. “Heads You Win, Tails I Lose.” Critical Survey 5, no. 1 (1993): 77-82.

[In the following essay, MacFarlane discusses the restrictions on Isabella's freedom as a woman in the Renaissance Vienna of Measure for Measure.]

                                                                                                              Be that you are,
That is a woman; if you be more you're none.

(Angelo, II. iv. 134-5)

In Measure For Measure Isabella is placed firmly in a no win situation. Even on the threshold of a convent, at the very moment of making a clear statement about her vocation, her desires and...

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Kaori Ashizu (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Ashizu, Kaori. “‘Pardon Me?’: Judging Barnardine's Judge.” English Studies 78, no. 5 (September 1997): 417-29.

[In the following essay, Ashizu examines Duke Vincentio’s poor treatment of the prisoner Barnardine in Measure for Measure, and argues against conceptions of the Duke as an ideal or godlike authority.]

Measure for Measure is certainly one of Shakespeare's most controversial works; it has elicited and continues to elicit a diversity of violently conflicting interpretations. However, no matter how various the elements and interests in these controversies, the arguments seem to converge after all on one subject—how to see Duke...

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Stephen J. Phillips (review date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Stephen J. “‘Adapted for Television’: David Thacker's Measure for Measure.Forum for Modern Language Studies 35, no. 1 (January 1999): 23-33.

[In the following review, Phillips examines David Thacker’s 1999 television adaptation of Measure for Measure for British broadcast, highlighting the cuts, transpositions, and characterization decisions that Thacker made for the televised medium.]

In the autumn of 1994 the British Broadcasting Corporation transmitted a series of programmes that explored the work of Shakespeare. This coincided with a major festival at the Royal Shakespeare Company's London base. The BBC offerings included...

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Nancy Taylor (review date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Nancy. Review of Measure for Measure. Theatre Journal 51, no. 1 (March 1999): 73-76.

[In the following review of the 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure directed by Libby Appel, Taylor comments on the performance's resistance to the boundaries of character and setting, as well as its highly eroticized atmosphere.]

Artistic Director, Libby Appel, created a series of boundary dissolutions in this production, an appropriate post-modern era approach to a play driven by stark and extreme contrasts. Her production of Uncle Vanya similarly highlighted the interdependence of presence and representation,...

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Jonathan Dollimore (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Dollimore, Jonathan. “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 72-87. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Dollimore provides a materialist analysis of social transgression in Measure for Measure, which he sees as the result of “unregulated desire” responded to by “authoritarian repression.”]

In the Vienna of Measure for Measure unrestrained sexuality is ostensibly subverting social order; anarchy threatens to engulf the State unless sexuality is subjected to renewed...

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Maurice Hunt (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Comfort in Measure for Measure.Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 27, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 213-32.

[In the following essay, Hunt investigates the theme of spiritual comfort and its complex relationship to the human capacity for love, primarily represented through the figures of Isabella, the Duke, and Mariana in Measure for Measure.]

Pax vobiscum”—versions of the time-honored words of spiritual comfort repeatedly echo in Measure for Measure, especially in the language of Vincentio and Isabella, the disguised Friar Lodowick and the aspiring nun. “Peace be with you” Vincentio exclaims at the end of Act...

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Susan Carlson (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Carlson, Susan. “‘Fond Fathers’ and Sweet Sisters: Alternative Sexualities in Measure for Measure.Essays in Literature 16, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 13-31.

[In the following essay, Carlson stresses non-traditional expressions of sexuality in Measure for Measure that stand against the male-dominated sexual order.]

Measure for Measure insists on defining its women in terms of their sexual relations to men. Such definition is clearest in the play's final scene when the Duke concludes Mariana must be “nothing” if she is not maid, widow, or wife (V.i.177-78).1 The definition is corroborated by Lucio with his addition of a...

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Barbara J. Baines (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Baines, Barbara J. “Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure.Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 30, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 283-301.

[In the following essay, Baines studies Shakespeare's depiction of Isabella's sexual purity as a means of garnering social power in the world of Measure for Measure.]

For many readers of Measure for Measure, Isabella illustrates better than Angelo the paradox that “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (II.i.38).1 Critics have, in fact, argued that the primary question of the play is whether Isabella is an embodiment of Christian virtue or pagan pride.2 Recently...

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Alberto Cacicedo (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cacicedo, Alberto. “‘She Is Fast My Wife’: Sex, Marriage, and Ducal Authority in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Studies (1995): 187-209.

[In the following essay, Cacicedo contends that Measure for Measure dramatizes the repression of feminine freedom by state authority via the institution of marriage.]

Children who stand in little awe of their parents, and have even less fear of the wrath of God, readily set at defiance the authority of magistrates. … It is therefore impossible that a commonwealth should prosper while the families which are its foundations are ill-regulated.


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Ervene Gulley (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gulley, Ervene. “‘Dressed in a Little Brief Authority’: Law as Theater in Measure for Measure.” In Law and Literature Perspectives, edited by Bruce L. Rockwood, pp. 53-80. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

[In the following essay, Gulley reads Measure for Measure as a play about law, scripted by a legalistic Duke Vincentio, who determines its outcome through his theatrical performance and political power.]

Few lawyers are among the significant characters in Shakespeare's plays, and one tipsy daydreamer is even allowed to suggest that reforming society might begin by killing all the lawyers. Yet Shakespeare's dramatic romance with the law itself...

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David McCandless (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: McCandless, David. “‘I'll Pray to Increase Your Bondage’: Power and Punishment in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespearean Power and Punishment: A Volume of Essays, edited by Gillian Murray Kendall, pp. 89-112. London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

[In the following essay, McCandless emphasizes the “sadopornographic” quality of Measure for Measure and the psychological and thematic effects of sexuality and punishment in the drama.]

The first and most striking instance of power and punishment in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is also the play's true beginning: At Angelo's command, Claudio is publicly disgraced, enchained,...

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Kate Chedgzoy (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Chedgzoy, Kate. “Tortured into a Comedy.” In William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, pp. 58-68. Tavistock: Northcote House, 2000.

[In the following essay, Chedgzoy explores Measure for Measure's status as a “problem play,” examining stagings of the drama, particularly its final scene, from the seventeenth to the late-twentieth century.]

Measure for Measure, along with some other Shakespeare plays that date from the first few years of the seventeenth century, is often referred to as a ‘problem play’: All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida are the other plays most often included in this curious category. At...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bernthal, Craig A. “Staging Justice: James I and the Trial Scenes of Measure for Measure.Studies in Literature: 1500-1900 32, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 247-69.

Observes the topical affinity of King James's acclaimed 1603 pardon of alleged anti-royal conspirators in relation to Duke Vincentio's merciful treatment of Angelo and others at the end of Measure for Measure.

Boose, Lynda. “The Priest, the Slanderer, the Historian, and the Feminist.” English Literary Renaissance 25, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 320-40.

Mentions the anti-feminist dynamics of the judicial scenes in Measure for Measure.


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