Measure for Measure Measure for Measure (Vol. 76)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Measure for Measure

Considered one of the most complex of Shakespeare's dark comedies, Measure for Measure (c. 1603) has been characterized as a problem play. Critics have debated almost every aspect of this work, including its themes, style, genre, characterization, and issues of artistic unity and structure. Set in Renaissance Vienna, the play centers on Duke Vincentio, ruler of Vienna; Isabella, a novice nun; and the puritanical deputy Angelo. The Duke, who has ruled the city with a light hand for many years, decides to more forcefully impose the laws of the land after he realizes that his subjects do not take the laws seriously. He leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna and pretends to leave the city. The Duke then disguises himself as a friar and observes Angelo's harsh administration of the law and his subsequent fall from honor. The final resolution, in which the Duke returns to mete out justice, ends in marriage and reconciliation between the major players. The play was first presented to King James I approximately one year after he became king of England. James's reputation as an ineffectual monarch preceded him to the throne, and critics speculate that Shakespeare based the character of Duke Vincentio on the King, using the character to highlight issues of justice, mercy, and the rule of law as they affected James and his reign. In addition to issues of government and politics, critical attention has also focused heavily on Shakespeare's treatment of sexuality, gender issues, and power in the play. Critics also continue to debate the play's ending, which many regard as unsatisfactory because of its many contradictions and ambiguities. Despite the play's difficulties, Measure for Measure has proven to be a popular and versatile subject for performance, lending itself to numerous modern interpretations.

Recent appraisals of character in Measure for Measure have reflected contemporary scholarly interest in gender relations, with study focused on the play's principal female role, Isabella. Often regarded as one of the play's more problematic characters, Isabella is central to the themes of sexuality, gender roles, and marriage in the play. Writing about critical responses to Isabella, George L. Geckle (1971) relates that early critics of Measure for Measure were either disapproving of Isabella or disturbed about her rigid adherence to her principles, which led many to regard her as unfeeling and self-absorbed. However, more recent appraisals of her character have been kinder; Geckle contends that Isabella's character exemplifies a heroine of unimpeachable virtue, one whose outward beauty truly reflects the good inside. Marcia Riefer (1984) contends that instead of focusing on characterizing Isabella as either a virtuous ideal or a rigid adherent to social norm, it is more rewarding to perceive her treatment in the play as a means of exploring the issue of female subjugation in a patriarchal society. According to Riefer, Isabella is pivotal not only in Measure for Measure, but also as a precursor to Shakespeare's later female characters, such as Paulina in The Winter's Tale. The character of the Duke has also elicited critical attention. Many critical essays focus on the comparison of his character and the ideas of kingship espoused by King James in his two treatises on monarchy. In her essay on the Duke and his ideas of justice and mercy, Cynthia Lewis (1983) evaluates the character of the Duke as the means through which Shakespeare demonstrated that even the best and most-beloved monarchs are ultimately human and have imperfections.

The critical debate over the inconsistencies and ambiguities in Measure for Measure has not made the play less popular with production companies. In fact, the ambiguous ending has often provided room for innovative interpretations of the play. In her review of Libby Appel's 1998 production of Measure for Measure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Nancy Taylor (1999) remarks on the successful manner in which Appel was...

(The entire section is 83,968 words.)