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 able to stage the play in a modernistic setting, using props and background to blur the lines between audience and performance. D. J. R. Bruckner (1999) reviews a similarly modern interpretation of Measure for Measure staged by Jerry McAllister in the streets of New York City. Bruckner praises the production's untraditional elements, but notes that the background disrupted the action of the play. Another variation from the original is a Turkish staging of the play, directed by Taksim Sahnesi, which Marvin Carlson (1999) calls a “radical adaptation” but one that is “unquestionably the most powerful and effective” staging of Measure for Measure that he has ever seen. Ben Brantley (2001) reviews Mary Zimmerman's 1999 production of Measure for Measure for the New York Shakespeare Festival, which garnered much critical attention both for its acting and direction. Brantley contends that the performance was straightforward and noninterpretive, simply presenting the text as written, with no attempts made to reconcile the numerous ambiguities and contradictions in the play.
Recent thematic criticism of Measure for Measure has concentrated on issues of government and politics. Brian Gibbons (1991, see Further Reading) notes that the play derives both its title and its subject matter from relevant, contemporary issues of Shakespeare's time. He also remarks on Shakespeare's use of appearance to put forth ideas concerning justice and mercy, especially pointing to the masterful contrast built in the very beginning of the play between the character and appearance of Mistress Overdone and a very pregnant Juliet. Although their appearances contrast vividly—the former presenting an image of corruption and decay, the latter presenting a vision of love and fertility—Gibbons points out that in the eyes of the law, both were to be deplored. In this way, according to Gibbons, Shakespeare set up a series of paradoxes and contradictions which manipulated audience response and prompted theatergoers to reconsider initial impressions. Stephen Cohen (1999) contends that Measure for Measure begins as a romantic comedy and ends as a monarch play. The critic maintains that these two incompatible genres result in the play's “notorious contradictions, incongruities, and frustrated expectations.” Further, Cohen draws a parallel between the laws of equity that characterized Elizabeth's reign and the Jacobean view of governance, which emphasized absolute kingly authority. Measure for Measure has also been studied as a political statement about King James's reign. Several critics, including Carolyn E. Brown (1996), have drawn parallels between the character of Duke Vincentio and King James I. Brown notes that the play works at two levels—as a glorification of the theory of divine right, and as an example of the ultimate human failings that plague even the most well-intentioned rulers. Andrew Barnaby and Joan Wry (1998) contend that the play clearly comments on the dangers of using religious rhetoric for political or secular purposes. Lastly, Victoria Hayne (1993, see Further Reading) proposes that while the play rolls toward its apparent happy ending, there is enough variance in the action to suggest that Shakespeare was urging his audience to recognize the balance of social and political norm against human emotion.