(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 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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Stephen. “From Mistress to Master: Political Transition and Formal Conflict in Measure for Measure.Criticism 41, no. 4 (fall 1999): 431-64.

[In the following essay, Cohen 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.”]

Through most of its critical history, responses to Measure for Measure have been of two types: those proffering a key that unlocks the play's notorious difficulties to reveal its unity and integrity, and those that find the play's unsatisfactory elements irreconcilable and thus declare it a failed or flawed work.1 In the last twenty-five years, however, readings that dismiss the play as flawed have largely been supplanted by others that see in those same flaws a different sort of key to the play: troubling aspects of characterization, plotting, and thematic consistency are now read as intentional violations of dramatic expectations designed to subvert the play's ostensible ordering principles. Thus, in addition to formalist readings that either argue for the play's success as a romantic comedy or assign it to another genre that accounts for its apparent formal deviations, we have readings that explain the play's formal irregularities as intentional expressions of Shakespeare's dissatisfaction with the artificial constraints of generic convention.2 Similarly, “old historicist” readings of Measure for Measure's Duke as a flattering portrait of the new king James I and his political theory and practice have been supplemented by readings that see the play's inconsistent or discomfiting moments as pointed subversions of its superficially positive portrayal of the Duke's (and James') competence and authority.3

In light of recent critical interest in literary texts' ideological orthodoxy or subversion, it is not surprising that historical readings of Measure for Measure have emerged, along with treatments of the play's perennially vexed generic status, as the most popular approaches to the play.4 Given their popularity, however, it is all the more surprising how infrequently the two approaches have been brought together in efforts to account for Measure for Measure's troubling aspects. While New Historicism has emphasized the need to pay close attention to a text's social and cultural contexts, it has been slower to recognize the importance of literary contexts and to explore the complicated cultural work of literary forms.5 Accordingly, attempts to historicize Measure for Measure's ambiguous formal status or to study the role of generic conventions in the play's indeterminate ideological work have been rare. Readings that do address both formal and historical issues tend to treat the play as an unproblematic example of a given genre and its cultural function; in so doing, they ignore or dismiss the play's history of ideological and generic undecidability.6

In what follows, I will argue that a closer examination of the interrelations between form and ideology in Measure for Measure reveals that the play is neither a straightforward nor a flawed nor a subversive instantiation of any single generic or ideological structure. Instead, like the period in which it was written, Measure for Measure is marked by the juxtaposition of two incompatible ideologies and their related dramatic forms. The play begins as a romantic comedy, but at the end of the second act both its ideological perspective and its formal structure undergo a metamorphosis; from this point on the play proceeds to its conclusion in accordance with the form and ideas of the disguised monarch play. This generic shift in medias res is not, however, entirely successful—and its failure is at the root of the play's notorious contradictions, incongruities, and frustrated expectations, which are the result not of the play's subversive intent, but of the conflicting imperatives of two genres fundamentally different in form and ideological function.


In 1603-1604, the likely years of Measure for Measure's composition, England after years of anticipation and anxiety finally saw the accession of its new king, James I. While the peaceful transition from Elizabeth to James was for the most part greeted with an enthusiasm born of relief, it was also the occasion of some unease, the nature and source of which is suggested in a remark of Sir John Harington's occasioned by one of James' first acts as monarch, the hanging of a thief captured during the new king's initial progress to London:

Here now wyll I reste my troublede mynde, and tende my sheepe like an Arcadian swayne, that hath loste his faire mistresse; for in soothe, I have loste the beste and faireste love that ever shepherde knew, even my gracious Queene; and sith my goode mistresse is gone, I shall not hastily put forthe for a new master. I heare oure new Kynge hathe hangede one man before he was tryede; 'tis strangely done: now if the wynde blowethe thus, why may not a man be tryed before he hathe offended.7

Harington's lament neatly captures the rhetoric of romance with which Elizabeth figured her relation to her subjects, as well as the importance of conventional literary depictions of women to that rhetoric. At the same time, Harington's observation concerning the new king—its pointed question notably unblunted by rhetorical or literary conceits—voices both the perceived contrast between James and Elizabeth and the skepticism that such a juxtaposition of lost mistress and new master could inspire.

The gendered iconography invoked by Harington in his eulogistic description of Elizabeth had a long and complicated history. From the earliest days of her reign, Elizabeth was faced with the problem of defining and justifying herself as a female ruler. In doing so she adapted to her own needs two familiar elements of royalist ideology: the doctrines of divine right and the king's two bodies. Based on the argument that as God's earthly lieutenant the monarch was granted undivided sovereignty over his kingdom, the doctrine of divine right was instrumental in Henry VIII's break from the Church of Rome; Elizabeth used this divine authorization to defend her authority not only against the Pope, but also against the unease caused by a female monarch in a patriarchal culture.8 She did so in part by adapting the theory of the king's two bodies, which distinguished between the ruler's mortal “body natural” and the immortal and infallible “body politic” that passed upon the demise of the monarch to the body natural of the new ruler.9 Developed to protect the dignity and authority of the crown against the illness, minority, death, or other incapacity of its individual wearers, the concept was also used by Elizabeth to shield herself from the perceived incapacity of her gender. By locating feminine weakness in her body natural and distinguishing it from her divinely-empowered (and implicitly male) body politic, she was able both to acknowledge the conventional gender theory of her day and to segregate it from her political authority.10

But in addition to invoking the body natural only in order to distance herself from its insufficiencies, Elizabeth was also able in certain situations to emphasize and exploit her gender, turning a potential liability to political profit. The cultural associations of her female body—tender-heartedness, fickleness, physical and mental weakness—provided Elizabeth with a persona that could be foregrounded in situations in which eliciting sympathetic cooperation might be more effective than demanding obedience, and scapegoated in situations requiring unpopular political action or inaction. At the same time, an accompanying invocation of the body politic insisted on the omnipresent royal power that enabled such a risky representational gambit, reminding its audience that the queen is not (merely) what she pretends to be. In a 1575 response to parliamentary urgings that she marry and settle the succession, Elizabeth figured herself as a milkmaid:

if I wear a milke maide with a paile on my arme, whearby my private person might be litle sett by, I wolde not forsake that poore and single state, to matche with the greatest monarche. … Yet, for yowr behalfe, there is no waie so difficulte, that maie towche my privat person, which I will not well content my selffe to take; and, in this case, as willinglie to spoile myselffe of my selffe, as if I sholde put of f my upper garment when it weryes me, if the present state might not therbie be encombred.11

By locating the source of her resistance in a private persona—sympathetically presented as a conventionai figure of female innocence—she displaced responsibility for her notorious temporizing. At the same time, the depiction of this private self as external and inessential, an “upper garment” to be removed at will, assured her subjects that behind the timid milkmaid stood the responsible politician.

Elizabeth, of course, never did “put off” her resistance to matrimony. As hopes for the queen's literal marriage faded, they were replaced by a figurative national romance in which Elizabeth was the unattainable object of desire. Pastoral allegory flourished along with the rhetorics of courtly and Petrarchan love, providing Elizabeth with a series of conventional feminine personae distinct from her powerful body politic. By shifting attention and responsibility from the body politic to a fantasy version of the body natural, Elizabeth's rhetoric of romance worked to mystify or displace the exercise of power, containing and managing political conflict by recasting it as courtship.12 When the economic and political difficulties of the 1590s put increasing pressure on her political authority, Elizabeth's response was thus twofold. On the one hand, she continued to reinforce the crown's divine-right powers both legally and ideologically.13 On the other, she continued to employ the rhetoric of romance to construct a relationship with her subjects based not on power but on reciprocal love. In the “Golden Speech” of 1601, delivered to a parliamentary delegation in the wake of a bitter conflict over monopolies, she acknowledged her feminine weakness, only to balance it with a recompense equally rooted in gender difference: “though you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had nor shall have any that will be more careful and loving.” Yet even in this sentimental apotheosis of the feminine power of love, we find a reminder of the divinely-ordained royal authority that lies behind it: the speech continues, “Shall I ascribe anything to myself and my sexly weakness? I were not worthy to live then; and, of all, most unworthy of the mercies I have had from God, who hath given me a heart that yet never feared any foreign or home enemy.”14 Three years after her death, Harington recalled the success of Elizabeth's rhetorical strategy:

Her speech did winne all affections, and hir subjectes did trye to shewe all love to hir commandes; for she woude saye, 'hir state did require her to commande, what she knew hir people woude willingely do from their owne love to hir. Herein she did shewe hir wysdome fullie: for who did chuse to lose hir confidence; or who woude wythholde a shewe of love and obedience, when their Sovereign said it was their own choice, and not hir compulsion? Surely she did plaie well hir tables to gain obedience thus wythout constraint: again, she coude pute forthe suche alteracions, when obedience was lackinge, as lefte no doubtynges whose daughter she was.15

Love and compulsion, body natural and body politic, shepherdess and imperial monarch—Elizabeth's reign was in many ways built on her ability to maintain a productive tension between such oppositions, using the former to mystify, defer, or displace—but never entirely conceal—the latter.

The success of Elizabeth's representational strategies despite the mounting problems of her last years was at least partly due to their familiarity; by the end of her forty-five year reign the Virgin Queen had achieved a unique status at the center of the national mythology. Her successor, of course, lacked this advantage. Much of what the English public knew of James's political philosophy was gleaned from his two major political treatises, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and the Basilikon Doron (1599), each reprinted in England in 1603. Both texts are firmly grounded in a divine-right theory of sovereignty in which the king is to be obeyed as God's anointed earthly representative.16 Despite the ground gained by divine-right theory in Elizabeth's last decade, however, James's philosophy of governance was viewed with trepidation by some in the English political community, who feared for their rights in the face of what seemed like the threat of absolutism.17 In part, the problem may have been contextual: Elizabeth's notion of divine right was derived from her father's and she shared his skill in shaping its specifically English articulation and application; James's treatises, on the other hand, were written in and for a Scottish context and derived largely from late sixteenth-century continental divine-right theory.18 Perhaps more important, however, were the iconographic means by which the two monarchs presented their concepts of divine right. Its careful acknowledgment and justification of an exceptional femininity no longer necessary, the Elizabethan construction of the Virgin Queen was superseded under James by a more conventional patriarchal ideology which exploited the analogical equivalence of God, king, and father: “Monarchie is the trew paterne of Diuinitie. … Kings are called Gods … because they sit vpon GOD his Throne in the earth,” James wrote in The Trew Law; and “By the Law of Nature the King becomes a naturall Father to all his Lieges at his Coronation.”19 Moreover, while Elizabeth's gender encouraged her to exploit personae strategically different from her male body politic, James's personal status as a husband and father required no such division. Instead, the new king's political ideology asserted the unity of his personal and political selves, emphasizing that the king's God-given sovereign powers were both innate and unique to his person, and could be neither appropriated nor delegated. Consequently, while Elizabeth often relied on the displacement of authority and responsibility, James insisted at least in theory on a high level of personal legal and political authority. In a tract on the royal prerogative written not long after James's accession, his chief legal officer Lord Chancellor Ellesmere articulated the king's position:

The absolute prerogative which is in Kings according to therie private will and Judgment, Cannot be executed by therie subjecte. … For the King in that he is the Substitute of god imediatelie; the father of his people; and the head of the Common wealth; hath by participation with God, and with his Subjectes, a discretion, Judgment, and feeling of love towardes those over whome he raigneth, onelie proper to himselfe, and his place and person; whoe seeing he Cannot into others infuse the wisdome, power, and guifts which God in respect of his place and Charge hath enabled him with all, Can neither subordinate any other judge to governe by that knowledge which the King can noe otherwaies then by his knowne will participate unto him.20

When contrasted with Elizabeths' strategic distancing of her two bodies, James's rhetorical linking of royal prerogative and private will, “place and person,” signalled a significant difference in political strategy and ideology. And while James's patriarchal construction of his divine authority might in itself seem unremarkable, its juxtaposition with the memory of Elizabeth's self-consciously feminized rule could provoke a troubling cultural dissonance—especially when used to read the sort of personal exercise of power described by Harington. The assumptions and expectations set in place by England's “faire mistresse” may well have left many uncertain about their “new master.”


This change in the way the crown represented its own authority produced a correspondent change in the way that royal authority was represented on the contemporary stage. The last decade of Elizabeth's reign witnessed the maturation of Shakespearean romantic comedy, with the production of such plays as A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and All's Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare's comedies of this period participated in the representation of royal power as indirect or distanced from itself through their structural reliance on the largely passive authority of their dukes and kings and the correspondingly active agency of their lovers. In the typical plot the monarch, often after establishing his authority in an appearance early in the play, is absent or ineffective as the hero and especially the heroine overcome the obstacles to their marriage “naturally”—that is, without recourse to royal fiat. In so doing, they also often provide a “magical” (or ideological) resolution to an intractable political or social problem—the conflict between love and law in Dream, the inequities of primogeniture in As You Like It—that the monarch cannot or will not solve. The resolution commonly takes place in a pastoral “green world” distinct from the political world presided over by the monarch; only after the couple has been united does the ruler reappear to ratify their union, resolve lingering technicalities, and reassert the primacy of the now-harmonious political realm. Even Shakespeare's most active romantic comedy ruler, Duke Theseus, is unable to resolve the legal and romantic difficulties of Dream's couples, forcing them to flee to the pastoral-mythological domain of Oberon and Titania to untangle their mismatched desires before he can grant their arrangements the royal imprimatur.21

A central element of Elizabeth's displacement of political agency was, of course, her exploitation of the different genders of the queen's two bodies; this strategy is reflected and reinforced by romantic comedy's pointed juxtaposition of male monarchs and charismatic heroines.22 In the romantic impotence of Twelfth Night's Duke Orsino and his reliance on Viola as intermediary; the deference of The Merchant of Venice's Duke to Portia in Antonio's trial; and the failure of the King of France to provide All's Well's Helena with anything more than a pro forma marriage which she must herself convert to a genuine relationship, romantic comedy mystifies royal power by displacing agency from the authority of the play's male ruler to the wit and resourcefulness of its central female character, while still supporting her actions with (and containing them within) the monarch's institutional authority. This reflection of Elizabeth's self-representational strategy does not by any means comprise the whole of Shakespearean romantic comedy's cultural work, and the form's generic reflection of royalist ideology does not prevent its individual manifestations from complicating, challenging, or subverting that ideology. It may, however, help us to understand the genre's fundamental connection to a specific set of cultural circumstances.

The changes in those circumstances brought about by James's accession were accompanied by an effort to find a dramatic form suited to the new situation; the result was a series of plays reflecting the more direct style and philosophy of governance suggested by James's writings and early political acts. Commonly gathered under the rubric of the “disguised monarch play,” the group includes John Marston's The Fawn (c. 1604) and The Malcontent (1603-1604), John Day's Law Tricks (1604), and Thomas Middleton's Phoenix (1603-1604); the form was short-lived, disappearing after Edward Sharpham's The Fleire (1606).23 In these plays, the monarch's power is neither displaced nor mystified but instead placed at the center of the dramatic action. Rather than giving place to a charismatic heroine after his initial appearance, the monarch dons a disguise in order to pass unrecognized amongst his subjects, and in so doing remains the play's focal point. The ruler's masquerade allows him to observe the character and conduct not only of his subjects but also of those who rule in his absence: in its course he learns—often through his discomfiture and humilitation—that the vices of the former and the corruption or incompetence of the latter are such that only the wisdom and authority of the rightful monarch can assure justice and properly govern the realm. Thus, rather than mystifying the ruler's direct exercise of power, the delegation of authority to a (failed) surrogate emphasizes the necessity of the ruler's personal fiat. Moreover, the play's focus on the process by which the ruler comes to recognize the inadequacy of delegated authority presents the monarch as acquiescing to rather than insisting on his personal sovereignty; in so doing the disguised monarch play not only asserts but also naturalizes this central tenet of Jacobean political doctrine. Having learned his lesson, the still-disguised monarch commences a program of correction that is brought to fruition by his climactic self-revelation: the subsequent apportioning of punishment to the wicked and reward to the good conclusively demonstrates the efficacy of his authority.24

The rapid rise of the disguised monarch comedy exemplifies the interaction between cultural impetus and literary creativity in the construction of a new dramatic form. That construction did not, however, take place on a cultural tabula rasa; neither James's active promulgation of his political philosophy nor the sudden crowding of the London stages with active male monarchs could erase from the English memory the traces of the Virgin Queen and her dramatic counterpart, the romantic comedy heroine. The dissonance between these juxtaposed ideological constructs, and the cultural and political anxiety created by that dissonance, are at the heart of Harington's skeptical comparison of his “faire mistresse” and his “new master.” In what follows, I will argue that Measure for Measure encapsulates this political and generic conflict, and that the resultant ideological and formal schizophrenia can not only account for many of the play's most persistent critical problems, but also help us to understand the complex political climate of the early seventeenth century and the play's role in it.


Formally, Measure for Measure begins as romantic comedy. The Duke's departure precipitates the genre's archetypal situation: the marriage of Claudio and Juliet, already impeded by difficulties over a dowry, is now more seriously hindered by perhaps the most common of romantic comedy obstructions, the rigid requirements of the law. To the rescue comes Claudio's sister Isabella. She is virginal, innocent, and yet—to the surprise and delight of the worldly Lucio—capable when pressed of passion, wisdom and wit: in short, a potential romantic comedy heroine. The stage is set for Isabella in her confrontation with the law's spokesman to save her brother's life and clear the way for his marriage—and in so doing, to awaken the romantic spirit in both herself and her counterpart in cloistered self-denial, Angelo.25 The play's characterization and structural juxtaposition of these four central characters prepare us for the eventual marriage not only of Claudio and Juliet, but of Angelo and Isabella as well, creating a harmonious new community based not on spiritual sterility and legal rigidity but on love and mercy, to be ratified by the Duke upon his return.26

Ideologically too, Measure for Measure proceeds along familiar romantic comedy lines. Condemning the strict enforcement of the law for its obstruction of royal or aristocratic will is common in the genre, as witnessed by the situations of Egeon in The Comedy of Errors and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The legal-ideological situation in Measure for Measure is most akin, however, to that in The Merchant of Venice. In the latter, the contest between Shylock's insistence on his legally correct but morally abhorrent bond and Portia's advocacy of an extralegal but ultimately just mercy dramatizes the contemporary jurisprudential battle between the common law and equity.27 The Renaissance theory of equity called for the mitigation of the strictures of the law in cases where the law's inevitable generality, its failure to consider specific circumstances, produced evident injustice.28 The power to grant equity inhered in the conscience of the king, but was traditionally delegated to the chancellor, chief judge of England's main court of equity, the Court of Chancery. Equity was a natural ideological correlative for romantic comedy's valorization of Elizabeth's style of governance: mercy and intercession were traits associated with female rulers, and as a form of royal power exercised by a surrogate equity was well suited to the genre's displacement of agency onto its heroines.29

Equity's significance in Measure for Measure's conflict between Angelo and Isabella is quickly established. In deputizing Angelo, the Duke does not assign him the narrow task of enforcing Vienna's “strict statutes and most biting laws” (I.iii.19),30 but instead pointedly gives him the power either to enforce or mitigate the law, making him a proxy for the royal conscience as well as the royal will:

Hold therefore, Angelo:
In our remove be thou at full ourself.
Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart … Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good.

(I.ii.42-45, 64-66)31

But while the terms of Angelo's commission emphasize his equitable authority, his treatment of Claudio and Juliet quickly makes clear the Deputy's own quite different jurisprudential philosophy. The couple is united by “a true contract” (I.ii.145) or, in the language of English marriage law, a sponsalia per verba de praesenti: a betrothal creating the same legal commitment as a marriage, but still requiring the ecclesiastical benediction of a public ceremony. In order to encourage the fulfillment of this final obligation, consummation of a de praesenti contract prior to the wedding itself was considered fornication, which was both sinful and illegal. Consequently, because they “do the denunciation lack / Of outward order” (I.ii.148-49), Claudio and Juliet have technically violated the law against fornication that Angelo has revivified. Angelo invokes this “heavy sense” (I.iv.65) of the law in arresting and sentencing Claudio; like Shylock, he “follows close the rigor of the statute” (I.iv.67), enforcing the letter of the law strictly and impartially.32

Claudio, however, is no Lucio, and Juliet no Kate Keepdown; in light of the disputed dowry, the precontract, and the obvious remedy of marriage (even the stringent Isabella immediately suggests “O, let him marry her” I.iv.49), the application of the strict letter of the law to their situation is clearly as unjust as it is legal. Claudio's predicament, like Antonio's in The Merchant of Venice, would seem designed to affirm precisely what Angelo's interpretation of his commission would deny: the necessity of equity's power to qualify the strict impartiality of the common law upon consideration of specific mitigating circumstances. The case for equity is presented initially by Escalus, who argues that Claudio's good family (he “had a most noble father” II.i.7), his otherwise blameless character, and the inequity of the law's inability to distinguish between an overeager bridegroom and a habitual felon (“Some run from brakes of ice and answer none, / And some condemned for a fault alone” II.i.39-40) require Angelo to exercise the equitable power given him by the Duke. By refusing to do so, Angelo becomes a figure of the inflexibility of the common law.33

Measure for Measure's ideological advocacy of equity and its generic movement towards marriage are connected thematically by the concept of empathy, or putting oneself in the place of another, which is crucial both to the romantic conversion of Isabella and Angelo and to the recognition of the special mitigating circumstances that are the basis of equity. The importance of empathy to the play, and especially to its theory of judgment, is suggested by the Biblical source of the play's title: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shal be judged, and with what measure ye mette, it shal be measured to you againe” (Geneva Bible, Matthew 7:1-2). As the other characters see it, Angelo's legal intransigence and his romantic unresponsiveness are linked by his lack of empathy. The connection is first suggested by Lucio when, in explaining Angelo's strict application of the law against fornication, he characterizes the Deputy as “a man whose blood / Is very snowbroth; one who never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense” (I.iv.57-59). The importance of empathy to a good judge's ability to offer discretionary mitigation is at the heart of Escalus' argument for equity, as he entreats Angelo to:

Let but your honor know
(Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue)
That in the workings of your own affections,
Had time coher'd with place, or place with wishing,
Or that the resolute acting of your blood
Could have attain'd th' effect of your own purpose,
Whether you had not sometime in your life
Err'd in this point which now you censure him,
And pull'd the law upon you.


Angelo's response—“The Jury, passing on the prisoner's life, / May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two / Guiltier than him they try” (II.i.18-21)—replaces the judge-centered equity court with the common law's jury system, in which the impartiality of the letter of the law takes precedence over the empathetic responses of the individuals who administer it. This rigid impartiality is at the heart of Angelo's conclusive rejection of both empathy and equity:

You may not so extenuate his offense
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.


The stage is thus set for Isabella to stir in Angelo a passion akin to Claudio's for Juliet, and in so doing to show him the need for equitable mitigation of the (com)passionless law.


The otherwise consistent romantic comedy movement of Measure for Measure's opening acts is disrupted, however, by a scene between two characters not involved in the romance plot, the Duke and Friar Thomas (I.iii). The intrusion is particularly evident in that while the scene's primary function is not dramatic but expository, the information that it reveals—the Duke's disguised presence in Vienna and the reasons for it—is unnecessary to the development of the romantic comedy. The scene's function will not become clear to the audience until the second half of the play; for while its revelations add little to the romantic comedy plot, they provide the groundwork for the disguised monarch plot, introducing the Duke's plan to learn about and reform his kingdom. But however necessary to prepare us for his role later in the play, the Duke's heterogeneous presence in the romantic comedy plot initiates the clash of competing generic expectations at the heart of many critical dissatisfactions with the first half of the play.

The problem is encapsulated in the Duke's explanation of his actions to Friar Thomas, which is in fact two explanations, one appropriate to each plot. The Duke's first explanation—his desire to take advantage of Angelo's “stricture and firm abstinence” (I.iii.12) to revivify Vienna's lapsed laws without making himself seem a tyrant—is often taken as evidence of his unseemly Machiavellianism.34 Read with the hindsight of one who had discovered the play's still nascent disguised monarch structure, this may well be so: the Duke is the central figure in the disguised monarch play, and his personal virtue and responsibility as a ruler are among its central concerns.35 But read in the context of romantic comedy—which to this point the play still is—the Duke is a figure of considerably less importance, his motives less subject to examination. In this light his desire to make use of Angelo can be seen purely diegetically, as a means of absenting the Duke and at the same time introducing Angelo's severity, upon which the romance plot depends. The connection of this first explanation to the romantic comedy plot—and its inappropriateness to the disguised monarch plot—is further underlined by the disappearance of the Duke's efforts to revivify the laws in the second half of the play, a disappearance often cited as evidence of the Duke's inadequacy or duplicity.36

While sufficient for the limited needs of the romantic comedy plot, however, the Duke's first explanation is not adequate to the requirements of the disguised monarch story: his desire to have Angelo enforce the law in his place does not sufficiently motivate his plan to stay in Vienna and “visit both prince and people” in the guise of a friar (I.iii.45). To justify this fundamental element of the disguised monarch plot, the Duke belatedly offers his second explanation, his suspicion of the very reputation for rectitude that led him to choose Angelo as his deputy: “hence shall we see / If power change purpose: what our seemers be” (I.iii.53-54). The Duke's qualified presentation of this explanation, his implication that it cannot be completed until later—“More reasons for this action / At our more leisure shall I render you” (I.iii.48-49)—suggests its misplacement within the romantic comedy plot, a suggestion confirmed by critical reaction. A number of critics have seen the Duke's supervisory presence in Vienna as reducing the gravity of the confrontation between the romance plot's chief antagonists, Isabella and Angelo.37 While this may be true in a romantic comedy context, however, the Duke's presence is not only appropriate but necessary in a disguised monarch play, in which the relationship between Isabella and Angelo is secondary to the education of the Duke. Critics have also taken the Duke to task for “setting up” Angelo, placing him in a position for which he suspects him to be unsuited in the expectation that the deputy will prove to be other than he seems.38 In the disguised monarch genre the exposure and humiliation of the villain (usually the usurper of the monarch's rightful power) is central to the action of the play; yet in the play's initial generic context, Angelo is—at this point at least—neither usurper nor deliberate villain, but simply a man doing the job assigned to him by the Duke.39 His entrapment makes the Duke appear unbefittingly meddlesome and duplicitous for a romantic comedy ruler.


Despite this unsettling moment of generic disruption, the climax of the play's first movement, Isabella's first interview with Angelo, proceeds in accordance with the formal conventions of romantic comedy and their ideological correlative in the law/equity conflict. At Lucio's behest, Isabella finds herself in the unwonted position of arguing for equitable mercy in the face of Angelo's rigid common-law stance (II.ii.29-31). In the process, the two disputants rehearse a number of the standard topoi of the law/equity debate. Isabella invokes the jurisprudential distinction at the heart of the conflict, between the statutory criminalization of an act (the domain of the common law) and the consideration of the individual actor and his circumstances (the corrective function of equity): “I have a brother is condemned to die; / I do beseech you let it be his fault, / And not my brother” (II.ii.34-36). Angelo offers the common lawyer's typical response, that such a method of judgment undermines the authority of the law itself:

Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault's condemn'd ere it be done.
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor.


Despite the logical power of Angelo's common-law arguments, the ideological and emotional heart of the scene belongs to Isabella. Her impassioned speeches linking equitable discretion, royal power, and divine justice are reminiscent of Portia's “quality of mercy” speech, which depicts equitable mercy as rooted in the monarch's divinely-inspired conscience, and thus as superior to mere earthly law. The dispensing of equity, Isabella argues, is both the right and the obligation of the monarch or his authorized subordinates:

No ceremony that to great ones 'longs,
Not the king's crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe,
Becomes them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.


Angelo, despite the terms of his...

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George L. Geckle (essay date spring 1971)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Geckle, George L. “Shakespeare's Isabella.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1971): 163-68.

[In the following essay, Geckle addresses Measure for Measure as a problem play, focusing specifically on the character of Isabella.]

Since critics are generally persistent in terming Measure for Measure a “problem play,” it is useful to designate exactly what the problems are. These cover a wide range of issues, such as the relationships between government and morality, law and justice, and mercy and justice, the dramatic structure and genre of the play, and the attitudes and actions of the play's various characters. In terms of the play's...

(The entire section is 3336 words.)

Cynthia Lewis (essay date autumn 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lewis, Cynthia. “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 34, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 271-89.

[In the following essay, Lewis evaluates the character of the Duke as the means through which Shakespeare examined the imperfections of the monarchy in Measure for Measure.]

Unlike many Shakespearean plays that concern justice and human judgment, Measure for Measure opens with a clear-cut statement of its moral standard, an ideal, of sorts, which Duke Vincentio urges Angelo to achieve:

Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart.(1)


(The entire section is 10099 words.)

Jessica Slights and Michael Morgan Holmes (essay date summer 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Slights, Jessica, and Michael Morgan Holmes. “Isabella's Order: Religious Acts and Personal Desires in Measure for Measure.Studies in Philology 95, no. 3 (summer 1998): 263-92.

[In the following essay, Slights and Holmes highlight the role of religion in Measure for Measure through an analysis of Isabella's character.]

The symbolic centrality of religion in Measure for Measure comes as no surprise; after all, much of the play involves complications that are provoked by the machinations of a duke disguised as a friar. On a more political level, Shakespeare's play encourages audiences to consider the ways in which religion might...

(The entire section is 12253 words.)

D. J. R. Bruckner (review date 20 August 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “Lower East Shakespeare: Life Encroaches on Art.” New York Times (20 August 1999): E5.

[In the following review, Bruckner praises Jerry McAllister's use and incorporation of the surrounding neighborhood in his street-stage production of Measure for Measure.]

Were it not for the neighborhood it is in, the Expanded Arts company's production of Measure for Measure might drive an audience to distraction with its determination to turn this ambiguous, moody play into a laugh circus. But the robust neighborhood steps in with its own distractions often enough to make what is in effect a series of witty comments on this, the last production...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Marvin Carlson (review date October 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Carlson, Marvin. “Measure for Measure (Kisasa Kisas).” Theatre Journal 51, no. 3 (October 1999): 320-22.

[In the following essay, Carlson reviews a Turkish production of Measure for Measure, lauding it as a radical, powerful, and effective staging of one of Shakespeare's most difficult comedies.]

The spring season announcement for the five stages that make up the National Theatre in Istanbul listed fifteen productions, one third of them Turkish plays, the rest an impressive selection of international classics (such as Goethe's Urfaust and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac) and modern works (such as Shaffer's Black Comedy...

(The entire section is 1233 words.)

Ben Brantley (review date 18 June 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare's Darkness is Flooded with Light.” New York Times (18 June 2001): E5.

[In the following review, Brantley praises Mary Zimmerman's production of Measure for Measure at the New York Shakespeare Festival for its straightforward and simple presentation.]

It is alarming, you must admit, to see a grown man suddenly discover that he has a sex drive. Billy Crudup takes us through such a moment with appalled eyes and gritted teeth in the spry new production of Measure for Measure in Central Park. And while Mr. Crudup is a handsome fellow, it is definitely not a pretty scene.

The rising star of films like...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)

Marcia Riefer (essay date summer 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Riefer, Marcia. “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 2 (summer 1984): 157-69.

[In the following essay, Riefer argues that Isabella highlights the negative impact of patriarchy on female characters in the play, and contends that her eventual subjugation to male authority is incompatible with the dramatic tradition of romantic comedy.]

Isabella has recently been called Measure for Measure's “greatest problem.”1 She has not always been taken so seriously. Coleridge dismissed her by saying simply that Isabella “of all Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 7108 words.)

Carolyn E. Brown (essay date fall 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Carolyn E. “Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure and King James I of England: ‘The Poorest Princes in Christendom.’” Clio 26 (fall 1996): 51-78.

[In the following essay, Brown suggests that while Shakespeare used the character of Duke Vincentio to comment on King James I's abilities as a ruler, he also used his character to analyze the idea of divine monarchy in general.]

Scholars have proposed that Shakespeare was political in the sense that his plays reflect and comment on the crucial governmental issues and figures of his day, that his plays contribute to “pressing problems about prerogative, power, and authority.”1 It...

(The entire section is 11573 words.)

Andrew Barnaby and Joan Wry (essay date winter 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnaby, Andrew, and Joan Wry. “Authorized Versions: Measure for Measure and the Politics of Biblical Translation.” Renaissance Quarterly 51, no. 4 (winter 1998): 1225-54.

[In the following essay, Barnaby and Wry trace various biblical allusions used in Measure for Measure, emphasizing that although it is primarily a political play, the work is also a cautionary tale about the danger of using religious rhetoric in a political context.]

Despite the common practice of reading Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in relation to the cultural politics of the first year of the Stuart monarchy, politically-oriented criticism has largely neglected...

(The entire section is 12846 words.)

Yukari Yoshihara (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Yoshihara, Yukari. “Money and Sexuality in Measure for Measure.” In Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Yoshiko Kawachi, pp. 70-85. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Yoshihara treats the themes of money and sexuality in Measure for Measure.]

Measure for Measure is much concerned with substitution, exchange and replacement. Angelo is substituted for the Duke as deputy; he proposes that Isabella's maidenhead should be exchanged for Claudio's head or his life; Mariana replaces Isabella in the bed trick; Regozine's head is substituted for Claudio's. In other words, they are exchangeable...

(The entire section is 6341 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Barbour, Richmond. “‘There Is Our Commission’: Writing and Authority in Measure for Measure.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99, no. 2 (April 2000): 193-214.

Provides an analysis of monarchical concerns as addressed via the character of the Duke in Measure for Measure.

Bawcutt, N. W. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, edited by N. W. Bawcutt, pp. 42-63. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Provides an overview of Measure for Measure, including plot and character analysis and a discussion of sources.

Bradbrook, Muriel. “The Balance...

(The entire section is 666 words.)