Measure for Measure Measure for Measure (Vol. 86)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Measure for Measure

A dark comedy likely written in 1603, Measure for Measure is often viewed as Shakespeare's most challenging problem play. Set in Renaissance Vienna, the drama features three principal figures: the Viennese Duke Vincentio, his puritanical deputy Angelo, and Isabella, a novice nun. After the Duke places Angelo in charge of Vienna and pretends to leave the city, he disguises himself as a friar so that he may observe Angelo's harsh administration of the law. Angelo, displeased by what he perceives as the lax morality of Vienna's citizenry, decides to more forcefully impose a code prohibiting fornication, or sex out of wedlock, and accuses Isabella's brother Claudio of the crime. Faced with the execution of her brother, Isabella entreats Angelo for Claudio's life but recoils when she is told that the price of what she asks is the sacrifice of her virginity. At the play's resolution, the Duke returns to power, spares Claudio, and offers a proposal of marriage to Isabella. This apparently happy ending, however, has struck many as unsatisfactory. Scholars generally acknowledge that the ethical questions raised over the course of the play remain largely unresolved at its conclusion. Additionally, debate over the play's indeterminate genre has led many scholars to renew their focus on Shakespeare's dramatic design in Measure for Measure. Several commentators, including Robert B. Bennett (2000), have argued that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare presented a unique and experimental comic method. Bennett maintains that unlike the utopian moral framework of Shakespeare's previous festive comedies, Measure for Measure is a comic romance that highlights the paradoxical qualities of human nature.

Contemporary critical examination of the characters in Measure for Measure has tended to focus on the triad of Duke Vincentio, Isabella, and Angelo, and generally highlights the complexity of Shakespeare's portrayal of these figures. Mark Taylor (1994) presents a psychoanalytic examination of the major characters in Measure for Measure. Taylor explores the dynamics of sexual desire in the play by applying psychologist Karen Horney's theory of neurosis, suggesting that the outwardly inconsistent behaviors of the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella are a result of their hidden sexual anxieties. Taylor additionally studies Isabella's emotional development and the relationship of Lucio's bawdy humor to the drama's depiction of sexuality. Natasha Korda (2002) offers a feminist and new historicist interpretation of Measure for Measure's female characters, arguing that the presence of numerous unwed young women in the play manifests a patriarchal anxiety concerning the threat of the single woman to post-Reformation European social stability. The critic notes that while some women, such as Isabella, opt to remove themselves to a nunnery, others such as Marianna, Juliet, and Mistress Overdone reflect the status of the single woman as a potential site of poverty, prostitution, or premarital pregnancy that requires the surveillance and intervention of male authority. Vivian Thomas (1987) studies Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure and contends that these figures exhibit a realistic delineation of human character, full of nuance and convincing, if sometimes suppressed, psychological motivation. Thomas underscores the intentional ambiguity in Shakespeare's characterizations of Isabella and Angelo by analyzing their verbal exchanges, particularly Isabella's pleas for the life of Claudio. The critic also notes that in their scenes together, Angelo's self-delusion and cynical moralism clash with Isabella's repressed sexuality.

In spite of its ambiguity, Measure for Measure has remained relatively popular on the stage. The play can be a challenge to directors, who often struggle to find the right balance between the drama's serious moral content and its comic elements. In his review of Mary Zimmerman's 2001 staging of Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in New...

(The entire section is 68,035 words.)