*Vienna. Great Austrian city ruled by Duke Vincentio. As the duke himself realizes, Vienna is a moral morass, and bawdry and licentiousness of all sorts are rampant. The duke accepts responsibility for having been lax in enforcing the law. Corruption seethes throughout society from the nobility down to the base characters who are engaged less in a comic subplot than in a series of vulgar exemplifications of the pervasive moral decay. Concerned by the city’s deterioration, the duke devises a scheme to revive civic authority: Pretending to go to Poland, he puts the administration of the city in the charge of his trusted, and presumably virtuous, deputy, Angelo, and remains in Vienna disguised as a friar. While staying in a friary, he spies on Angelo. The friary, which should ordinarily be a place of quiet contemplation and prayer, thus becomes a den of intrigue.
Shakespeare’s Vienna is no joyous café society or waltz-and-chandelier ballroom for the aristocracy. Rife with pimps, prostitutes, lechers, violated virgins, and murderers, it is not ready to be overrun by the wave of puritanism set in motion by Angelo. Scenes set on a street provide a microcosm of Viennese society, especially its smart men-about-town, such as Lucio; low-life figures such as Pompey the bawdy clown, and the syphilitic Mistress Overdone. Even Angelo proves to be corrupt, and in the privacy of his own abode, he reveals his hypocritical dissembling and hidden lust.
Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." Problem plays introduce moral dilemmas without offering clear-cut or comforting solutions to these dilemmas. Since these plays deal with universal topics such as sex, power, and life and death, they are still appreciated and debated over by audiences today.
While the mores and living conditions of Shakespeare's time were significantly different from what they are today, several interesting parallels can still be drawn between our world and the one dramatized in Measure for Measure.
If, for example, the play were set in modern Vienna rather than the Renaissance Vienna of nearly 400 years ago, Claudio would not be facing execution for engaging in premarital sex. On the other hand, casual, unprotected sex today carries with it a potential death sentence in the form of AIDS. As he is being led to jail, Claudio tells his friend Lucio that the relationship between himself and Juliet is not casual, but that they were joined by a "true contract" which was sanctioned by common law if not by the church (I.ii.145). Today, unmarried couples often face other obstacles. Depending, for instance, on the state or country in which they live and work, they may find that they are not covered by each other's medical insurance, or that they are treated differently from legally married couples by the tax system or by the laws.
Laws and their enforcement are what motivate Duke Vincentio to leave Vienna in the care of his deputy, Angelo. The duke explains that in Vienna, "We have strict statutes and most biting laws / … / Which for this fourteen years we have let slip" (I.iii.19, 21). Vincentio hopes that Angelo—"A man of stricture and firm abstinence"—will be more effective at enforcing the laws than the duke has been or ever could be (I.iii.12). Once deputized, Angelo adheres to the letter of the law by closing down the city's brothels and condemning Claudio to death. In reaction to Angelo's harsh measures, the citizens of Vienna complain that their deputy would have to throw everyone in jail in order to stop some crimes, or, as Isabella observes with regard to Claudio's...
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offense, "There's many have committed it" (II.ii.89). Today, people put forth similar arguments with regard to everything from prostitution, drug use, and tax evasion to parking infringements and speeding: there are some laws, they argue, that no one cares enough about to follow or enforce, or that the crimes are widespread enough to make the laws extremely difficult to enforce.
The duke's rationale for putting a disciplinarian such as Angelo in charge is that Vienna had become a decadent and morally lazy city. Today, people who worry about the lack of politeness in our society, the decay of family values, and the onset of crime and overcrowding wonder whether re-education, stronger laws, and stricter law enforcement would solve some of these problems.
Beyond his desire to see Vienna's laws enforced, Duke Vincentio offers another reason for deputizing Angelo. Angelo, the duke argues, is "precise"—that is, he is a perfectionist when it comes to morals and behavior (I.iii.50). By putting Angelo in charge, the duke hopes to see "if power change [or corrupt] purpose'' and whether his deputy is as virtuous as he seems (I.iii.54). As it turns out, Angelo abuses his power by trying to force Isabella to have sex with him. When Isabella threatens to expose Angelo's abuse, he replies that no one will believe her charges when they are weighed against his "unsoil'd name" and "th'austereness" of his life (II.iv.155). This issue remains a compelling one for us today, when some rape cases are decided on the credibility of the accuser versus that of the accused.
It has been argued that Duke Vincentio also misuses power, by manipulating people as though they were puppets. Today, people are worried enough about the corrupting effects of power that they have called for and in some instances voted in favor of political term limits.
Ultimately, true to its designation as a problem play, Measure for Measure poses difficult questions that we are still trying to answer today: What should we do when the rules and penalties that we apply to our society don't fit every case? When should punishment give way to mercy? How do we stop power from corrupting those who have it? How do we protect ourselves from those in power? And is anyone completely free from hypocrisy?
Bache, William B. "The Ethic of Love and Duty." In "Measure for Measure" as Dialectical Art, pp. 1-12. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Studies, 1969. Argues that Measure for Measure is a realistic play about the "brutality" of life. Bache focuses on the religious overtones in the play and the manner in which its central characters struggle to find the right way to live in the face of life's difficulties.
Barnes, Barbara J. "Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure." Studies in English Literature 30, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 283-301. Asserts that the character Isabella is not as powerless as numerous critics believe she is. Baines observes that chastity is a unique instrument of power in a society that has become as corrupt as the Duke's Vienna has, so that the chaste novice Isabella is someone whom the other characters cannot afford to ignore.
Brown, Carolyn E. "Measure for Measure: Isabella's Beating Fantasies." American Imago 43, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 67-80. Suggests that Isabella provokes sharply conflicting reactions from scholars—some of whom regard her as a positive character while others see her as unpleasantly negative. Brown approaches Isabella's character from a psychological point of view as an ambivalent, "complex character" who subconsciously entertains masochistic and incestuous sexual fantasies even while she "aspires to a saintly life."
——— "Measure for Measure: Duke Vincentio's 'Crabbed' Desires." Literature and Psychology XXXV, Nos. 1 & 2 (1989): 66-88. Focuses on the Duke's interview with Lucio in Act II, Scene ii. Brown observes that this short meeting reveals much about Vincentio's problematical character—including the fact that this superficially virtuous ruler has a cruel streak, which he hides from himself.
Cacicedo, Alberto. "'She Is Fast My Wife': Sex, Marriage, and Ducal Authority in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Studies XXII (1995): 187-209. Emphasizes gender issues and the role of women in Shakespeare's time. Cacicedo examines the play in light of Renaissance society's ambivalent feelings toward women and the Renaissance view of marriage as a necessary evil.
Dunkel, Wilbur. "Law and Equity in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Quarterly XIII, No. 3 (Summer 1962): 275-85. Examines the play from the point of view of its Renaissance audience and the highly theatrical King James I. Dunkel argues that justice (that is, the rule of law) tempered with equity (that is, mercy) was an important concern for Shakespeare's England and that audiences would be sensitive to the fact that until the final act of this comedy, the Duke dispenses mercy without justice and his deputy, Angelo, dispenses justice without mercy.
Dusinberre, Juliet. "Introduction." In Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, pp. 1-76. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1975. Provides an overview of Renaissance feminism as it is reflected in the literature of the time—particularly in Shakespeare's works. Dusinberre argues that in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare made clear his objection to the sexual double-standard that demanded that women bear most of the blame for being unchaste.
Fisch, Harold. "Shakespeare and the Puritan Dynamic." Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 81-92. Looks at the nature of Puritanism in three of Shakespeare's plays, including Measure for Measure. Fisch contends that as a Puritan, Angelo is corrupted by his love of power even as he acknowledges that his religion is at odds with earthly power.
Gless, Darryl F. "Duke Vincentio: The Intermittent Immanence of Godhead." In "Measure for Measure," the Law and the Convent, pp. 214-55. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979. Analyzes the character of the Duke in terms of the tests he imposes on the other characters in the play. Gless describes Vincentio as "a little image of God" who dispenses divine justice, resolves Vienna's failings, and engineers the play's conclusion.
Grove, Robin. "A Measure for Magistrates." The Critical Review No. 19 (1977): 3-23. General discussion of character in Shakespeare's plays. Grove includes a particular focus on Duke Vincentio and his role in shaping the outcome of the action in Measure for Measure; Grove sees the Duke as self-important and insensitive.
Hawkins, Harriett. "'The Devil's Party': Virtues and Vices in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 105-113. Focuses on the religious issues that contribute to the status of Measure for Measure as a "problem play." Hawkins asserts that applying a religious interpretation to the play does not resolve its ambiguities since religious disagreement, ambiguity, and debate existed during Shakespeare's time; further, Hawkins suggests that Shakespeare purposely filled the play with "unanswered questions and unsolved problems," and that these questions themselves are more important than any answers to them would be.
Hunter, Robert Grams. "Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, pp. 204-26. New York Columbia University Press, 1965. Defines the relationship between humanity and justice as it is presented in Measure for Measure. Hunter argues that in the play, rigid "Justice must learn from Iniquity" (in the same way that the overly strict Angelo learns from his own weaknesses) in order to understand the virtue of charity.
Jaffa, Harry V. "Chastity as a Political Principle: An Interpretation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 181-213. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1981. Examines the thematic concerns of Measure for Measure. Jaffa points out that at the beginning of the play, there exist two extremes in Vienna—celibacy and lechery—and that the action of the play is resolved when marriage becomes a viable force in the city.
Kirsch, Arthur C. "The Integrity of Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 89-105. Defends Measure for Measure against those critics who consider it a failure. Kirsch asserts that the play in fact achieves unity through its religious themes and biblical references.
Kliman, Bernice W. "Isabella in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Studies XV (1982): 137-48. Discusses the problematical nature of Isabella's characterization. Kliman departs from most critics when she describes Isabella as "a poor debater," and explains that this flaw in Isabella serves to focus the audience's attention on the importance of the Duke's role in the play.
Knoppers, Laura Lunger. "(En)gendering Shame: Measure for Measure and the Spectacles of Power." English Literary Renaissance 23, No. 3 (Autumn 1993): 450-71. Focuses on the role of women in Measure for Measure. Specifically, Knoppers argues that Isabella's silence at the end of the play indicates that she has been coerced into obedience but not into approbation by the Duke's proposal of marriage, and that thus the play remains problematical as a comedy.
Levin, Richard A. "Duke Vincentio and Angelo: Would 'A Feather Turn the Scale'?" Studies in English 22 (1982): 257-70. Examines Duke Vincentio in relation to the other, morally rigid, characters in the play—Angelo and Isabella. Levin suggests that if we look at the Duke "as a psychologically plausible character" rather than as a symbol or instrument for dispensing final judgment, then we will understand that he possesses very human, contradictory traits: those of goodness and moral weakness.
McFeely, Maureen Connolly. "'This Day My Sister Should the Cloister Enter': The Convent as Refuge in Measure for Measure." In Subjects on the World's Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, pp. 200-16. Newark: The University of Delaware Press, 1995. Speculates on how Renaissance audiences reacted and how modern audiences should react to Isabella's silence in response to the Duke's proposal of marriage at the end of the play. McFeely concludes that since "Renaissance society idealized silence and obedience" in women, then Isabella's lack of a response would have been regarded as acquiescence; modern audiences, on the other hand, would be influenced by Isabella's insistent refusal throughout the play to give up her virginity.
Pinciss, G. M. "The 'Heavenly Comforts of Despair' and Measure for Measure." Studies in English Literature 30, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 303-13. Applies Protestant theology to Measure for Measure. Pinciss demonstrates how the central characters in the play each undergo self-despair as a necessary prerequisite to spiritual understanding.
Reifer, 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. Examines the role of Isabella in the play. Reifer sees Isabella as an important transitional character in Shakespeare's body of plays, appearing as she does—articulate but restricted—between the self-reliant female characters of Shakespeare's comedies and the female "victims" of his tragedies.
Soellner, Rolf. "Measure for Measure: Looking into Oneself." In Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge, pp. 215-36. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972. Discusses the themes of justice and mercy in the play as well as the role of Angelo. Soellner argues that the behavior of the character Angelo demonstrates that people do not function effectively or fairly as judges until they have been forced to judge themselves.
Thatcher, David. "Mercy and 'Natural Guiltiness' in Measure for Measure." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 264-84. Examines Measure for Measure as a "problem play" and discusses the issue of justice versus mercy. Thatcher argues that Angelo is right in asserting that "natural guiltiness"—that is, the fact that the judge of someone else's crime might well have committed the crime him or herself—is not a valid argument in favor of acquittal.
Zender, Karl F. "Isabella's Choice." Philological Quarterly 73, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 77-93. Discusses Isabella's options concerning Angelo's proposition and the Duke's proposal. Zender suggests that Isabella's decision not to test her word against Angelo's by revealing his hypocrisy is the result of her own preference for silence. On the other hand, Zender observes that Isabella's silence at the end of the play when presented with the Duke's marriage proposal and when she would in all probability prefer to remain celibate is required by the play's designation as a comedy.