*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 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...
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