Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696
Gender Roles and Sexuality
Most critics see the issues of gender roles and sexuality in the play as a power struggle between the sexes. This battle, many commentators argue, is ultimately won by the male characters. Angelo's attempted rape of Isabella and the Duke's management of the bed-trick have been discussed as methods by which the play's male characters reestablish control over the females whom they regard as disruptive or sexually overpowering. Several critics have remarked that the fear of women depicted in Measure for Measure was typical of the Renaissance period in which Shakespeare wrote and that later plays by other authors were more violent in displaying the general distrust of women.
Commentators have offered varying responses to the marriages that close the play. Some argue that the Duke's orchestrated series of betrothals and weddings function as a way of reasserting male control over females. By contrast, others see the marriages as a method of restoring balance between the sexes.
Several commentators evaluate the role of female chastity in the play. Some have argued that Shakespeare both acknowledges and criticizes a double standard regarding sex outside of wedlock, wherein a woman— who was simultaneously expected to be the guardian of chastity and suspected of being a sexual temptress—was traditionally blamed for leading her lover astray. Critics also suggest that Measure for Measure makes a distinction between the value of the severe, celibate chastity of the novice Isabella and the loving, emotional chastity of the faithful Mariana.
Justice and Mercy
Justice and mercy are generally regarded as central themes in Measure for Measure. Commentators contrast the two terms, defining "justice" as a strict and objective adherence to law and describing "mercy" as a humane, more subjective interpretation of law. Customarily, Angelo (and to a certain extent Isabella) has been regarded as a rigid upholder of justice while Duke Vincentio is considered the administrator of a justice softened or tempered by mercy. Critics have drawn attention to the Duke's admission in Act I that he has been too lax in upholding Vienna's laws as well as to his suspicion that his deputy, Angelo, will prove too harsh a judge. It is clear, critics conclude, that the play is searching for a balance between these two extremes.
Whether this balance is achieved has become a source of contention. Some commentators believe that Angelo cannot judge fairly until he has himself sinned. Others argue that one's personal experiences have nothing to do with the administration of justice. These problems reach a climax in Act V when Vincentio delivers harsh sentences on Angelo and Lucio, only to withdraw them immediately afterward. But whether the Duke has acted fairly and wisely in his administration of a justice tinged with mercy is open to debate. To reach his goal, Duke Vincentio has orchestrated the bed-trick and has led Isabella to believe that her brother is dead; many commentators are troubled by the fact that fairness is achieved at the close of the play through trickery and lies.
Whether or not Measure for Measure lacks unity is a difficult problem to solve. The play has been criticized for its apparently inconsistent characters as well as for its unresolved themes and unclear genre. Thus many scholars look to the play's structure for overall coherence. At least two unifying structural devices have received attention. First, it has been noted that the play consists of scenes based either on action or on conversation; the action scenes serve to further the plot while the conversation scenes give the audience time to reflect on the significance of the action.
Second, and in response to the charge that Measure for Measure fails to fulfill the requirements of any one genre, several critics have suggested that the play is united around its two-part structure. In the tragic first half, Claudio is sentenced to death, Isabella is threatened with rape, and Angelo has fallen from his rigid moral principles. In the comedic second half, Duke Vincentio steps in to judge Angelo, to save Claudio from death and Isabella from rape, and to unite the group in multiple marriages. Thus, some commentators observe, the play achieves unity as a tragicomedy.