Measure for Measure Themes
by William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure Themes

(Shakespeare for Students)

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Title page of Measure for Measure taken from the First Folio (1623). Published by Gale Cengage

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...

(The entire section is 696 words.)