Duke of Vienna, is a good and kindly ruler. However, he has been lenient
to a fault. Consequently, vice has thrived in his city for nineteen years.
So he decides to leave town for a while to allow his stern chief deputy,
Angelo, to run the government, assisted by the duke’s counselor, Escalus.
Vincentio plans to return to town in disguise to observe how the city fares
under Angelo’s rule. Although he has announced that he is going to Poland
on state business, Vincentio travels instead to a monastery. There, a priest,
Friar Thomas, agrees to provide him a hooded monk’s robe to serve as his
disguise when he returns to Vienna. .......After
assuming control as chief law-enforcement officer of Venice, Angelo, who
prides himself on his own strict moral code, vows to enforce
every statute to the letter of the law. In a blink of his severe eyes,
he closes the houses of prostitution and arrests Claudio, a young nobleman,
for getting his sweetheart, Juliet, pregnant. Under provisions of an old
law that had long been ignored, Claudio is to be executed in three days.
Claudio says he had long wished to marry Juliet, whom he truly loves, but
could not because of financial problems. Lucio, a friend of Claudio, reports
the news of the arrest to Claudio’s sister, Isabella, an aspiring nun.
She lives in a cloistered convent governed by strict rules that she thinks
should be even stricter. Lucio suggests that she use her womanly power
to persuade Angelo not to execute her brother. Although Isabella has plenty
of what it takes for the task–namely charm and exceptional beauty–she doubts
that she can succeed. But Lucio tells her that
doubts are traitors
make us lose the good we oft might win
fearing to attempt. Go to Lord Angelo,
let him learn to know, when maidens sue,
give like gods. (1. 4. 87-91)
a constable named Elbow arrests two men, Pompey and Froth, for being “notorious
benefactors” (2. 1. 49) and presents them to Angelo and Escalus for arraignment.
It seems that Pompey–who has been working as a tapster in a brothel owned
by Mistress Overdone, a veteran of nine husbands–was guilty of fetching
prunes for Elbow’s pregnant wife after she ventured into Overdone’s establishment
expressing a desire for the tasty fruit. However, Froth ate the last of
the prunes. Elbow demands justice, saying, he dearly “detests” (2. 1. 58)
his wife. In defending themselves, Pompey and Froth are so talkative and
so inarticulate that Angelo cannot fathom what they are saying and leaves
to attend to other business, allowing Escalus to handle the case. Escalus,
who is more forgiving than Angelo, lets the men continue with their defense,
then releases them with a stern warning. .......On
the day before Claudio’s scheduled execution, Isabella pleads with Angelo
to spare her brother, but Angelo refuses mercy. Frustrated by his heavy-handedness,
Isabella says that
it is excellent
have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
use it like a giant. (2. 2. 133-135 )
moment later, Angelo–smitten with Isabella’s comeliness–has second thoughts
and tells her, “I will bethink me: come again tomorrow” (2. 2. 173). When
she leaves, Angelo’s libido quickens as he says that “this virtuous maid
/ Subdues me quite” (2. 2. 219-220). After Isabella returns the following
day, Angelo declares that he will spare her brother if she goes to bed
with him. “You must lay down the treasures of your body” (2. 4. 108), he
says. When Isabella refuses, Angelo says the execution will take place
as planned. Isabella replies,
it were a brother died at once,
that a sister, by redeeming him,
die for ever. (2. 4. 119-121)
when Isabella visits Claudio, she informs him of Angelo’s proposal. At
first, Claudio tells her not to cooperate with Angelo. However, he later
weakens as he ponders death. “Sweet sister, let me live” (3. 1. 147), he
pleads. He argues that committing a sin to save his life would be a virtuous
act. Isabella denounces him as a beast, a coward, and a wretch. She says,
“Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?” (3. 1. 153). .......Meanwhile,
Vincentio has returned to town in his friar’s guise. When he spies around,
he overhears Isabella and Claudio discussing Claudio’s plight. The helpful
“friar” then suggests to Isabella a way out for Claudio: Isabella must
agree to submit to Angelo. However, another woman, Mariana, will take her
place in the darkness of the bedroom. Angelo and Mariana were to marry
five years earlier, but Angelo refused to go through with the ceremony
after Mariana’s dowry was lost. When Mariana agrees to take Isabella’s
place, Duke Vincentio (still disguised as a friar) tells Mariana she will
commit no wrong by sleeping with Angelo: “He is your husband on a pre-contract:
/ To bring you thus together, ’tis no sin” (4. 1. 73-74). .......When
Mariana meets Angelo in a midnight tryst, all goes according to plan. Afterward,
however, Angelo worries that Claudio, if released, will seek revenge against
him. So Angelo decides to proceed with the execution of Claudio and tells
the prison warden to send him Claudio’s head. Duke Vincentio, still disguised
as a friar, intervenes, persuading the prison warden to spare Claudio.
But what about the decapitated head? Conveniently, a no-account pirate
in the prison who resembles Claudio has just died of natural causes, so
the warden substitutes his head for Claudio’s. Meanwhile, “Friar Vincentio”
allows Isabella to believe that Claudio has been executed. Determined to
expose Angelo for what he is, Vincentio wants Isabella to be ripe with
righteous anger when it comes time to trap Angelo. .......When
Duke Vincentio doffs his disguise and reappears as himself, Isabella accuses
Angelo of murdering her brother. Vincentio rejects the charge and orders
her to be tried by Angelo. Mariana’s claim that she was jilted by Angelo
is to be considered also. Vincentio then disappears to change back into
his friar’s guise to speak on behalf of the two ladies. (He has incriminating
evidence against Angelo that he gleaned while spying in disguise.) When
accused of lying, he removes his disguise and once more reveals himself
as the duke. Angelo, realizing that the game is up, asks to be executed
to avoid a degrading trial. Mariana, steadfast in her love for Angelo (who
knows why), pleads for his life. So does the kind-hearted Isabella even
though she believes Angelo ordered her brother’s death. (Her brother is,
of course, still alive.) .......Mercy
and a happy ending triumph. Claudio returns from the dead to wed Juliet.
Angelo is spared and marries Mariana. Duke Vincentio addresses the happy
Claudio, that you wrong’d, look you restore.
to you, Mariana! love her, Angelo:
have confess’d her and I know her virtue.” (5. 1. 539-541)
then begs the hand of Isabella, telling her that
have a motion much imports your good;
if you’ll a willing ear incline,
mine is yours, and what is yours is mine. (1. 5. 549-551).
Characters . Protagonist:
Duke Vincentio. Isabella has some qualities of a protagonist in that she
takes a stand against moral corruption. Antagonist:
Angelo . Vincentio:
Duke of Vienna. He is a good ruler but has been too lenient in enforcing
the law. Angelo:
Vincentio's hypocritical deputy. In the duke's absence, he rules Vienna
with a draconian moral code. However, he himself is its worst violator. Escalus:
An ancient lord and counselor to Duke Vincentio. Claudio:
Young gentleman of Vienna condemned to death by Angelo for impregnating
his beloved Juliet, a single woman. Juliet:
Claudio's sweetheart. She is also referred to in the play as Julietta. Isabella:
Claudio's beautiful sister, an aspiring nun. While begging Angelo to have
mercy on her brother, Angelo tries to seduce her. Her lack of warmth toward
men offsets her many other commendable qualities, according to some Shakespeare
critics. However, her coldness may well be understandable in a society
that treats women as objects for sexual gratification. Mariana:
Jilted fiancee of Angelo. Lucio:
A fantastic (eccentric in dress, behavior, etc.). Varrius:
Gentleman attending Duke Vincentio. Elbow:
Simple constable. Froth:
Foolish gentleman. Mistress
Overdone: A bawd (keeper of a brothel). Pompey:
Servant of Mistress Overdone. Abhorson:
Dissolute prisoner. Francisca:
Characters: Lords, officers, citizens, boy, attendant. .
Setting.................................................................................................................. . The
action takes place in Vienna, in northeastern Austria between the Alps
and the Carpathian mountains. Oddly, though, many of the characters have
names associated with southern European countries, especially Italy. Examples
are Vincentio, Angelo, Claudio, Isabella, Mariana, Lucio, Varrius, Pompey,
and Francisca. . Climax . The
climax occurs in Act V when Isabella reveals Angelo as a villain (although
everyone forgives him), Claudio gains his freedom, and wedding bells ring
for three couples. . Themes . Good
government requires strong leadership tempered by compassion and common
sense. Whereas the Duke of Vienna has been too lenient a ruler, Angelo
becomes too harsh–even Draconian–while ruling in the duke's absence. Depravity
often walks in righteous shoes. Angelo appears moral and upright–and
may well be early on–but evil infects him when he succumbs to lust and
the headiness of power. His name suggests angel; his deeds suggest
not judge others lest you be judged. Angelo ignores this biblical admonition
(Matt: 7:1) as he condemns others but leads a sinful life himself. Exploitation of Women.
For more information, click here. Fair
is foul. The witches speak this paradox in Shakespeare's
warning that what appears good in the play is bad. These words could also
apply to Measure for Measure, for Angelo wears a righteous cloak
that conceals evil. Power
turns rulers into tyrants. Isabella articulates this theme when she
that “it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
/ To use it like a giant” (2. 2. 133-135 ). Duke Vicentio also has this
theme in mind when sojourning at the monastery of Friar Thomas. There,
he asks for a monk’s religious habit to disguise himself so he can spy
on Angelo to see “if power change [his] purpose” (1. 3. 59). Rule by the spirit of
the law, not the letter of the law–and leave room for mercy. Angelo
enforces the law rigidly and literally, without considering whether mitigating
circumstances exist or whether the punishment fits the crime. Shakespeare
satirizes his rigidity in the comic episode in Act II, Scene I, when Pompey
and Froth are arrested for allowing a pregnant woman with a hankering for
prunes to stray into a brothel to satisfy her appetite. Escalus, who understands
that forgiveness and mercy are handmaidens of justice, dismisses the charges
against the two men. Private immorality puts
on pious airs in public. Angelo pretends to be rigidly upright in public;
in private, he sexually harasses Isabel, urging her to surrender her chastity
in exchange for a commuted sentence for her brother. .
Dates and Sources . Date
Written: Probably 1604. Probable
and Cassandra (1578),by George Whetstone (1550-1587). Whetstone
based this work on Hecatommithi (Hundred Tales), by Giambattista
Giraldi (Cinthio) (1504-1573).
Performance and First Printing
Performance: Probably December 26, 1604, at Whitehall before King James
Printing: 1623 in the First Folio.
of Words in Complete Public-Domain Text: 23,200.
Copies for Schools:Folger
Shakespeare Library Edition (Low Cost). .
of Play: Problem Comedy .
for Measure, although technically a comedy, has earned distinction
as one of Shakespeare's three "problem plays" (along with All's
Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida) because it presents
as heroes or heroines characters who are seriously flawed in some way and,
thus, problematical for audiences used to applauding and identifying with
flawless heroes and heroines. For example, the duke is fair and just–but
weak. Claudio grovels for his life. Mariana loves Angelo in spite of his
egregious behavior. Isabella is admirable for her virtue but censurable
for her coldness. (However, this criticism of Isabella–propounded by many
critics over the years–may be unfair and unjustified. See Exploitation
of Women, below.)
for Measure centers on offenses against moral and temporal law, on
the administration of justice, and on the severity of punishment for lawbreakers,
one of whom–Claudio–faces a death sentence for impregnating his sweetheart.
Consequently, much of the memorable imagery in the play focuses on these
and related matters. Following are examples:
We must not make
a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear1
the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape,
till custom make it
Their perch and not their
terror. (2. 1. 3-6)
In a metaphor, Angelo compares the
law to a scarecrow.
Some rise by sin, and some
by virtue fall. (2. 1. 43)
Escalus, using paradox and irony,
says that some people gain status by doing wrong and that others lose status
by doing right.
They say, best men are moulded
out of faults;
And, for the most, become
much more the better
For being a little bad.
(5. 1. 451-453)
In a paradox, Mariana says the best
men are a “little bad.”
To have a giant’s strength;
but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
. . . (2. 2. 133-135)
In an implied metaphor, Isabella
compares the power of the law to a giant’s strength. In a simile, she compares
Angelo’s use of the law to a giant’s use of his strength.
If I must
I will encounter darkness
as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms.
(3. 1. 91-93)
In a metaphor-personification, Claudio
compares darkness to a bride.
He who the sword of heaven
Should be as holy as severe.
(3. 2. 112-113)
In a metaphor, Duke Vincentio compares
the moral law to a heavenly sword wielded by the enforcer of the law.
of Women and Isabella’s Protest
the Viennese society of Measure for Measure, men exploit and maltreat
women. For example, Angelo jilts Mariana and Lucio rejects the woman who
bore his child. Moreover, Claudio impregnates Juliet before they are married,
then speaks of their encounter disparagingly:
natures do pursue,
rats that ravin down their proper bane,
thirsty evil; and when we drink we die.(1. 2. 78-80)
the women accept their lot without protest and even professionalize it
by selling themselves in disease-ridden brothels. .......After
Angelo pronounces a death sentence, beheading, on Claudio for his immoral
behavior, Angelo–supposedly upright and principled–tries to pressure Isabella
into going to bed with him in exchange for the release of her brother,
Claudio. However, unlike other women in the play who willingly submit to
men in private or at a brothel, Isabella refuses to compromise her chastity–even
if her refusal means her brother must lose his head. Her stand against
Angelo provides hope that morally corrupt Vienna can reform.
Study Guide in Book Form
a Guide to the Complete Works is now available in hardback and paperback.
It incorporates virtually all of the information on this web site, including
plot summaries of all the plays. It also gives dates and sources of each
play, describes the setting and characters, discusses imagery, identifies
themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever
necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well
as other poems written by Shakespeare.
the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations
of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
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Becomes Hamlet–For a Moment
Facing execution, Claudio
muses about death in the same way that Hamlet does in his “To be or not
to be” soliloquy. The thought of what happens after death unnerves both
Claudio and Hamlet. They wish to cling to the here and now as long as possible.
Claudio vividly describes the possibilities in a conversation with his
sister, telling her that
To die, and go we
know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction
and to rot;
This sensible warm motion2
A kneaded clod; and the
To bathe in fiery floods,
or to reside
region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the
And blown with restless
violence round about
world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and
Imagine howling: ’tis too
The weariest and most loathed
That age, ache, penury and
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
(3. 1. 131-145)
and Meaning of Title
title of the play appears to come from a biblical passage: With what
measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again (Matt: 7: 2-3).
In other words, what you do unto others, they will do unto you. This is
the lesson that Angelo learns. The words of the title are spoken by Duke
Vincentio when he condemns Angelo in Act V, Scene I. The lines are as follows:
very mercy of the law cries out
audible, even from his proper tongue,
Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'
still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
doth quit like, and MEASURE
still FOR MEASURE.
Angelo, thy fault's thus manifested;
though thou wouldst deny, denies thee vantage.
do condemn thee to the very block
Claudio stoop'd to death, and with like haste.
with him! (5. 1. 415-424)
Questions and Essay Topics
Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
Write a short essay explaining how Elbow’s language in Act II infuses the
dialogue with humor. Note, in particular, his use of malapropisms, such
as nortorious benefactors (49), detest (58), cardinally (64), and
respected (105 and succeeding lines).
Write an essay defending Escalus’s observation: “Some rise by sin, and
some by virtue fall” (2. 1. 43). In your essay, present examples from history
that attest to the truth of these words.
One of the messages of the play, it seems, is that government officials
should temper justice with mercy. In the United States today, are persons
in power overly strict or overly lenient in their interpretation of the
law? Or, do they strike a reasonable balance between the two extremes?
Are you satisfied with the ending of the play? Explain your answer.
This sensible warm motion: Claudio refers to his warm, living body.
Pendant: Suspended, like a jewel on an earring.