Saturday, 17 April 2021

Measure for Measure

1/ Measure for Measure was published in the First Folio as a comedy, and it is in Comedies Volume 2 of the Everyman edition. It is now often classified as a problem play, together with All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida (though some scholars include some other plays such as The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, etc.), because of their shifting and ambiguous tone. 

As I’m quite ignorant, I don’t know what the differences are between problem plays and tragicomedies. 

I’d note that Measure for Measure is a Jacobean play and generally dated 1603-1604, so around the same time as Othello. Both plays deal with the idea of purity.  

2/ Measure for Measure begins with the Duke leaving Vienna for unknown reasons and making Lord Angelo his deputy. In power, Angelo becomes stricter and more authoritarian—soon we hear that a guy called Claudio is arrested for having premarital sex and making his beloved Juliet pregnant, and he is sentenced to death.


I should add here that our Will did have premarital sex—Anne Hathaway was pregnant at their wedding. 

Check out this speech from Claudio to his friend Lucio: 

“CLAUDIO […] Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,

Or whether that the body public be

A horse whereon the governor doth ride,

Who, newly in the seat, that it may know

He can command, lets it straight feel the spur; 

Whether the tyranny be in his place, 

Or in his eminence that fills it up,

I stagger in—but this new governor

Awakes me all the enrollèd penalties

Which have, like unscoured armor, hung by th’ wall

So long, that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,

And none of them been worn; and, for a name,

Now puts the drowsy and neglected act

Freshly on me. ‘Tis surely for a name.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Later Escalus, another Lord, tries to plead for Claudio. This is how the man replies. 

“ANGELO ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,

Another thing to fall…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

How self-righteous. He even says: 

“ANGELO […] What’s open made to Justice,

That Justice seizes. What knows the laws 

That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,

The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t

Because we see it; but what we do not see 

We tread upon, and never think of it.

You may not so extenuate his offense

For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,

When I, that censure him, do so offend, 

Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,

And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.” 


What a strange way to speak of people who violate the law: “the jewel that we find, we stoop and take”? 

On a side note, this is such a good time to read about a sanctimonious and authoritarian figure. It is no surprise that Angelo turns out to be a hypocrite, and he is much worse than Claudio—Claudio loves and wants to marry Juliet; Angelo propositions Isabella because of lust. 

3/ I love the speech from Claudio’s sister to Angelo: 

“ISABELLA Could great men thunder

As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,

For every pelting, petty officer

Would use his heaven for thunder.

Nothing but thunder. Merciful heaven,

Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt

Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak

Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

Such a fantastic speech. This must be one of the great speeches in Shakespeare. 

Watch it here, performed by Kate Nelligan for the 1979 TV film: 

I knew about this passage from the Alastair Stewart thing (which was utter nonsense), but the speech is even greater in context. 

I like what Tony Tanner says about the first meeting between Isabella and Angelo: 

“When Isabella has left, Angelo does knock on his bosom to ask what’s there—and to his horror, he finds foulness.” (Introduction) 

4/ Here’s a great speech from the condemned man: 

“CLAUDIO Ay, but to die, and go we know not where, 

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot, 

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit 

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside 

In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice; 

To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about 

The pendent world; or to be worse than worst 

Of those that lawless and incertain thought 

Imagine howling—‘tis too horrible! 

The weariest and most loathèd worldly life 

That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment 

Can lay on nature is a paradise 

To what we fear of death.” 

(Act 3 scene 1)   

This is a magnificent and relatable passage about the fear of death. 

Measure for Measure has some difficult questions: what should Isabella do? What would you do? On the one hand, Angelo is undeniably despicable, a Harvey Weinstein (who says Shakespeare is not relevant?), and it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to accept his offer. On the other hand, her idea of purity doesn’t seem that different from the kind of thinking that motivates the law, and her strong reaction to her brother’s pleas in this scene appears shockingly cold and inhumane. 

Look at that: 

“ISABELLA […] Take my defiance,

Die, perish! Might but my bending down

Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.

I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,

No word to save thee.” 



“ISABELLA O, fie, fie, fie! 

Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade. 

Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd,

‘Tis best that thou diest quickly.” 


I understand that she feels strongly about it and wouldn’t want to trade her body, but it’s trading her body for her brother’s life, and aren’t those such terrible words to say to a brother who would soon get executed? Especially when he has just talked about his fear of death? She may be ready for death because of her faith, but he is not. He is human. 

Now go back to the previous scene, see her reaction to Angelo and his response—Angelo and Isabella are more similar than she thinks. 

At the beginning, I was wondering why Isabella was going to be a nun—how it’s significant for the story—but gradually I realised that it made perfect sense. In the introduction, Tony Tanner writes about the sources for Measure for Measure and the changes, and this is one of Shakespeare’s inventions. 

5/ The scene of the Duke (disguised as a Friar) talking to Lucio reminds me of the scene in Henry V of the disguised king with Bates and Williams. Lucio is hilarious though. 

I haven’t written about it, but part of Measure for Measure is very funny, when Lucio is present or when Shakespeare moves to the bawds and criminals. Compared to others, Claudio’s offence is very trivial. 

6/ A central theme that keeps appearing in all of Shakespeare’s plays, in one way or another, is the problem of “seeming”—that things or people are not as they seem. In some plays such as Measure for Measure and Othello, Shakespeare pushes it even further.

7/ One of the puzzles of Measure for Measure is the Duke’s motives. Why does he leave his position at the beginning and install Angelo in power, whom he must know to be a puritan? Why does he go about, pulling the strings, when the easier way is to return to power and fix everything? 

I’m going to pass off Himadri’s ideas as my own, because I agree, that the Duke acts like a God (though he shouldn’t be read as an incarnate figure of God). The religious viewpoint is that on the Day of Judgment, God will set everything right, but why does God, who is all-powerful, allow things to get to this stage? Why is he testing us? 

The Duke clearly puts everyone to test: Isabella, Mariana, Angelo, Escalus, the Provost, Lucio… and in a way, the people of Vienna as a whole when he is temporarily not in power. He is the only one in the play who knows everything and makes all the moves—he withholds information and plans and manipulates, and tests everyone to their very limit. In the process, everyone’s character is revealed. 

Tony Tanner doesn’t think so, and seems to think that the play is more about the questions of government, mercy, and justice, but that is probably why he loves the intense first part of the play but doesn’t seem as happy with the second part, when it moves into prose and the play focuses more on the Duke, “the mode changes, the mood changes, the atmosphere changes, the pace changes”, and everything becomes quieter. I think that if you think, as Tony Tanner seems to think, that the Duke’s intention is to sort everything and restore justice, the second part of the play may seem to drag and feel muddled up as the Duke can easily halt it all and return to power, but I don’t think that’s the intention. The intention is to test all the characters to their very limit, though why he wants to do so is of course another question.  

8/ Is it a happy ending? I don’t think so.

Lucio is ordered to marry a prostitute who has a child with him. Angelo is saved from death, but forced to marry a woman he doesn’t want; Mariana gets a husband, but he has humiliated her in the past and doesn’t want her now. Claudio is saved, but can the relationship between him and his sister Isabella be the same after what has passed, especially when Isabella does think Claudio is not guiltless? She wants to be a nun, but now the Duke wants her to himself and the play ends before we know her reaction.

I don’t think this is me looking at the play through the modern lens—I think Shakespeare intended the ending to be ambiguous and not truly happy.

Tony Tanner agrees: 

“… the arranged marriages have not been sought and pursued by the couples involved—there is no genuine love (as opposed to lust) in this play—but are imposed by the Duke (we get no sense of Claudio and Juliet as a happy couple); the knots don’t come across as very ‘well-tied’ (Isabella doesn’t even get to answer the Duke’s unprecedentedly peremptory proposal of marriage); there is certainly danger rather than death, but not much of a sense of delight or happiness comes off the resolving reversals.” (Introduction) 

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