Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure



Measure for Measure is one of those fascinating plays in the Shakespearean cannon that almost defies staging and is rarely filmed. Classified as a “problem play” (or “comedy” if you’re kind of messed up) it involves religion to an almost absurd level. The title is, as I’ve been told, a reference to the Sermon on the Mount, which I know nothing about, as I was raised Taoist. However, Shakespeare wouldn’t be crammed down the throats of high school and college kids alike if he didn’t have universal applications so it still bears analysis regardless of all the allusions that I don’t get. Sorry not sorry, dominant culture.

The play revolves around the hottest nun in town, Isabella, and everyone attempting to sleep with her. Pervs. Ooh, Measure for Measure: Pervs of Vienna would draw a good crowd for those of you producing it for the stage. The Duke of Vienna (Vincentio) has just realized that he been more carrot than stick and decides to “leave town” and make Angelo the temporary Duke. Angelo has a reputation for being super uptight and the Duke feels like Angelo will 1) do all his dirty work while 2) making the Duke look super nice in comparison. A flawless plan. Angelo, like all uptight people, doesn’t want anyone to have sex before marriage, so he shuts down all the brothels and arrests Claudio, a gentleman’s son, for getting his fiancee pregnant. Her name’s Juliet(ta), obviously, and I want to do a reading of this as an alternate timeline where she never meets Romeo but my professor would really hate that … due to it’s inaccuracy. Anyway, Claudio asks his whore-loving friend Lucio to get his sister Isabella right before she enters the convent, and make her use her rhetorical prowess to get him of jail. It works if you consider Angelo deciding to kill Claudio sooner and rape Isabella to be “success”. It’s not. She fails. Get thee (back) to a nunnery!

The Duke dresses up like a friar so that he can get the dirt on everyone and realizes that Angelo is going to kill Claudio and he also doesn’t love the nun rape thing. The Duke decides to trick Angelo into sleeping with his ex-fiancee Mariana whose dowry loss ended in a sound dumping by Angelo. They perform a “bed trick” off stage, the would-be raper (Angelo) becomes the rapee (Angelo) and none’s the wiser. The Duke, after some trouble, gets the head of a dead pirate and swaps that for Claudio’s (who is alive still) and then Angelo, very upset, feels bad about everything. The Duke then pretends to come back into town and puts everyone on the spot. He lets Isabella think her brother is dead (his girlfriend also just gave birth btw) because he thinks it will make his being alive so much more interesting. He also decides to screw with Lucio, who accidentally badmouthed him to his face while he was in disguise, egging him on, of course. The Duke makes Isabella beg while he pretends not to believe her, makes Mariana and Isabella beg while he pretends not to believe both of them, then forces Angelo to marry his ex who I’m sure he won’t hate or be awful to. He reveals Claudio to be alive and then asks Isabella to marry him, thus enacting the same kind of coercion that Angelo is guilty of and becoming a total hypocrite. Then, if all this isn’t enough, he forces Lucio to marry a prostitute that he knocked up, which I feel is a professional hazard of an Elizabethan whore … but whatever. The Duke also pardons Barnardine, a criminal, just to confuse us more … the end!

So, what is up with this play? Some readings see the Duke as good and Angelo (“angel”) as bad, some people see the Duke as evil and executing a long con on Isabella, one staging has a random person come up and stab Isabella at the end. Notably she doesn’t say yes or no to the Duke, but I’m assuming she wanted to become a nun because people would not stop hitting on her, and I can’t imagine she’d be all “this fake friar who is actually the Duke has totally changed my mind about serving God” and marry him. Isabella is one of those great Shakespearean women, like Catherine, who spits fire, so I don’t see her running off the second she’s offered a Mrs. degree. A comedy, by definition, ends with marriages, but can it still be a comedy if two of the marriages are forced and one coerced? Oh, and I forgot to mention, at the “trial” Isabella says the Duke should pardon Angelo because it was her fault that he got all rapey. EMPOWERMENT!

Another interesting facet of the play is the way it punishes and polices sexuality. The Duke allows brothels, but lets Angelo do the dirty work of tearing them down, the forces Lucio to marry “a whore” (as he puts it). The Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana who … I guess wants to marry him even though he almost raped her friend and she tricked him into sleeping with her? Is a husband who hates you really better than being single? How terrible was life back then? And the Duke usurps the parents rights over Julietta and God’s claim on Isabella (the ultimate man) so the Duke’s like “I’m the only man that matters! Also all those confessions you gave me might not be legit, bye!”

Measure for Measure is a problem play, a play without answers, a play that tedious people have written at length on because church, a play that I have to write about and even though I have a lot so say (see previous 930 words) I don’t know what to argue. This was my pre-game, I hope you liked it. Even if you didn’t I think you’ll agree that the painting up top is pretty sweet.

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