The Play’s the Thing: The Duke of Vienna is leaving on a trip and invests one of his lords, Angelo, with running the state until his return. While the Duke is supposedly gone, he has actually disguised himself as a friar in order to observe how Angelo does at enforcing the laws of Vienna. In his new role of power, Angelo condemns Claudio to be beheaded for having pre-marital sex with his fiancee, Juliet, and impregnating her. In an effort to get Angelo to reverse his decision, Claudio sends for his sister Isabella, who is about to join a convent, to plead on his behalf. Isabella does as asked and goes to see Angelo, however the passion of her pleas makes Isabella particularly attractive to Angelo. He makes her the offer of sparing her brother’s life if she’ll sleep with him. Outraged, Isabella refuses and goes to the prison to visit her brother to let him know that she wasn’t able to help him. The Duke/friar, who is visiting Claudio in the prison, overhears Isabella relate the offer Angelo made her. He suggests that Isabella tell Angelo that she will do as he asks after all, but instead of going herself, send Angelo’s jilted fiancee, Mariana, whom he ditched after her brother drowned in a shipwreck with her dowry aboard. Isabella and Mariana agree. The Duke then sends letters to Angelo letting him know that he’ll be returning to Vienna and tells Angelo to meet him at the city gate. The Duke as the friar then tells Isabella to accuse Angelo of everything that has happened in front of the Duke. She does and there’s a bit with the Duke pretending not to believe her, leaving for a bit, returning in disguise as the friar, and then being revealed to be the Duke. He forces Angelo to marry Mariana, forgives him for his hypocrisy, forgives Claudio for his crime and tells him to marry Juliet, and finally, proposes to Isabella.
Heroes and Villains: Isabel definitely wins this honour. She’s well-spoken, strong-willed, and is actually capable of acting for herself.
Insults with Style: O gravel heart! (IV.iii)
- test made of my metal (I.i)
- the baby beats the nurse (I.iv)
- Our doubts are traitors,/ And make us lose the good we oft might win/ By fearing to attempt. (I.v)
- Condemn the fault and not the actor of it (II.ii)
- I am so out of love with life that I will sue to be rid of it (III.i)
- dark deeds darkly answered (III.ii)
- time out of mind (IV.ii)
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
In thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d 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 thoughts
Imagine howling! – ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.” (III.i)
View from the Pit: Measure for Measure is a bit of an oddity. Technically classified as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, there are far more tragic elements to the plot than comedic. Claudio is unfairly condemned to death, Isabella is put into an untenable position, and the Duke is hanging around in disguise to see how his subjects act in his absence (actually, that plot point is more common in the histories). While intriguing for its discussions of death, morality, and the difficulties of enforcing the law, the play is not filled with the wit in some of the better comedies. There’s a lot of punning and some bawdy humour (only natural when one of the minor characters is a prostitute and the other is the Shakespearean equivalent to a pimp) from the minor characters but the main characters are absorbed with the rather dramatic plot and there’s no bantering at all. Isabella is a wonderfully strong character and I love that Shakespeare wrote such a proactive woman. However, I’m not entirely thrilled with the fact that she ends up marrying the Duke. While comedies are basically defined by the fact that they end in marriage, I would almost be happier if Isabella after preventing her brother’s beheading went back to her previous plans to join the convent, especially as she and the Duke never have a scene that indicates any sort of spark or attraction. Other than that minor quibble, the play is an interesting one in a study of the origins of the tragicomedy.