Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure can be seen as an early account of sexual harassment. While the issue of women’s rights had hardly been explored at the time the play was first performed, Measure for Measure touches on issues of sexuality, independence, and the objectification of women. Despite these serious issues, the play is considered a comedy, and the story it tells is filled with amusing characters as well as broad sociological questions.


The plot centers around the fate of Claudio, who is arrested by Lord Angelo, the temporary leader of Vienna. Angelo is left in charge by the Duke, who pretends to leave town but instead dresses as a friar to observe the goings-on in his absence. Angelo is strict, moralistic, and unwavering in his decision-making; he decides that there is too much freedom in Vienna and takes it upon himself to rid the city of brothels and unlawful sexual activity. Laws against these behaviors and institutions already exist, and Angelo simply decides to enforce them more strictly. Claudio is arrested for impregnating Juliet, his lover, before they were married. Although they were engaged and their sexual intercourse was consensual, Claudio is sentenced to death in order to serve as an example to the other Viennese citizens.

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Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is about to enter a nunnery when her brother is arrested. She is unfailingly virtuous, religious, and chaste. When she hears of her brother’s arrest, she goes to Angelo to beg him for mercy. He refuses, but suggests that there might be some way to change his mind. When he propositions her, saying that he will let Claudio live if she agrees to have sexual intercourse with him, she is shocked and immediately refuses. Her brother agrees at first but then changes his mind. Isabella is left to contemplate a very important decision.


Isabella is, in a way, let off the hook when the Duke, dressed as a friar, intervenes. He tells her that Angelo’s former lover, Mariana, was engaged to be married to him, but he abandoned her when she lost her dowry in a shipwreck. The Duke forms a plan by which Isabella will agree to have sex with the Angelo, but then Mariana will go in her place. The next morning, Angelo will pardon Claudio and be forced to marry Mariana according to the law.


Everything goes according to plan, except that Angelo does not pardon Claudio, fearing revenge. The provost and the Duke send him the head of a dead pirate, claiming that it belonged to Claudio, and Angelo believes that his orders were carried out. Isabella is told that her brother is dead, and that she should submit a complaint to the Duke, who is due to arrive shortly, accusing Angelo of immoral acts.


The Duke returns in his usual clothes, saying that he will hear all grievances immediately. Isabella tells her story, and the Duke pretends not to believe her. Eventually, the Duke reveals his dual identity, and everyone is forced to be honest. Angelo confesses to his misdeeds, Claudio is pardoned, and the Duke asks Isabella to marry him.


Measure for Measure has long been criticized for its unsatisfying resolution and logical gaps. Why, for instance, should Isabella agree to the Duke’s plan when it would force Angelo and Mariana to commit the same crime as Claudio and Juliet, of which she does not approve? The Duke pardons everyone at the conclusion of the play, including Angelo, who is sentenced only to marriage. Isabella presumably leaves the nunnery to marry the Duke, though she never actually agrees to the proposal.


The female characters in Measure for Measure are unusually weak for Shakespeare. The men take complete control of the plot, while the women simply follow along. The major decision facing Isabella is avoided, though it presents a particularly difficult dilemma considering Isabella’s desire to be a nun.


Measure for Measure did not achieve great popularity until recently. Perhaps it was written ahead of its time, during an era when the answers to the questions posed by Shakespeare seemed obvious. Today, however, Measure for Measure seems to raise central issues of sexuality, familial loyalty, morality, and religion.

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Measure for Measure, the last of Shakespeare’s great comedies, is also the darkest of his comedies, and represents his transition to tragic plays. This play differs from Shakespeare’s other comedies, and is in many ways more akin to tragedy than to comedy. In setting, plot, and character development Measure for Measure has a tragic tone, however, because none of the main characters actually loses his life, the play is a comedy.

Almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies have dual localities: the real world of crime, punishment, and responsibility, and an idyllic world, where reality is malleable, and forgiving. For example, As You Like It occurs in both the world of the court, dangerous for almost all of the primary characters, and the forest of Arden, a sanctuary that nurses conflict to resolution. Measure for Measure, on the other hand, offers no safe haven for the characters. They are trapped in the corrupted mire called Venice. Angelo, appointed scourge of the city, lets no person escape his punishing hand. Painting no “Arden” to provide asylum, Shakespeare gives Measure for Measure a grave tone. The play is more like a tragedy: intense focus on the gravity of the situation with little emotional respite for the reader and characters. Measure for Measure is like a tragedy in plot development, as well. Shakespeare’s earlier comedies pose situations of extreme danger, but through plot development, Shakespeare handles the conflict with a lighter tone. Much is at stake, but he reassures the reader that good will prosper, and evil will not escape some sort of punishment. Measure for Measure is dangerously close to being a tragedy throughout the whole play.

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Claudio’s death seems imminent; Isabella will lose either her brother by preserving her chastity, or lose her future as a nun by sacrificing her virginity to the misnamed Angelo; and Angelo, whose hyper-moral reign of terror has no sway over his own actions, nearly perverts the entire plot to his own lust. He nearly succeeds, and it appears as if he will escape punishment entirely. Only in the last scene does Shakespeare provide resolution.

The entire play bears a tragic weight that Shakespeare lifts only in the final moments. This resolution, however, adds only a nominal comedic feel to the play. The onset of the final scene drastically alters the plot, which seemed as if it would offer no justice; such a “happy” ending clashes with the previous events. The duke, sometimes-sinister mastermind of the plot, forces the final judgment on the characters, and offers little real relief. For example, the duke demands that Isabella, who seemed set on a chaste life as a nun, marry him. The plot has thrown her from one precarious situation to another, and finally she is left with no real option, but to marry the duke. Shakespeare provides no evidence that Isabella wants this, nor does he allow her any real escape from the duke’s demand. In essence, she is in the same position with the duke as she was with Angelo. The duke, cruelly pretends that Claudio, Isabella’s beloved brother is dead; he pretends to side with Angelo, thereby exacerbating the mental anguish of Mariana and Isabella; he bolsters Angelos confidence that he will escape punishment. Even through the end, the duke acts as a type of watered down Iago, playing on insecurities, and perverting the truth for his own controlling nature. This play hinges between tragedy and comedy. It eventually falls on the side of comedy when the duke reveals that no one shall die.

Finally, Measure for Measure balances between tragedy and comedy in the way the characters react to the twists of the plot. As Anne Barton displays in an introduction to the play, the characters of Merchant of Venice are “absolutists”. Unlike those in typical Shakespearean comedies, the characters in this dark comedy rigidly defend their beliefs. Angelo never discards his views of premarital sex, even though he demands that Isabella sleep with him. He is determined to root out sexual license in Vienna, and his own transgression cannot dissuade him. Isabella also is more like Shakespeare’s tragic characters than his typical comedic characters. Her protection of her virginity never wavers; not even when her brother’s life is at stake will she relinquish her morals. Isabella and Angelo are more closely related to Shakespeare’s Othello than they are to Rosalind who constantly adapts to the situation. Whereas Rosalind’s ability to change enables her to affect the plot of As You Like It, Othello’s fierce, short sighted determination sends him reeling through a predetermined fate to a tragic end. Angelo and Isabella, in their stubborn adherence to principles, head for a cruel fate, only avoided through the duke’s manipulation.

Though Measure for Measure ends with no major characters dying, it is only marginally a comedy. The characters, plot, and setting more resemble Shakespeare’s tragedies than his comedies. Shakespeare forces the “happy” ending, and in so doing, announces the end of his comedic works. The darkness of Measure for Measure is a reflection of what is to come; Shakespeares great tragedies.

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