Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Shakespeare Week: Measuring up Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is one of my favourite plays. I have seen it a number of times, studied it at University and it has long held a place of affection in my heart.

A play about justice, the limits of the law and mercy, there are many ways of interpreting the text: human frailty versus fanaticism? The corrupting nature of power?  Regulation versus liberalism? Hypocrisy, prudery and prurience – All these themes and more makes  Measure for Measure still relevant – and these themes seem particularly pertinent for our times.

The Plot

Quickly, the plot: The Duke of Vienna leaves suddenly and with no reason. Before he goes he assigns all his powers and authority to his deputy, Angelo, an unbending and apparently pure man, untouched by any sexual failings and with a clean reputation.

Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

The city, we are told, has become lax and for 19 years the law has been so lenient, that people have begun to disregard it and brothals abound.

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Angelo starts decisively. A young man, Claudio, has impregnated his bride-to-be.  Despite the fact they love each other and the sex was consensual,  they are not yet married and the baby is practically upon them. Fornication outside marriage is a crime and Angelo brings down the full crushing weight of the law on Claudio’s head – who is told he will lose it to an executioner the following morning.

Enter Isabella, a novice nun and sister of Claudio who gains an audience with Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. At first, Angelo is unmoved, but then he finds himself  attracted to the young woman and offers her a deal: her virginity for Claudio’s release.

Isabella – horrified – declares her brother must die and kindly trots off to tell him so.

On twenty bloody blocks, he’ld yield them up,
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr’d pollution.
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.

She is horrified to find that Claudio  is rather less happy to yield himself up to the bloody block than she anticipated. Instead, he begs her to sleep with Angelo and save his life.

At this point, the Duke (conveniently disguised as a Friar) turns up and, through a very elaborate and unbelievable plan  involving a bed swap (Angelo’s betrothed but jilted would-be wife for Isabella) and a head swap (that of a prisoner who conveniently dropped dead who was the spit of Claudio, for Claudio’s own), everything is – sort of – sorted out.

A rather interesting ending sees Isabella holding sway over Angelo’s fate and  everything tied up with a load of marriages –in the traditional “comedy” ending. Only there is a sting in the tail as most of these marriages are  anything but love matches. More on this later.

A Problem Play or a Play about Real Problems?

Measure for Measure has traditionally been seen as  one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” – partly because it doesn’t fit neatly into either the comic or the tragic bracket and partly (like The Taming of the Shrew) because of its ambiguous conclusion.

Reading it again, things do happen rather perfunctorily. The character of the Duke is largely ambigious and the character of Isabella is less than attractive. But it’s a fascinating play on so many levels and its the play’s liberal tolerant heart which gives a real sense of character underneath the schematic set-up.

Whilst justice versus mercy remains the central theme of this play, what struck me most, re-reading the play this time, was the theme of sex: about sex in society, about how society attempts to control sex and about how that so often fails; about the societal problems of sex in terms of sexually-transmitted diseases and illegitimate children; about the problem of men having sex with women and then abandoning them to their fate (and those children too); about poverty and people trying to survive through prostitution or pimping; about the problem of  sexual power-relations between men and women; about sex and morality, sex and the law, sex and religion…

Thacker’s 1995 BBC prodcution with a creative use of CCTV cameras

In all the versions of the play I’ve seen, the “vice” of the city has been presented as a dark and menacing thing – a threat in itself. Modern audiences are used to images of seedy strip clubs, of exploitative pimps and of glazed-eyed girls…. But Measure offers something different. Mistress Overdone (the brothel-owner and prostitute) has taken in and is caring for the child of a prostitute, Kate Keepsake. Pompey the Pimp is employed by Overdone, not the other way round, and is presented as a clownish fool, with the relationship between them affectionate rather than exploitative. These “bawdy” people are all kindly presented. Indeed, when questioned about how he makes his living Pompey says this:


Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.


How would you live, Pompey? by being a bawd? What
do you think of the trade, Pompey? is it a lawful trade?


If the law would allow it, sir.


But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall
not be allowed in Vienna.


Does your worship mean to geld and spay all the
youth of the city?


No, Pompey.


Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to’t then.
If your worship will take order for the drabs and
the knaves, you need not to fear the bawds.

It is a debate that continues today – is the law the best tool when it comes to prostitution? Should prostitution be outlawed or legalised?

Delacorte Theatre Production, New York

It is apt, that the main female character should be a novice nun – hence very attached indeed to the idea of purity, morality and – of course – her own virginity.

Isabella is a hard character to like. She is prudish, puritanical and absolutist. Indeed, in many ways, she is very like the uncompromising Angelo we first meet in Act One. Unlike most characters in the play who view Claudio’s misdemeanour as forgivable and who feel sympathy for the couple, Isabella is adament that the crime is a crime and that her brother has committed a sin.

The play is almost at pains to point out (several times) that Claudio and Juliet love each other. But, of course, we have to remember that this “crime” is also about the producing of an illegitimate baby.  The play is riddled with women who have been shagged and dumped (as it were) and left without money, protection or with a child in tow. Shakespeare is not unaware of the problem…At a time of no contraception and little protection for women outside marriage, perhaps Isabella is right that it isn’t such a negligible trespass after all. The law – cold and unfeeling though it is – is there to protect as well as punish.

Which brings us to that problematic ending.

The great set-piece at the end of Measure for Measure includes the famous moment where all power over whether Angelo lives or dies is handed to Isabella – the pure unbending Isabella who has shown so little understanding of any sexual failings of others, who  chose her virginity over her brother’s life, who has chosen a life renouncing sex and men for the vow of silence at the monastery.  That great choice between justice and mercy. We must remember that at this point Isabella believes her brother is dead,  executed at the order of Angelo, and herself cruelly betrayed. Will she chose Measure for Measure – or will she choose mercy?

In all the performances I’ve seen, the moment is drawn out as long as the Big Brother elimination results before Isabella finally comes to her decision.

Reading the play itself, there is no such stage direction, so we can interpret as we choose.  Mercy, of course, wins out, after which the Duke ties everything up with a series of marriages.  Angelo is ordered to marry Mariana – the woman he cruelly dumped and whose good name and chances he ruined because she lost her dowry; Lucia the liar ordered to marry Kate Keepsake – the prostitute he abandoned because he got her pregnant; and the Duke himself announces he will marry Isabella. He’ll chat to her about this later, he says, casually.  (We never get to hear what she makes of this announcement.)

It is a curiously casual ending and one that troubles modern audiences. Even if we put the famous question of the relationship between Isabella and the Duke onto one side –  do we actually want poor Marianna to end up shackled to a nasty piece of work like Angelo? And poor Kate Keepsake to be stuck with Lucio, a liar who despises her? It hardly touches the romantic in us to see marriage used as a punishment by the Duke as a replacement for execution. We can only hope, for the sake of Mariana and Kate, that Mariana’s words will be born out:

They say, best men are moulded out of faults;
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad: so may my husband.

But schematic and unrealistic as this ending is, there is a certain practical realism at the heart of Measure when it comes to love/sex/man/woman matters that makes this play not just an interesting social document for its time, but more keen-eyed and human than many more romantic offerings.

Love is not the theme Shakespeare is exploring here, but sex and how we manage it as a society, and about the power relations between men and women. As a modern audience, we are probably more used to thinking of marriage as part of the patriarchy, rather than also as a tool or protection for women. But, in Measure, these women wreak their revenge (and gain their power and money) through marriage. Marriage gives them status, money, protection, legitimisation of their children and some power over their men. Marriage is the only tool that can be afforded them by the law. If love flourishes too, on top of such a bargain, that’s just a bonus.

That this play has historically been seen to be about power, politics and corruption is perhaps missing part of the point. It does explore those themes, making it a fascinating choice for our times and giving it a curiously modern feel.

But what is interesting is that the subject-matter of this play is NOT politics, or war, diplomacy, kingly power or the struggles and compromises involved in climbing that greasy pole – those are subjects and themes of other great Shakespeare plays. Measure is unique in its subject-matter. It explores the interaction of the personal – the human, the messy and the frail and all the good and bad that goes with that – with the impersonal: the law. The fact that the play is ambiguous and bittersweet in its conclusion, is perhaps less to do with the fact that Measure for Measure is a problem play, and more to do with the fact that it is a play exploring ongoing problems that ARE messy, need humanity and negotiation and that can never be perfectly resolved.

And this, for me,  is the point the play is making.

13 comments on “Shakespeare Week: Measuring up Measure for Measure

  1. Chris Harding
    November 19, 2011

    Rosy, how nice to finish Shakespeare Week with a look at one of the plays – not one I know, but you’ve written such an erudite and interesting view of it that I intend to remedy the situation forthwith… I’m off to heave the ‘complete works’ off the shelf…

  2. William Ray
    November 19, 2011

    Thank you for the summary and discussion. I would like to point out something that Isabella says in the play, Measure for Measure: “For truth is truth to the end of reckoning.” The play was first performed in 1604. What a remarkable co-incidence it was that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote in a letter to Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s First Secretary, “For truth is truth though never so old and time cannot make that false which was once true.” His letter is dated May, 1603. In your review of Anonymous you gave the impression that you could not support the contention that Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare. Perhaps Isabella can and does. And Mariana may be another witness to the author’s mind, since Angelo says their marriage contract “was broke off,/ Partly for that her promised proportion/ Came short of composition, but in chief/ For that her reputation was disvalued/ In levity; since which time of five years/ I never spake with her.” This may refer to the facts that the Cecil dowry was not produced as promised and that Anne Cecil Vere was suspected (unjustly by de Vere) of infidelity, and he did not speak with her for five years. Marry-Anna is not a great distance from Mariana. She was “Mariana of the moated grange”. Theobalds, the Cecils’ estate, was a moated grange.

    Just sayin’.

    best wishes, William Ray

  3. Jackie
    November 19, 2011

    Er, Mr. Ray, we didn’t have a review of the film “Anonymous” on this site. Perhaps you are thinking of another?
    Good job, Rosy! Like Chris, this is a play I’ve not read, not heard much about, so this was a very educational post. The attitude towards marriage seems very much of its time, with women paired off, not always to their liking. I think that part would anger me. Maybe that’s why this is not a play often staged in our modern era?

  4. rosyb
    November 19, 2011

    Well, actually Jackie, the women are mainly paired up very much to their liking – it’s the men who are less keen. 🙂 Apart from Isabella. Most productions manage to give the impression that the Duke and Isabella fall in love during the production – but it can be played other ways as she doesn’t give much indication of her attitude at the end!

    Thanks Chris! It’s a very watchable play too, I’ve found. The venereal disease jokes and puns are a bit problematic for the modern ear, though.

  5. Hilary
    November 20, 2011

    Rosy, what a fantastic commentary on Measure for Measure, a play I have only recently discovered, and found to be fascinating in its odd mixture or liberalism and patriarchy. (I saw the excellent Almeida production with Ben Miles and Anna Maxwell Martin, last year.) You have helped me to understand some of the themes much more clearly and helped me unravel my half-formed thoughts. I hope I get the opportunity to see it on stage again before too long – seen in these terms, I don’t think it is nearly such a difficult play as is generally believed.

    Strangely, I remember nothing at all of the ‘Kate Keepsake’ plot thread, so I’m wondering if the production I saw was cut. I’ll do some delving.

  6. William Ray
    November 20, 2011

    In response to the comment quoted below by Jackie about my remarks on Measure for Measure:

    “Er, Mr. Ray, we didn’t have a review of the film “Anonymous” on this site. Perhaps you are thinking of another?”

    Except for the “Er”, an ambiguously polite put-down, you are quite right pointing to my error in writing: “In your review of Anonymous you gave the impression that you could not support the contention that Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare.” I should have written ‘Contested Will’ instead of Anonymous. The parallels between Measure for Measure, its characters, descriptions, and similar language with the life and quoted language of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, remain as stated and to this point uncontested. Thank you for the clarification. I offer the remarks for consideration in further understanding the play.

  7. Nikki
    November 20, 2011

    I’ve only ever read this play, Rosy, so I found it even more ambiguous. I’ve been wondering how they’d do it on stage – particularly the relationship with the Duke and Isabella. I’ll have to check it out. Thank you! What a great way to end the week.

  8. rosyb
    November 20, 2011

    William, I don’t think Jackie was putting you down, perhaps she just wondered (like I do) how you can put such long comments on our posts without seeming to refer to their contents at all. It is perfectly valid for us to wonder this, on our own blog.

    I remain unconvinced by the idea of finding “evidence” for your theory in tiny details in the plays. For one thing, there is a theory that Measure has – like Macbeth it is also thought – been largely rewritten after Shakespeare’s death. I think one of the suggestions is that it was largely rewritten by Middleton. It’s certainly not the longest play in the world. And there are so many different versions of many of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, anyone?) that looking for subtle evidence and clues within them – when they can be wildly inconsistent in themselves – seems a little futile.

    I don’t know about this letter of de Vere’s – but the first known performance is just a mention somewhere, isn’t it? We don’t know what text was actually performed, do we? Do we know if those lines were included or not?

    Added to which “truth is truth” is not exactly the chunkiest of phrases. For all any of us know – it could be the other way round.

    But my biggest gripe with all of this obsession with the identity of one man, is that it misunderstands the nature of theatre. This is why the plays don’t exist in exact and perfect form. Why there are so many versions, extra scenes, characters that can come and go, rewrites etc. It could be argued that this inconsistency and imperfection is why they are so great – so endlessly interpretable for different ages, so good for actors. And, for all any of us know, the actors also could have contributed lines and ideas to the writing. Look at Blackadder – fabulous scripts and largely down to Curtis and Elton. But if you watch the programme about how it was made you can see that having a large number of super-intelligent comedy sorts involved led to lines and metaphors and ideas expanding and changing. I daresay there are many memorable lines that owe as much to Fry and Laurie et al. Having that great an ensemble working on something makes it more than one man’s vision. And theatre is like that by nature.

    Hilary – wish I could have seen that version. I have noticed it is common to cut a lot of the “comic” stuff. Perhaps because of those venereal jokes I was mentioning earlier. I think it needs updating or else people don’t understand it and the worst thing of all is to have lots of red-nosed people guffawing away and slapping their thighs in that “Shakespearean comedy” way. But none of it is actually funny. Or comprehensible.

    Nikki – this has always been one of my favourite plays but I realised rereading how perfunctory and casual a lot of it is. So it can be hard to disentangle the productions you’ve seen from the playscript itself sometimes. So I’m interested you found it so ambiguous. I think the fact that Isabella and the Duke is not the central plot at all – or even a sub love plot – that it comes a bit out of the blue. Productions can solve that with a few moments or lingering looks…but it’s a bit like the classic Shrew ending. And productions can take it in different ways. Which makes it a “problem” but also endlessly fascinating.

  9. William Ray
    November 21, 2011

    In response to rosyb, first of all I certainly did write something literarily pertinent to Measure for Measure, that the play was based in part on historically identifiable people and locations, which should enhance one’s understanding of the play’s background, giving it a heretofore unknown anchor in Elizabethan reality. My remarks also brought together a statement by an historical figure, known in his time as the master of Elizabethan drama, an honor we impute to ‘Shakespeare’ today, showing his letter’s wording voiced anew through the lips of Isabella. The phrases went far beyond the co-incidental commonplace of “truth is truth”, and have never been expressed by anyone before or since in so similar a poetic trope. As to the suggestion de Vere copied MforM, it was first performed December 26, 1604, a year and a half after the letter written by him. Mostly likely he was working on the play at the time, May 1603, and either took from the script, or he placed in it more succinctly his letter-writing language. Your point appears to be that with so many putative changes by so many sources and influences, why trifle about a few details and make them more significant than they are. In answer, I would say that plays come from somewhere, including the author’s own life and experience, and these words, people, and places are unmistakable and identifiable aspects of one specific author’s experience, whether or not one happens to care about who wrote any Shakespeare play when, why, and how. HIstorically, MforM had been performed at court as early as 1592, after de Vere’s wife died, and it went through unknown changes, but retains the stylistic and plot integrity of one author’s work. Middleton’s additions to Macbeth were minor and noticably apparent. Your primary objection is expressed as “all of this obsession with the identity of one man…misunderstands the nature of theatre.” Shakespearean theatre derives from the human thought and imagination of one man. I respectfully ask whether identifying Measure for Measure’s author, who embedded in it something of his life and those he loved, is a misunderstanding of theatre? Or is it a means to honor at long last one of theatre’s greatest and most painfully suffering creators? After all, Sonnet 72’s “My name be buried where my body is”–wasn’t a mere academic statement. That was a tragedy equal to the plays. In Measure for Measure, de Vere came to grips with his injustice towards his wife and it embodies her virtue and devotion. He died before it was staged for Twelfth Night 1604-5.

  10. Llyn
    November 23, 2011

    Lovely article, RosyB.

  11. William Ray
    November 24, 2011


  12. hobbinol
    November 26, 2011

    I am nominating Vulpes Libris for a Liebster Blog award as really enjoyed the review of ‘Measure for Measure’. Full details about the award are posted on my blog.

  13. rosyb
    November 27, 2011

    Ah thank you Hobbinol! I think we might not fit the category required – but I am extremely touched that you nominated us and liked this piece. It’s lovely to get nice feedback and from another distinguished blogger too.

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This entry was posted on November 19, 2011 by in Entries by Rosy, Shakespeare Week.



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