A Study Guide
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.......Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, is a good and kindly ruler. However, he has been lenient to a fault. Consequently, vice has thrived in his city for nineteen years. So he decides to leave town for a while to allow his stern chief deputy, Angelo, to run the government, assisted by the duke’s counselor, Escalus. Vincentio plans to return to town in disguise to observe how the city fares under Angelo’s rule. Although he has announced that he is going to Poland on state business, Vincentio travels instead to a monastery. There, a priest, Friar Thomas, agrees to provide him a hooded monk’s robe to serve as his disguise when he returns to Vienna.
.......After assuming control as chief law-enforcement officer of Venice, Angelo, who prides himself on his own strict moral code, vows to enforce every statute to the letter of the law. In a blink of his severe eyes, he closes the houses of prostitution and arrests Claudio, a young nobleman, for getting his sweetheart, Juliet, pregnant. Under provisions of an old law that had long been ignored, Claudio is to be executed in three days. Claudio says he had long wished to marry Juliet, whom he truly loves, but could not because of financial problems. Lucio, a friend of Claudio, reports the news of the arrest to Claudio’s sister, Isabella, an aspiring nun. She lives in a cloistered convent governed by strict rules that she thinks should be even stricter. Lucio suggests that she use her womanly power to persuade Angelo not to execute her brother. Although Isabella has plenty of what it takes for the task–namely charm and exceptional beauty–she doubts that she can succeed. But Lucio tells her that
Our doubts are traitors.......Meanwhile, a constable named Elbow arrests two men, Pompey and Froth, for being “notorious benefactors” (2. 1. 49) and presents them to Angelo and Escalus for arraignment. It seems that Pompey–who has been working as a tapster in a brothel owned by Mistress Overdone, a veteran of nine husbands–was guilty of fetching prunes for Elbow’s pregnant wife after she ventured into Overdone’s establishment expressing a desire for the tasty fruit. However, Froth ate the last of the prunes. Elbow demands justice, saying, he dearly “detests” (2. 1. 58) his wife. In defending themselves, Pompey and Froth are so talkative and so inarticulate that Angelo cannot fathom what they are saying and leaves to attend to other business, allowing Escalus to handle the case. Escalus, who is more forgiving than Angelo, lets the men continue with their defense, then releases them with a stern warning.
.......On the day before Claudio’s scheduled execution, Isabella pleads with Angelo to spare her brother, but Angelo refuses mercy. Frustrated by his heavy-handedness, Isabella says that
it is excellent.......A moment later, Angelo–smitten with Isabella’s comeliness–has second thoughts and tells her, “I will bethink me: come again tomorrow” (2. 2. 173). When she leaves, Angelo’s libido quickens as he says that “this virtuous maid / Subdues me quite” (2. 2. 219-220). After Isabella returns the following day, Angelo declares that he will spare her brother if she goes to bed with him. “You must lay down the treasures of your body” (2. 4. 108), he says. When Isabella refuses, Angelo says the execution will take place as planned. Isabella replies,
Better it were a brother died at once,.......Later, when Isabella visits Claudio, she informs him of Angelo’s proposal. At first, Claudio tells her not to cooperate with Angelo. However, he later weakens as he ponders death. “Sweet sister, let me live” (3. 1. 147), he pleads. He argues that committing a sin to save his life would be a virtuous act. Isabella denounces him as a beast, a coward, and a wretch. She says, “Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?” (3. 1. 153).
.......Meanwhile, Vincentio has returned to town in his friar’s guise. When he spies around, he overhears Isabella and Claudio discussing Claudio’s plight. The helpful “friar” then suggests to Isabella a way out for Claudio: Isabella must agree to submit to Angelo. However, another woman, Mariana, will take her place in the darkness of the bedroom. Angelo and Mariana were to marry five years earlier, but Angelo refused to go through with the ceremony after Mariana’s dowry was lost. When Mariana agrees to take Isabella’s place, Duke Vincentio (still disguised as a friar) tells Mariana she will commit no wrong by sleeping with Angelo: “He is your husband on a pre-contract: / To bring you thus together, ’tis no sin” (4. 1. 73-74).
.......When Mariana meets Angelo in a midnight tryst, all goes according to plan. Afterward, however, Angelo worries that Claudio, if released, will seek revenge against him. So Angelo decides to proceed with the execution of Claudio and tells the prison warden to send him Claudio’s head. Duke Vincentio, still disguised as a friar, intervenes, persuading the prison warden to spare Claudio. But what about the decapitated head? Conveniently, a no-account pirate in the prison who resembles Claudio has just died of natural causes, so the warden substitutes his head for Claudio’s. Meanwhile, “Friar Vincentio” allows Isabella to believe that Claudio has been executed. Determined to expose Angelo for what he is, Vincentio wants Isabella to be ripe with righteous anger when it comes time to trap Angelo.
.......When Duke Vincentio doffs his disguise and reappears as himself, Isabella accuses Angelo of murdering her brother. Vincentio rejects the charge and orders her to be tried by Angelo. Mariana’s claim that she was jilted by Angelo is to be considered also. Vincentio then disappears to change back into his friar’s guise to speak on behalf of the two ladies. (He has incriminating evidence against Angelo that he gleaned while spying in disguise.) When accused of lying, he removes his disguise and once more reveals himself as the duke. Angelo, realizing that the game is up, asks to be executed to avoid a degrading trial. Mariana, steadfast in her love for Angelo (who knows why), pleads for his life. So does the kind-hearted Isabella even though she believes Angelo ordered her brother’s death. (Her brother is, of course, still alive.)
.......Mercy and a happy ending triumph. Claudio returns from the dead to wed Juliet. Angelo is spared and marries Mariana. Duke Vincentio addresses the happy couples:
She, Claudio, that you wrong’d, look you restore.The duke then begs the hand of Isabella, telling her that
I have a motion much imports your good;.
Protagonist: Duke Vincentio. Isabella has some qualities of a protagonist in that she takes a stand against moral corruption.
Vincentio: Duke of Vienna. He is a good ruler but has been too lenient in enforcing the law.
Angelo: Vincentio's hypocritical deputy. In the duke's absence, he rules Vienna with a draconian moral code. However, he himself is its worst violator.
Escalus: An ancient lord and counselor to Duke Vincentio.
Claudio: Young gentleman of Vienna condemned to death by Angelo for impregnating his beloved Juliet, a single woman.
Juliet: Claudio's sweetheart. She is also referred to in the play as Julietta.
Isabella: Claudio's beautiful sister, an aspiring nun. While begging Angelo to have mercy on her brother, Angelo tries to seduce her. Her lack of warmth toward men offsets her many other commendable qualities, according to some Shakespeare critics. However, her coldness may well be understandable in a society that treats women as objects for sexual gratification.
Mariana: Jilted fiancee of Angelo.
Lucio: A fantastic (eccentric in dress, behavior, etc.).
Varrius: Gentleman attending Duke Vincentio.
Elbow: Simple constable.
Froth: Foolish gentleman.
Mistress Overdone: A bawd (keeper of a brothel).
Pompey: Servant of Mistress Overdone.
Barnardine: Dissolute prisoner.
Minor Characters: Lords, officers, citizens, boy, attendant.
The action takes place in Vienna, in northeastern Austria between the Alps and the Carpathian mountains. Oddly, though, many of the characters have names associated with southern European countries, especially Italy. Examples are Vincentio, Angelo, Claudio, Isabella, Mariana, Lucio, Varrius, Pompey, and Francisca.
The climax occurs in Act V when Isabella reveals Angelo as a villain (although everyone forgives him), Claudio gains his freedom, and wedding bells ring for three couples.
Good government requires strong leadership tempered by compassion and common sense. Whereas the Duke of Vienna has been too lenient a ruler, Angelo becomes too harsh–even Draconian–while ruling in the duke's absence.
Depravity often walks in righteous shoes. Angelo appears moral and upright–and may well be early on–but evil infects him when he succumbs to lust and the headiness of power. His name suggests angel; his deeds suggest devil.
Do not judge others lest you be judged. Angelo ignores this biblical admonition (Matt: 7:1) as he condemns others but leads a sinful life himself.
Exploitation of Women. For more information, click here.
Fair is foul. The witches speak this paradox in Shakespeare's Macbeth, warning that what appears good in the play is bad. These words could also apply to Measure for Measure, for Angelo wears a righteous cloak that conceals evil.
Power turns rulers into tyrants. Isabella articulates this theme when she that “it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant” (2. 2. 133-135 ). Duke Vicentio also has this theme in mind when sojourning at the monastery of Friar Thomas. There, he asks for a monk’s religious habit to disguise himself so he can spy on Angelo to see “if power change [his] purpose” (1. 3. 59).
Rule by the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law–and leave room for mercy. Angelo enforces the law rigidly and literally, without considering whether mitigating circumstances exist or whether the punishment fits the crime. Shakespeare satirizes his rigidity in the comic episode in Act II, Scene I, when Pompey and Froth are arrested for allowing a pregnant woman with a hankering for prunes to stray into a brothel to satisfy her appetite. Escalus, who understands that forgiveness and mercy are handmaidens of justice, dismisses the charges against the two men.
Private immorality puts on pious airs in public. Angelo pretends to be rigidly upright in public; in private, he sexually harasses Isabel, urging her to surrender her chastity in exchange for a commuted sentence for her brother.
.Key Dates and Sources
Date Written: Probably 1604.
Probable Main Sources:.Promos and Cassandra (1578), by George Whetstone (1550-1587). Whetstone based this work on Hecatommithi (Hundred Tales), by Giambattista Giraldi (Cinthio) (1504-1573).
First Performance: Probably December 26, 1604, at Whitehall before King James I.
Measure for Measure centers on offenses against moral and temporal law, on the administration of justice, and on the severity of punishment for lawbreakers, one of whom–Claudio–faces a death sentence for impregnating his sweetheart. Consequently, much of the memorable imagery in the play focuses on these and related matters. Following are examples:
We must not make a scarecrow of the law,Exploitation of Women and Isabella’s Protest
.......In the Viennese society of Measure for Measure, men exploit and maltreat women. For example, Angelo jilts Mariana and Lucio rejects the woman who bore his child. Moreover, Claudio impregnates Juliet before they are married, then speaks of their encounter disparagingly:
Our natures do pursue,.......Generally, the women accept their lot without protest and even professionalize it by selling themselves in disease-ridden brothels.
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die.(1. 2. 78-80)
.......After Angelo pronounces a death sentence, beheading, on Claudio for his immoral behavior, Angelo–supposedly upright and principled–tries to pressure Isabella into going to bed with him in exchange for the release of her brother, Claudio. However, unlike other women in the play who willingly submit to men in private or at a brothel, Isabella refuses to compromise her chastity–even if her refusal means her brother must lose his head. Her stand against Angelo provides hope that morally corrupt Vienna can reform.
Claudio Becomes Hamlet–For a Moment
Facing execution, Claudio muses about death in the same way that Hamlet does in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The thought of what happens after death unnerves both Claudio and Hamlet. They wish to cling to the here and now as long as possible. Claudio vividly describes the possibilities in a conversation with his sister, telling her that
To die, and go we know not where;Source and Meaning of Title
The title of the play appears to come from a biblical passage: With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again (Matt: 7: 2-3). In other words, what you do unto others, they will do unto you. This is the lesson that Angelo learns. The words of the title are spoken by Duke Vincentio when he condemns Angelo in Act V, Scene I. The lines are as follows:
The very mercy of the law cries outStudy Questions and Essay Topics
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASUREstill FOR MEASURE.
Then, Angelo, thy fault's thus manifested;
Which, though thou wouldst deny, denies thee vantage.
We do condemn thee to the very block
Where Claudio stoop'd to death, and with like haste.
Away with him! (5. 1. 415-424)
1. Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
1. Fear: Scare.
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