Measure for Measure: what's the problem?

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays": it sits uneasily between tragedy and comedy. Kate Chedzgoy discusses how the play combines the two genres and, in doing so, raises questions about morality, justice, mercy and closure.

If Measure for Measure is a ‘problem play’, what is its problem? In 1895, the scholar Frederick S Boas located it in both the structure and mood of the play, and in the responses it demanded from readers and spectators. He emphasised in particular the ambiguity of the ending and the intense emotions it might provoke:

… at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome.

This emotional perplexity, he argued, required a rethinking of generic convention:

Dramas so singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies. We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from the theatre of today and class them together as Shakspere’s [sic] problem-plays.

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio

The First Folio edition of Shakespeare (1623) grouped the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories. The Taming of the Shrew was defined as a comedy, but others would question this later.

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In Measure for Measure, these problems – theatrical, emotional and moral – are acted out in plots that are centrally concerned with sexuality and marriage. Shakespeare’s play shares some of its plot elements with his comedies – thwarted courtship, disguise, bawdy humour; while others – violence threatened and executed, the illicit use of power by subordinates – are derived from his tragic dramas. Measure for Measure stages the interweaving of sexuality, morality and power. On the one hand, the plot shows the traumatic consequences of extending the legal surveillance of social behaviour into the bedroom; and on the other, it shows how hard it can be to expose and condemn the misuse of public power for sexual purposes. It is a play that is as timely and resonant in the early decades of the 21st century as it was at the beginning of the 17th or end of the 19th century.

Photograph of Dean Nolan, Petra Massey and Trevor Fox in Measure for Measure, 2015

Photograph of Dean Nolan, Petra Massey and Trevor Fox in Measure for Measure at Shakespeare's Globe, 2015

The brothel-keeper, Mistress Overdone, and her servant, Pompey are pursued by Elbow the constable in this bawdy scene from a recent Globe production.

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Justice and powerlessness

The long, demanding final scene of the play is an extraordinarily intense staging of these dramatic, moral, social and sexual tensions. With 200 lines of the play to go, Measure for Measure seems to be set on a course for a tragic conclusion: only in the last 100 lines or so is the happy ending of comedy secured, with the return of Claudio as if from the grave and the arranging of multiple marriages. The dramatic catalyst for this startling change of generic direction is prepared early in the final scene, when Isabella calls out for ‘Justice, O royal Duke! … justice, justice, justice, justice!’ (5.1.20; 25). The normal mechanisms of justice in Vienna having failed her, Isabella here attempts to get round them and achieve a kind of moral justice that lies outside the scope of legal process by appealing directly to the ruler. The cry of her solitary female voice is dramatically juxtaposed with the staging of patriarchal civic spectacle. When the Duke returns to Vienna to reassert his authority, he is supported by a group of male attendants – including his deputy, Angelo, against whose sexually motivated abuses of power Isabella is appealing. This raises questions about who defines and controls justice, questions that have been crucial to the recent critical and performance history of the play, and that profoundly affect our sense of the way in which the play balances tragedy and comedy.

Photograph of Act 5, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure at Shakespeare's Globe, 2015

Photograph of Act 5, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure at Shakespeare's Globe, 2015

The cry of a solitary female voice: Isabella appeals against Angelo’s abuse, before the Duke and his male attendants.

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Isabella’s call for justice resonates through this final scene, where the word is used 11 times, seven of them by her. Questions of legal judgment and the ethical relations between justice and mercy are central to the action of this play whose title comes from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For … the measure you give will be the measure you get’ (7:1–2).

The dramatic action of Measure for Measure explores two competing interpretations of this ethical rule. In the final scene, the Duke insists that justice must enact retribution, in line with the Old Testament principle of ‘an eye for an eye’, when he declares

“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!"
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure (5.1.406–408).

The rhyming couplet here gives his words the status of proverbial common sense. But when Isabella, in Act 2, advises Angelo to scrutinise his own behaviour and consider the risk he would be taking in passing judgment on Claudio, she employs an approach to justice grounded in mercy, self-awareness, and a sense of human reciprocity:

Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault; if it confess
A natural guiltiness, such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life. (2.2.140–45)

The Geneva Bible, 1570

The Geneva Bible, 1570

Shakespeare explores two readings of Matthew’s gospel, 7. 1–2: ‘with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again ’. He considers competing ideas of just retribution and mercy – judging others as you would be judged yourself.

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At the end of the play, in a situation of heart-breaking powerlessness and grief, she remains true to that understanding of justice, responding positively to Mariana’s entreaty to join her in pleading for Angelo’s life. In Peter Brook’s 1950 production, which played a crucial role in establishing Measure for Measure’s claim on late modern culture’s attention, Barbara Jefford as Isabella was instructed to pause at this point for as long as she thought the audience could bear it: legend has it that she sometimes remained speechless and immobile for over a minute, in an exceptionally tense demonstration of the theatrical power of silence. Her generosity and mercy are rewarded a few moments later when Claudio is produced, alive and well, by the Provost, in a sibling reunion which provides another of the play’s charged silences. The eloquence of bodily performance fills the silence, in place of absent speech.

Photograph of John Gielgud, Peter Brook and Anthony Quayle, Measure for Measure, 1950

Photograph of John Gielgud, Peter Brook and Anthony Quayle, Measure for Measure, 1950

The young Peter Brook staged a ground-breaking production of Measure for Measure in Stratford-upon-Avon. For him, the problem of the play was also the solution.

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Copyright: © Popperfoto/Getty Images

‘The Holy and the Rough’

Brook returned to Measure for Measure some 20 years later in his influential book on theatre-making, The Empty Space, where he argued that the ‘absolutely convincing roughness and dirt’ of the ‘disgusting, stinking, world of medieval Vienna’ gave Isabella’s plea for grace and mercy more meaning than it could have in ‘lyrical comedy’s never-never land’. For Brook, then, the problem of the play is also the solution: its dramatic and ethical essence lies in precisely the irreconcilable juxtaposition of what he calls ‘the Holy and the Rough’ that Boas found so uncomfortably perplexing. If Holy Theatre is a sacred ritual that makes possible a glimpse of the eternal in the everyday, Rough Theatre embodies the grotesque, satirical energy of the popular aspects of human existence. In Brook’s production and his subsequent reflection on the play, the vitality and significance of Measure for Measure are generated by the flexible structuring of the drama to keep both these elements in play:

If we follow the movement in Measure for Measure between the Rough and the Holy we will discover a play about justice, mercy, honesty, forgiveness, virtue, virginity, sex and death: kaleidoscopically one section of the play mirrors the other, it is in accepting the prism as a whole that its meanings emerge.

In this account, Lucio’s lewd and witty commentary on the Duke’s manoeuvrings is vital to the way the final scene reflects on Isabella’s call for justice. Brook offers a vivid description of the shifting balance of theatrical power over the course of this long last scene; but it is less helpful in making sense of its charged final moments, when the kaleidoscopic movement of the drama has to give way to a final, decisive moment of theatrical closure.

That closure is complicated, however, by the play’s last, most famous and problematic silence, that with which Isabella greets the Duke’s repeated proposal of marriage in its closing moments. It seems likely that for Shakespeare’s original audience, her acceptance of that proposal was so obvious and inevitable that it didn’t even need to be scripted in words. It is less self-evident in our own times, when some Isabellas flatly refuse the Duke; Mariah Gale at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2015 put her head in her hands in disbelief. Such gestures can be theatrically powerful, but they work against the grain of the movement towards closure in marriage characteristic of comedy, which reinforces the very alignment of sexuality and power that Isabella has been trying to challenge.

Photographs of Mariah Gale and Kurt Egyiawan in Measure for Measure at Shakespeare's Globe, 2015

Photographs of Mariah Gale and Kurt Egyiawan

This photograph shows an earlier scene from the Globe’s 2015 production. Isabella pleads with Angelo for mercy towards her brother, and the Deputy is seduced by her virtue and eloquence.

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This is where Measure for Measure’s status as a problem play is most acutely foregrounded: structurally, the avoidance of the threatened deaths and their replacement with the promise of multiple marriages makes it into a tragicomedy. But tragicomedy requires a joyous acceptance of the last-minute swerve into the territory of the happy ending that is rarely experienced by audiences watching this play. Isabella’s journey from the safely enclosed feminised space of the convent through the messy, risky streets of Vienna ends here, at the heart of the patriarchal power structures that sustain the city’s order and underwrite its claim to administer justice. But the meaning of that ending, and the question of whether justice is embodied in it, has to remain open, as Juliet Stevenson, an acclaimed Isabella with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983, argues: ‘There isn’t a fixed end to the play. The script ends. The words run out. But the ending – that’s something that has to be negotiated every performance’.

Coleridge's notes on Measure for Measure

Coleridge's notes on Measure for Measure

In the early 19th century, Coleridge noted his view that Measure for Measure was ‘painful’. He was baffled by the end, with its pardon of Angelo and ‘degrading’ treatment of women.

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  • Kate Chedzgoy
  • Kate Chedgzoy is Professor of Renaissance Literature at Newcastle University, where she works on Shakespeare, women’s writing, and childhood in literature. Her published works include Shakespeare’s Queer Children (1996) and Women’s Writing in the British Atlantic World (2007). She is currently working on a project about children as readers, writers and performers in Shakespeare’s time.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

See also

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