Measure for Measure
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents

Type of Work      Composition and First Performance      Publication      Sources      Characters      Setting      Plot Summary      Tone
Climax      Themes      Figures of Speech: Law and Morality      Other Figures of Speech      Humor      Exploitation of Women
Claudio as Hamlet      Title Meaning      Study Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Text

Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings   © 2003, 2010, 2011, 2016

Type of Work: Problem Comedy
Measure for Measure, although technically a comedy, has received distinction as one of Shakespeare's three "problem plays" (along with All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida) because it presents as heroes or heroines characters who are seriously flawed in some way and, thus, problematical for audiences used to applauding and identifying with flawless heroes and heroines.

Composition and First Performance .

The best evidence indicates that Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure between 1603 and 1604 and staged it in London on December 26, 1604, before King James I.  


Measure for Measure was first published in 1623 in the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.


Shakespeare based Measure for Measure on "The Story of Epitia" in a collection entitled Hecatommithi (A Hundred Tales), by Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi (1504-1573), who was often referred to as Cinthio. However, Shakespeare may have drawn heavily on an English adaptation of this storyPromos and Cassandra (1578), by George Whetstone (1550-1587)when writing his own version of the Giraldi story.

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. 
Abhorson: Executioner.
Barnardine: Dissolute prisoner.
Francisca: Nun.
Two Gentlemen
Provost (Warden, Jailer)
Friar Peter
Friar Thomas
A Justice
Minor Characters: Lords, officers, citizens, boy, attendant.

The action takes place in Vienna, which is 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.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2011
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
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. Go to Lord Angelo,
And let him learn to know, when maidens sue,
Men give like gods. (1.4.87-91)
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
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant. (2.2.133-135 )
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, 
Than that a sister, by redeeming him, 
Should die for ever. (2.4.119-121)
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 named Ragozine has just died in the prison of natural causes. Because his face resembles that of Claudio, 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. 
Joy to you, Mariana! love her, Angelo:
I have confess’d her and I know her virtue.” (5.1.539-541) 
The duke then begs the hand of Isabella, telling her that
I have a motion much imports your good; 
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline, 
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine. (1.5.549-551).


The tone of the play is serious most of the time but comic in scenes involving Elbow, Pompey, Froth, and Mistress Overdone.


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. 

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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 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 lawand 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 the first scene of Act II, 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. .

Imagery: Law, Morality

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. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear1 the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror. (2.1.3-6)
In a metaphor, Angelo compares the law to a scarecrow.

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. (2.1.43)
Escalus, using paradox and irony, says that some people gain status by doing wrong and that others lose status by doing right.

They say, best men are moulded out of faults;
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad. (5.1.451-453)
In a paradox, Mariana says the best men are a “little bad.”

    O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant. . . . (2.2.133-135)
In an implied metaphor, Isabella compares the power of the law to a giant’s strength. In a simile, she compares Angelo’s use of the law to a giant’s use of his strength. 

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe. (3.2.112-113)
In a metaphor, Duke Vincentio compares the moral law to a heavenly sword wielded by the enforcer of the law.  

Other figures of speech

Examples of other figures of speech in the play are the following. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


          Thyself and thy belongings 
Are not thine own so proper, as to waste 
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee. (1.1.34-36)

He promised to meet me two hours since, and he was ever precise in promise-keeping. (1.2.40)

Here comes a man of comfort, whose advice    
Hath often still’d my brawling discontent. (4.1.4)  
                       The strong statutes      
Stand like the forfeits in a barber’s shop,      
As much in mock as mark. (5.1.336-338)   


Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk. (1.2.44)


Thy head stands so tickle on thy shoulders that a milkmaid, if she be in love, may sigh it off. 
We have strict statutes and most biting laws,— 
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds,— 
Which for this fourteen years we have let sleep (1.3.22-24)
Comparison of lawbreakers to headstrong horses
Comparison of laws to sleeping creature

                             Now, as fond fathers, 
Having bound up the threat’ning 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. (1.3.26-31) 
Comparison of laws (decrees) to birch rods used to punish children

           Lord Angelo . . . whose blood 
Is very snow-broth. (1.4.64-65) 
Comparison of Angelo's blood to water

The miserable have no other medicine    
But only hope: 
I have hope to live, and am prepar’d to die. (3.1.4-6)
Comparison of medicine to hope

Metaphor and Personification
Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (1.4.87-89)
Comparison of doubts to traitors

                                  Go to your bosom; 
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know. (2.2.164-165)
Metaphor: comparison of bosom to a door
Personification: comparison of heart to a person

                 If I must die,
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms. (3.1.91-93)
Claudio compares darkness to a bride.

                   If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;           
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,      
Thou bear’st thy heavy riches but a journey,           
And death unloads thee. (3.1.27-30)

                              Nature never lends 
The smallest scruple of her excellence, 
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines 
Herself the glory of a creditor. (
Comparison of Nature to a goddess


Elbow and Pompey deliver much of the humor in the playElbow with his malapropisms and Pompey with his unwitting drollery.

Examples From Elbow's Dialogue

I do lean upon justice, sir; and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors. (2.1.49)
Precise villains they are, that I am sure of, and void of all profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have. (2.1.51)
My wife, sir, whom I detest before heaven and your honour,— (2.1.58)
Examples From Pompey Dialogue
When the prison provost asks Pompey whether he can behead a man, Pompey answers, "If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can; but if he be a married man, he is his wife’s head, and I can never cut off a woman’s head" (4.2.4).

When the time comes for Barnardine to be executed, he is sleeping in his cell. Pompey awakens him and says, "You must be so good, sir, to rise and be put to death" (4.3.9). Barnardine replies, "Away! you rogue, away! I am sleepy" (10). Abhorson says, "Tell him he must awake, and that quickly too" (11). Pompey then tells Barnardine, "Pray, Master Barnardine, awake till you are executed, and sleep afterwards" (12).  

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,
    Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
    A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die. (1.2.78-80)
Generally, the women accept their lot without protest and even professionalize it by selling themselves in disease-ridden brothels.
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 Hamletfor 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; 
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion2 to become 
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit 
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside 
In thrilling3 region of thick-ribbed ice; 
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds, 
And blown with restless violence round about 
The pendant4 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. (3.1.131-145)

Source and Meaning of Title

The title of the play appears to come from a biblical passage: For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew: 7:2). 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. The lines are as follows:

    The very mercy of the law cries out
    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 MEASURE still 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)
Study Questions and Essay Topics
  1. Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
  2. Write a short essay explaining how Elbow’s language in the first scene of Act 2 infuses the dialogue with humor. Note, in particular, his use of malapropisms, such as nortorious benefactors (49), detest (58),  cardinally (64), and respected (105 and succeeding lines). 
  3. Write an essay defending Escalus’s observation: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (2.1.43). In your essay, present examples from history that attest to the truth of these words. 
  4. One of the messages of the play, it seems, is that government officials should temper justice with mercy. In the country in which you live, are persons in power overly strict or overly lenient in their interpretation of the law? Or, do they strike a reasonable balance between the two extremes?
  5. Are you satisfied with the ending of the play? Explain your answer. 


  1. Fear: Scare.
  2. This sensible warm motion: Claudio refers to his warm, living body.
  3. Thrilling: Frigid. 
  4. Pendant: Suspended, like a jewel on an earring.