Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Annotated Texts
Table of Contents
Composition and First
Figures of Speech:
Law and Morality
Other Figures of
Study Questions and
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J.
Cummings © 2003, 2010, 2011, 2016
Type of Work:
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.
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
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 story—Promos 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.
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
sweetheart. She is also referred to in the
play as Julietta.
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
Lucio: A fantastic
(eccentric in dress, behavior, etc.).
attending Duke Vincentio.
Elbow: Simple constable.
Froth: Foolish gentleman.
Mistress Overdone: A bawd
(keeper of a brothel).
Pompey: Servant of
Provost (Warden, Jailer)
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.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003,
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
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
And make us lose the good we oft
By fearing to attempt. Go to Lord
And let him learn to know, when
Men give like gods. (1.4.87-91)
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
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,
To have a giant’s strength; but
it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
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).
Than that a sister, by redeeming
Should die for ever.
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”
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:
that you wrong’d, look you restore.
The duke then begs the hand of
Isabella, telling her that
Joy to you, Mariana! love her,
I have confess’d her and I know
her virtue.” (5.1.539-541)
I have a
motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear
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
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
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Phones and Accessories
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
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.
of Women. For information, click here.
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.
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]
by the spirit of the law, not the letter of
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. .
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
Other figures of speech
it up to fear1 the birds of prey,
let it keep one shape, till custom make it
perch and not their terror. (2.1.3-6)
a metaphor, Angelo compares the law to a
rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. (2.1.43)
using paradox and irony, says that some
people gain status by doing wrong and that
others lose status by doing right.
say, best men are moulded out of faults;
for the most, become much more the better
being a little bad. (5.1.451-453)
a paradox, Mariana says the best men are a
have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
use it like a giant. . . . (2.2.133-135)
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.
who the sword of heaven will bear
be as holy as severe. (3.2.112-113)
a metaphor, Duke Vincentio compares the
moral law to a heavenly sword wielded by the
enforcer of the law.
of other figures of speech in the play are the
definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
proper, as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee. (1.1.34-36)
promised to meet me two hours since, and he
was ever precise in promise-keeping. (1.2.40)
Here comes a man
still’d my brawling discontent.
Stand like the
forfeits in a barber’s
much in mock as mark.
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
needful bits and curbs to headstrong
for this fourteen years we have let sleep
of lawbreakers to headstrong horses
of laws to sleeping creature
Now, as fond fathers,
bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,
to stick it in their children’s sight
terror, not to use, in time the rod
more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
to infliction, to themselves are dead.
of laws (decrees) to birch rods used to
. . whose blood
very snow-broth. (1.4.64-65)
of Angelo's blood to water
miserable have no other
have hope to live, and am prepar’d to die.
of medicine to hope
And make us lose the good we oft
By fearing to attempt.
Comparison of doubts to
Go to your bosom;
there, and ask your heart what it doth know.
of bosom to a door
heart to a person
will encounter darkness as a bride,
hug it in mine arms. (3.1.91-93)
darkness to a bride.
art rich, thou’rt poor;
like an ass whose back with ingots
bear’st thy heavy riches but a
death unloads thee. (3.1.27-30)
Nature never lends
smallest scruple of her excellence,
like a thrifty goddess, she determines
the glory of a creditor. (188.8.131.52)
Comparison of Nature to a goddess
and Pompey deliver much of the humor in the play—Elbow
with his malapropisms and Pompey with his
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)
From Pompey Dialogue
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)
wife, sir, whom I detest before heaven and your
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).
Exploitation of Women and Isabella’s
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"
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
Generally, the women accept
their lot without protest and even
professionalize it by selling themselves in
Like rats that ravin down their
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
chastity—even if her refusal means her brother
must lose his head. Her stand against Angelo
provides hope that morally corrupt Vienna can
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
lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
sensible warm motion2 to become
kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling3 region of thick-ribbed ice;
be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
blown with restless violence round about
pendant4 world; or to be worse than
those that lawless and incertain thoughts
howling: ’tis too horrible!
weariest and most loathed worldly life
age, ache, penury and imprisonment
lay on nature is a paradise
what we fear of death. (3.1.131-145)
Source and Meaning
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:
mercy of the law cries out
Study Questions and
Most audible, even from his
'An Angelo for Claudio, death for
Haste still pays haste, and
leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASURE still FOR MEASURE.
Then, Angelo, thy fault's thus
Which, though thou wouldst deny,
denies thee vantage.
We do condemn thee to the very
Where Claudio stoop'd to death,
and with like haste.
Away with him! (5.1.415-424)
character in the play is the most admirable?
Which is the least admirable?
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).
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
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?
you satisfied with the ending of the play?
Explain your answer.
- Fear: Scare.
- This sensible warm motion:
Claudio refers to his warm, living body.
Suspended, like a jewel on an earring.