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
Conflict     Climax    Conclusion  Themes    Figures of Speech: Law and Morality      Other Figures of Speech      Humor, Including Malapropisms
Measure for Measure as a Problem Play      Exploitation of Women     Claudio as Hamlet      Title Meaning      Study Questions and Essay Topics     

Complete Annotated Text With Definitions of Difficult Words
And Explanations of Difficult Passages

Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings   © 2003, 2010, 2011, 2016, 2019

Type of Work
Measure for Measure is a comedy, a dramatic work with a happy ending.

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 kind and upstanding ruler but has been too lenient in enforcing the law. When he leaves town—on a diplomatic mission, he says—he places his deputy in charge. Then, in disguise, he returns to town to see whether Angelo is able to improve law enforcement.
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, as the duke discovers.
Escalus: An ancient lord and counselor to Duke Vincentio. He is a loyal and obedient advisor who is second in command in the duke's absence.
Claudio: Young gentleman of Vienna whom Angelo has imprisoned and condemned to death 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. She is a virtuous young lady, adhering strictly to the Ten Commandments and church law. While begging Angelo to have mercy on her brother, Angelo tries to seduce her. She absolutely refuses, even though Angelo has promised to spare Claudio if she yields her body to him. Her seemingly cold demeanor 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: Woman who loves Angelo and was contracted to marry him. However, after the dowry she promised was lost in a shipwreck, Angelo abandoned her and avoided contact with her.
Lucio: A fantastic (eccentric in dress, behavior, etc.) who is Claudio's friend. He advises Isabella to use her charm to persuade Angelo to spare her brother. Perhaps out of jealousy of the duke's authority, Lucio tells lies about him in an attempt to sully his character.
Varrius: Gentleman attending Duke Vincentio.
Elbow: Simple constable. He is the source of much of the humor in the play.
Froth: Foolish gentleman.
Mistress Overdone: A bawd (keeper of a brothel). She has been married nine times.
Pompey: Tapster (bartender) for Mistress Overdone at her house of prostitution. He also serves as a pimp.
Abhorson: Executioner.
Barnardine: Prisoner. Although he was supposed to be executed, he received reprieve after reprieve under the duke's rule. Most of the time, he is either asleep or drunk.
Francisca: Nun in the convent at which Isabella is a novice.
Provost: The prison's overseer, who carries out Angelo's orders.
Ragozine: Pirate who dies of a fever in the prison housing Claudio. Because he resembles Claudio, his decapitated head is presented to Angelo as proof that Claudio has been executed.
Friar Peter
Friar Thomas: Priest who provides Vincentio with his monk's disguise.
A Justice
Two Gentlemen
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, the duke of Vienna, is a good and kindly ruler. However, he has been lenient to a fault. Consequently, immoral behavior—in particular, sex-related offenses that result in illegitimate children and the spread of venereal disease—has thrived in his city for many years. So he decides to leave town for a while to allow his stern chief deputy, Angelo, 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,” a malapropism at 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 loveliness—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 soon 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 disguise, calling himself Friar Lodowick. 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, the disguised 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 appears without his disguise, 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 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 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 alternates between serious and light as the characters battle over strict and loose enforcement of moral and civil law. Most of the humorous scenes involve Elbow, Pompey, Froth, Mistress Overdone, and Barnardine.


The central conflict of the play is the clash between morality and immorality or, put another way, between law and lawlessness. Isabel represents morality. Her brother, Claudio, represents immorality. Angelo, ironically, represents both. Outwardly, he appears zealously moral as the strict enforcer of Viennese law. Inwardly, however, he is the most corrupt citizen of the city.


The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to both definitions, the climax of Measure for Measure occurs at the city gates when Isabella accuses Angelo, in front of the duke and the townspeople, of being a lecherous, lying hypocrite--and a murderer, because she believes Angelo executed Claudio in violation of a promise to release him (5.1.44-47). The climax continues when other characters react to the accusations.

Conclusion (Denouement)

The play concludes when the duke forgives all lawbreakers, including Angelo; wishes Claudio and Juliet, as well as Angelo and Mariana, a happy married life; and asks Isabella for her hand in marriage.


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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 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 ). Duke Vincentio 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 in the first scene of Act 2, 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 fear [instill fear in] 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

Humor, Including Malapropisms

Elbow and Pompey deliver much of the humor in the playElbow with his malapropisms and Pompey with his unwitting drollery. A malapropism is the unintentional use of an inappropriate word similar in sound to the appropriate word, often with humorous effect. The word derives from the name Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. Malaprop was a character in The Rivals, a 1775 play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Sheridan invented her name from the French words mal à propos, loosely translated as badly chosen or not right for the occasion. Mrs. Malaprop has the habit of using near-miss words. For example, she observes that she does not have much affluence over her niece and refers to contiguous countries as contagious countries. Of course, the term malapropism did not exist in Shakespeare's time, but the language faux pas that it describes did—in Measure for Measure and other Shakespeare works.

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". Abhorson says, "Tell him he must awake, and that quickly too". Pompey then tells Barnardine, "Pray, Master Barnardine, awake till you are executed, and sleep afterwards".  

Measure for Measure as a Problem Play

Measure for Measure has received dubious distinction as one of Shakespeare's three "problem plays." (The others are All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida). A problem play is a drama in which the plot, the character development, or the theme (and sometimes all three elements) appears flawed in some way. Two of the main problems in Measure for Measure are the following:
  1. The duke sets out to improve law enforcement in Vienna because he has been too lenient with offenders. But that plan goes awry after strict Angelo takes control. At the end of the play, the duke pardons all lawbreakers. In other words, he ends up where he started at the beginning of the play. One can argue, however, that he has learned two lessons: (1) to take a middle course between leniency and unreasonably strict enforcement of the law and (2) to make more suitable choices when delegating power to a deputy.
  2. Near the end of the play, the duke asks Isabella to marry him. However, he has never courted her. Nor has Isabella ever expressed a romantic interest him.

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 motion to become 
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit 
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside 
In thrilling [region of thick-ribbed ice; 
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds, 
And blown with restless violence round about 
The pendant 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 character 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). 
  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.