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
First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
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.
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 Thomas: Priest who provides Vincentio with his monk's disguise.
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.
Our doubts are traitorsMeanwhile, 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 excellentA 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,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.The duke then begs the hand of Isabella, telling her that
I have a motion much imports your good;
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.
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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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.
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]
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,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 belongingsAnaphora
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.Metaphor
We have strict statutes and most biting laws,—Metaphor and Personification
Our doubts are traitorsParadox
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;Personification
Humor, Including Malapropisms
Elbow and Pompey deliver much of the humor in the play—Elbow 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)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).
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:
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:
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.
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;
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:
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)