Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

As its title suggests, this play is about judgment, retribution, and mercy. It is also about the balance between freedom and restraint and between legitimate exercise of power and abuse of that power. The dramatic matrix Shakespeare creates is fundamentally serious. Yet he brings in comic elements, and the resolution of the story is carried out in the tradition of comedy. Thus the "problem" of this play: the mood constantly shifts, as do our perspectives. Throughout the work we tend to sympathize with certain characters and remain antagonistic to others. Yet the lines of demarcation blur. Even at the end, we still find ourselves weighing the merits of opposing forces and evaluating the significance of what we have experienced.

The primary source of the work, which is set in sixteenth-century Vienna, is George Whetstone play Promos and Cassandra ( 1578), which itself was derived from Giraldi Cinthio collection of tales known as Hecatommithi ( 1565). This book is the one from which Shakespeare took the story that became Othello.

The opening scene establishes the curious atmosphere. The Duke begins by praising the wisdom and skill of his advisor Escalus (I, i, 3-13). Thus we are surprised when the Duke orders the presence of Angelo:

What figure of us think you he will bear?
For you must know, we have with special soul
Elected him our absence to supply, Lent him our terror, dress'd him with our love, And given his deputation all the organs
Of our own pow'r. What think you of it?

(I, i, 16-21)

Escalus's answer is neutral (I i, 22-24), but questions remain: first, why is the Duke bestowing authority on someone else, and second, why does he choose a seemingly unknown quantity like Angelo instead of a reliable counselor like Escalus?

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Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • The Tragedies 1
  • Titus Andronicus 5
  • Romeo and Juliet 23
  • Julius Caesar 47
  • Hamlet 69
  • Othello 105
  • King Lear 137
  • Macbeth 179
  • Antony and Cleopatra 209
  • Coriolanus 241
  • Timon of Athens 267
  • The Histories 283
  • The First Tetralogy 287
  • King John 381
  • The Second Tetralogy 399
  • The Comedies 525
  • The Comedy of Errors 529
  • The Taming of the Shrew 541
  • Two - Gentlemen of Verona 555
  • Love''s Labor''s Lost 569
  • A Midsummer Night''s Dream 583
  • The Merchant of Venice 599
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor 619
  • Much Ado about Nothing 629
  • As You like It 647
  • Twelfth Night, or What You Will 665
  • Troilus and Cressida 683
  • All''s Well That Ends Well 703
  • Measure for Measure 721
  • The Romances 743
  • Pericles 745
  • Cymbeline 757
  • The Winter''s Tale 779
  • The Tempest 803
  • Appendix 1 - The Two Noble Kinsmen 823
  • Suggestions for Further Reading 826
  • Appendix 2 - The Royal Figures from the History Tetralogies 827
  • Select Bibliography 831
  • Character Index 833
  • Index 847
  • About the Author *
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