William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure


A collection of critical essays on Shakespeare's problematical comedy "Measure for Measure" arranged in chronological order of publication.

As Isabella and Claudio confront one another across the chasm dividing life and death, they represent irreconcilable absolutes which inevitably lead to tragedy. Yet William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a play obsessed with mortality and morality, has been classified from the First Folio on as a comedy. Angelo may threaten the whole social fabric of Vienna, but in the end he is exposed and married to his discarded fiancee; the Duke may insist that Claudio "be absolute for death," but he saves him at last; Lucio may practice the vices of the age, but he is fitly paid out in marriage to a bawd. Yet these "comic" resolutions remain ambivalent and controversial. Perhaps the only truly life-affirming conclusion, asserts Harold Bloom, comes with pardon of the sublime Barnardine, who decides, with powerful simplicity: "I swear I will not die to-day for any man's persuasion.


Northrop Frye observes that among all the principal characters of Measure for Measure, only Lucio seems sane. I would add the spectacular Barnardine, who sensibly judges that in the mad world of this drama, the only way to avoid execution is to stay safely asleep. If you fall into the error of applying moral realism to Measure for Measure, then you will conclude that the Duke, Angelo, Claudio, Isabella, and Mariana all are crazy, with the Duke the craziest of all. Clearly, the play is a fantastic story, a deliberate wildness, as outrageous as Twelfth Night or The Winter’s Tale.

Measure for Measure seems to cohere only as a kind of erotic romance, a very original kind. Though it achieves plausibility only within the parameters of its curious assumptions, those assumptions are not so much Elizabethan conventions as they are purely Shakespearean. If they seem not so curious to us, that is because we live on them still, because as mimetic conventions they have become our assumptions and help govern our expectations as to what it is that makes verbal representation convincing to us.

The Duke’s manipulations, though ultimately (and rather mechanically) benign in their effects, are as theatrical and amoral as Iago’s or Edmund’s, and his motivations always must remain inscrutable. He interests us only in relation to his views on death, which is Claudio’s only claim upon our interest also. Since Angelo, on close scrutiny, is what we might now call a case history, that leaves only Isabella, who indeed is interesting, all too interesting. Her militant chastity is the play’s center, the origin of its mode of producing meaning.

To remark of Isabella that she is unsympathetic is obvious, all too obvious, but then the Duke, Angelo, Claudio, and even poor Mariana . . .

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