Measure for Measure

Hello friends. It’s extremely hard to get out of the backed-up loop I’m in the the moment. I’m trying to get ahead with Macbeth for this weekend, so hopefully I’ll be back on a weekend-posting schedule soon. But for now, Measure for Measure.

I read Measure for Measure in 12th-grade for a report in English class. I completely mis-remembered this play and thought the Duke was a far less moral character than he was (though we could debate how good a person he actually was). I do remember writing my essay the night before it was due on our extremely old dos computer (seriously) and at 4am got the brilliant idea that Lucio was a Lucifer figure. Don’t ask, it seemed brilliant to my stressed and sleep-deprived 18-year-old mind.

So, without further ado, onto the play!


The Duke of Vienna has decided to take a leave of absence. He leaves Lord Angelo in charge during that time, conferring on him all the power the Duke possesses. Angelo refuses at first, asking the Duke to test his character in a lesser way, but the Duke is decided and wants to leave with haste.

After, Angelo begins to enforce stringent laws that had fallen by the wayside under the Duke’s rule, which is what happens to poor Claudio; Claudio is engaged to a woman named Juliet and has gotten her pregnant. Because he got his fiancée pregnant out of wedlock Claudio is sent to prison and sentenced to die. Claudio’s friend, Lucio, finds out about his imprisonment from Mistress Overdone, the Madame of a brothel. When Lucio leaves to find out if this is true the clown Pompey enters. Pompey tells Mistress Overdone that Angelo has set a proclamation to close all the brothels in the suburbs (meaning the brothel district), though brothels in the city proper will remain open (because politics). Mistress Overdone is, understandably, upset and worried about her future prospects.

The provost in charge of imprisoning Claudio doesn’t seem to agree with Angelo’s enforcement of the law, at least in this case. When Lucio arrives Claudio speaks to him, seeming very repentant for what he’s done. Claudio is reluctant to tell Lucio exactly what transpired but agrees when Lucio asks if he was arrested for lechery. Lucio is surprised the sentence for lechery is so severe. Claudio then explains that he didn’t intend to be lecherous; he wants to marry Juliet, but her family didn’t approve so they kept their relationship secret. Problem is, Juliet is now obviously pregnant and equally obviously not married. As premarital sex is now illegal in Vienna, Claudio was arrested. Lucio suggests Claudio appeal to the Duke, but he’s nowhere to be found. Instead, Claudio asks Lucio to find his sister Isabella, who’s just entered a convent as a novitiate, and ask her to appeal to Angelo in his name. Lucio agrees.

Meanwhile, the Duke is at a monastery speaking with a friar named Thomas and relating his story. The Duke knew that many laws in Vienna went unpunished but the Duke didn’t feel it would be right (or would garner a good reaction) if he were to suddenly enforce the laws. But the laws needed to be upheld, if for no other reason than for the continued respect of the government and its authority by its citizens. So, the Duke removed himself from the situation and left the fresh blood of Angelo to revive the laws. As such, the Duke lied to Angelo about where he was intending to go. For his part, the Duke wants to observe what happens with the citizens and to see how well Angelo governs, so he wants to disguise himself as a friar and asks for Friar Thomas’s help.

Meanwhile, Lucio arrives at the convent just as Isabella is being given an introductory tour. The sister asks Isabella to answer Lucio’s knocking before she retreats; in convents, only novitiates and sisters in the presence of the Mother Superior can speak with men. Isabella obeys and Lucio explains Claudio’s situation to her. At first Isabella doesn’t believe him but eventually realizes that not only is Lucio telling the truth, her brother’s life is also in danger. Lucio asks Isabella to plead Claudio’s case to Angelo; Isabella agrees, though she doesn’t know how she can help, and sets off to arrange her trip from the convent.

Back in Vienna, Angelo and Escalus are discussing the law. Escalus tries to soften Angelo’s stance on Claudio’s case, asking the other man if he’s ever made a mistake in his life. Angelo responds that he hopes he would be held to the same strict laws he’s enforcing if he were ever to fall and that the law mustn’t be swayed in individual cases. Angelo then calls in the provost and asks him to make certain Claudio is executed at 9am the following morning.

Soon after, Constable Elbow brings in Pompey and Froth. Both men were at a brothel (Pompey works there) and insulted Elbow’s wife by thinking that she worked there. (Elbow’s wife, for her part, apparently entered because she had a pregnancy craving for prunes.) Escalus let’s Pompey go with a warning to find new work and lets Froth off as well. The provost then comes to speak with Angelo about Claudio, hoping to elicit leniency for the man; he mentions that Juliet is set to give birth soon.

Soon after Isabella arrives with Lucio to speak with Angelo. She condemns her brother’s sins but asks Angelo to show mercy, stating that it’s Claudio’s sins, not Claudio himself, which should be punished. Angelo counters that the person committing the crime needs to be punished and Isabella almost acquiesces, obviously agreeing with the law itself. Still, Lucio spurs her to continue to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo tells her that Claudio must die and Lucio once more encourages Isabella to speak up. Isabella continues, insisting that Claudio wouldn’t so condemn Angelo if he were in the same situation. Angelo counters that he would punish his own relative just as he is Claudio.

Isabella continues to plead, seeming to get through to Angelo in some way. Angelo tells her he’ll think on it and asks her to come back in the morning (theoretically staying Claudio’s impending execution). Isabella then states that she’ll bribe him. Angelo’s interest is peaked and he inquires how she’ll bribe him. Isabella responds that she’ll pray for him. She then leaves. Angelo soliloquizes about his sudden, intense desire of Isabella. He completely realizes that his desires are base and that he’s just as flawed as Claudio for his compulsions.

Meanwhile at the prison, the Duke is disguised as a friar and visits with prisoners. While he’s waiting Juliet enters and the Duke speaks with her. Juliet deeply repents her sins and the Duke promises to help her absolve them. He further questions her, asking if she loves the man who got her pregnant. She states that she does, very much, and the Duke realizes that their act was one of love and not lust; Juliet agrees. Still, the Duke tells her that Claudio must die the next day and Juliet weeps.

The next morning, Angelo is still conflicted by the situation and his intense desire for Isabella. When she arrives to speak with him Angelo rather cryptically tells her that Claudio must die. When Isabella asks Angelo to explain he poses a trade: Claudio’s life for Isabella’s body. Not quite understanding him, Isabella tells Angelo that she’d gladly sacrifice her body if her soul can remain untouched (meaning she’d die or submit to torture). Angelo tries to clarify but still sidesteps the issue, asking if Isabella would sin to save Claudio. She says she would, obviously thinking he meant sinning by overlooking Claudio’s transgression. Angelo then gets a bit blunter, asking Isabella if she’d give up her virginity for Claudio.

Isabella is, understandably, aghast and states that she’d rather die. She states that if this is the only other recourse then it would be best for Claudio to die for his crime rather than to cause her fall from grace. Angelo states that, in so condemning her brother to die, Isabella is being as cruel and unmerciful as she had accused Angelo of being; Isabella counters that there is no way to redeem a person through further sin. Angelo insists that he loves Isabella; Isabella counters that Claudio loves Juliet, but he’s condemned to die for his crime even so. Angelo tells Isabella that Claudio won’t die if she agrees to sleep with him; Isabella threatens to blackmail Angelo. At that, Angelo points out that no one would believe Isabella’s tale over Angelo’s own rebuttal, pointing out his superior power in the situation. He tells her to think about it until the following day and leaves her. Isabella is torn, not about whether she should agree to Angelo’s proposition but as to whether anyone would believe her accusations. She decides to speak with Claudio about the matter, certain that he’ll agree that she should never commit such a sin to save his life.

At the jail, Claudio has confided in the Duke (still in disguise) that he hopes to receive a pardon from Angelo, but Claudio ensures the Duke that he’s ready to die and the Duke encourages him on this end. Isabella then enters and asks to speak with Claudio alone; the Duke asks the provost to hide him somewhere he can overhear the conversation without Isabella or Claudio’s knowledge. Isabella tells Claudio the result of her meeting with Angelo in cryptic terms. He asks if there’s a way for him to be pardoned, she tells him yes but only through more heartbreak. He asks for further information, she tells him the result would be akin to life imprisonment. He asks if the alternative is a life sentence, she agrees but states that it would be imprisonment outside of jail.

Claudio, understandably confused, asks Isabella for an actual explanation and she replies that the alternative to death would mean a loss of honor for Claudio and that she’s been cryptic because she fears he’ll choose dishonor over death. Claudio assures her that he’d happily go to death if needed and, heartened, Isabella tells him of Angelo’s proposal. Claudio is shocked and disgusted, heartily agreeing that Isabella shouldn’t do what Angelo suggested. Isabella affirms that she’d happily die for Claudio but that this shame would do too much damage. Isabella tells him to ready himself for death the next day and Claudio thanks her…

…until he has a moment to think about the situation. Claudio, who obviously doesn’t think fornication is too great a sin since he’s committed it himself (hence his current situation), then begins to ponder the nature of the sin. Isabella is a bit taken aback and Claudio continues, saying that death is fearful. He changes his mind rapidly and begs Isabella to exchange her chastity for his life, using the same argument Angelo had: committing a sin to save a life is actually a virtue. Isabella is furious and tells Claudio he’s a coward, likening his suggestion to incest. Claudio protests but Isabella continues, stating that the sin that landed him in jail was less a transgression and more a reflection of his moral state.

Having heard all of this, the Duke pops in and asks to speak with Isabella outside of her brother’s cell. She leaves and the Duke speaks with Claudio, assuring him that Angelo’s proposal hadn’t been meant in earnest and was instead a test to Isabella’s virtues. Claudio repents and asks to seek his sister’s forgiveness, which the Duke allows.

The Duke assures the provost that his speaking with Isabella alone wouldn’t cause her dishonor and the provost agrees. The Duke then tells Isabella how good she is and asks how she plans to proceed with Angelo. She replies that she’d rather Claudio die than to give birth to a bastard. The Duke assures her that Angelo was merely testing her but assures her that he has a plan that will save both Claudio and her honor.

The Duke then asks Isabella if she’s heard of a woman named Mariana; Isabella has. The Duke continues that Mariana and Angelo were engaged (a binding engagement, not like that of Claudio and Juliet) but, after Mariana’s brother and dowry were lost in a shipwreck, Angelo called off the engagement (because he’s a horrendous jerk). The Duke lays out his plan: she (Isabella) will agree to Angelo’s proposal but they’ll play a bed game and switch Mariana (who still loves Angelo) for Isabella so that Angelo will sleep with his own wife. Mariana will get her husband, Claudio will get his wife, and Isabella will retain her chastity.

As the Duke is leaving the jail he bumps into Elbow and Pompey. When the Duke asks about Pompey’s transgressions Elbow tells the him that Pompey is a criminal, a pickpocket, and a bawd (basically a pimp). Pompey protests but the Duke will hear none of it; he tells the man to go to jail. Lucio then approaches and Pompey insists that Lucio (a frequenter of brothels) is his friend. Lucio refuses to bail out Pompey and lets the other man go to jail instead. Lucio then asks the Duke (still in disguise) if he has any news regarding the Duke’s whereabouts and proceeds to insult the Duke, saying Angelo could do no worse than the Duke at upholding the law and that the Duke engages in lecherous activity in his free time.

The Duke, appalled, argues with Lucio on the matter. The Duke threatens to report Lucio but Lucio obviously doesn’t care. After Lucio finally leaves Escalus approaches with Mistress Overdone, who’s being imprisoned for running a brothel. Mistress Overdone argues that they only proof they have is from Lucio, who himself has frequented brothels; still, she’s thrown in jail. Escalus then informs the provost that Angelo hasn’t yet changed Claudio’s sentence. Escalus and the Duke then have a brief conversation (though somehow Escalus doesn’t recognize the Duke) about Angelo’s unyielding temperament before the Duke is left alone, telling the audience that Angelo will end up paying for his sins.

The Duke visits Mariana and soon after Isabella arrives. Isabella has done what the Duke requested: she’s agreed to Angelo’s proposal and he’s given her two keys to get into the residence and the garden, where she’s to meet him that night. In his anticipation, Angelo made certain to show her the way twice. She covered her heels by telling Angelo that a servant would be coming with her, thinking she’s only meeting with Angelo to discuss Claudio’s fate, and that she’ll be unable to stay for very long. The Duke praises her for this.

The Duke introduces Isabella and Mariana and they go offstage to discuss the plan. When they return Mariana has agreed to take her part. Isabella tells the other woman to say nothing during the encounter save at the end, when she should whisper, “Remember now my brother”. Mariana agrees and Isabella leaves. The Duke then assures Mariana that since she and Angelo have a contract of marriage there’s no sin in sleeping with him.

At the prison, the executioner needs help. The provost asks Pompey if he’d like to become the executioner’s apprentice in exchange for leniency in his sentence. Pompey agrees and is introduced to the executioner, Abhorson, who doesn’t seem too keen on Pompey’s credentials. The Duke then arrives and asks if there’s been any pardon from Angelo yet. (By this point, Mariana should have fulfilled Angelo’s request.) As they’re speaking a messenger arrives from Angelo ordering Claudio’s execution early that morning, as well as another man named Barnadine’s in the afternoon, and requesting Claudio’s head as proof no later than 5pm. The Duke asks that the provost postpone Claudio’s execution for a couple of days and suggests that they send Barnadine’s head instead; Barnadine has been in jail for 9 years and is unrepentant, so his death is coming to him. The provost doesn’t think the ruse will work since the two men look nothing alike, but the Duke insists they’ll be able to disguise the head well enough.

The order is given and Abhorson orders Pompey to bring Barnadine to his execution. Pompey, who was having a lovely time meeting with a bunch of old acquaintances in the jail, goes to Barnadine but the man refuses to come. He says he’s been drinking all night and doesn’t want to die that day. The Duke comes to help absolve him of his sins but Barnadine continues to refuse to let them execute him. The provost then enters with some happy-ish news: a pirate who resembled Claudio died the night before in prison; it will be easier to play off that man’s head as Claudio’s, so Barnadine gets a stay of execution as well. The Duke asks the provost to hide both Claudio and Barnadine so no one knows they’re still alive; he says the Duke will be returning soon and the provost won’t be in any trouble.

Isabella then enters, inquiring after her brother. The Duke lies and tells her that Claudio has already been executed and his head sent to Angelo. Isabella wants to go to Angelo (I assume to call him out for being a LYING SACK OF CRAP) but the Duke dissuades her, assuring her that she won’t be admitted. Instead, he urges her to approach the Duke when he returns in a few days and to accuse Angelo then. He also gives her a letter to take to Friar Peter on his behalf.

The Duke has sent letters to Angelo and Escalus as well, stating that he’ll be returning and asking the two men to meet him at the gates to the city, which they think is odd. The letter also orders them to set a proclamation that anyone with any grievances should announce their issue at the Duke’s arrival. Escalus then leaves and Angelo wonders if Isabella might lodge a complaint. He hopes she’ll be too modest to do so and begins to regret having Claudio killed.

And so the Duke “returns” to Vienna, dressed as himself once more and accompanied by Friar Peter (who’s in on the plot). The Duke gives the friar some letters and asks him to deliver them for him and to fetch Flavius as well. Varrius then greets the Duke and the two men proceed together. Meanwhile, Isabella and Mariana are standing by to accuse Angelo of his misdeeds. Isabella is nervous but Mariana encourages her do as Friar Peter and the disguised Duke suggested. Friar Peter then approaches them and helps them find a prominent place so they can speak with the Duke.

And so it happens. The Duke greets Escalus and Angelo at the gates and thanks them for their service. Isabella then approaches and cries out for justice. The Duke asks her to state her grievance to Angelo but Isabella refuses, insisting that Angelo is evil; she asks to speak with the Duke himself. Angelo interrupts and insists Isabella is crazy, but Isabella continues. She accuses Angelo of being a murderer and an “adulterous thief” and “virgin-violator”. The Duke then calls her insane and sends her away.

Isabella continues, arguing that even someone who seems just and good can really be corrupt and bad. The Duke concedes that she sounds sane and logical and asks her to tell her tale. Isabella proceeds to recount Claudio’s crime and imprisonment and Lucio’s arrival at the convent, requesting her aid. Lucio pipes in and confirms this fact but the Duke silences him. Isabella continues that she begged for Claudio’s life and that Angelo, overcome with lusts, offered to pardon her brother if she slept with him. Isabella says she obeyed but that in return Angelo ordered Claudio’s execution immediately after.

The Duke tells Isabella that this is an impossible tale, that there’s no reason Angelo should have acted in such a way; Isabella, he concludes, must be lying and must have been set on by someone else to forge this lie. Isabella prays for the truth to come to light and the Duke orders her imprisoned. When the Duke presses her about who suggested she make this accusation she names Friar Lodowick, the Duke’s alias. The Duke asks if anyone else knows this friar, to which Lucio pipes up once more to disparage the friar’s nature, accusing him of slandering the Duke’s reputation (which, if you’ll recall, is what Lucio himself did).

The Duke demands to see this Friar Lodowick. Friar Peter then comes forth and agrees that Isabella is lying. Friar Peter also tells the Duke that he knows Friar Lodowick, who’s a good man who never insulted the Duke, but that he’s currently ill so he (Friar Peter) came in his stead. Isabella is led away to prison and Mariana approaches, veiled, and stating that she’s a witness to Isabella’s story. The Duke asks her to remove her veil, but Mariana refuses to remove it except by her husband’s request. The Duke asks if she’s married; Mariana replies that she’s not. The Duke asks if she’s a maid or a widow; Mariana replies that she is neither. The Duke then asks Mariana to explain, and she states that she slept with her husband, though he doesn’t realize it, which makes her not a maid.

The Duke, acting baffled, says that her testimony has nothing to do with Angelo’s case; Mariana replies that Angelo is her husband. Angelo denies the tale and tells her to show her face. Stating that her husband has requested she remove her veil, Mariana reveals her face. The Duke asks Angelo if he knows the woman and Angelo admits that they were engaged five years ago but swears he hasn’t seen her since. Mariana explains that they slept together just the other night and Angelo objects, insisting that he’s being set up. The Duke then sends Friar Peter to bring Friar Lodowick before the group while the Duke takes his leave and lets Escalus and Angelo take over the proceedings.

Escalus wants to question Isabella himself and requests that she be brought back. When she arrives so does the Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick. Escalus begins to question him and asks if he’s behind Isabella and Mariana’s stories accusing Angelo, lying that the two women have already confirmed this fact. The Duke refutes the story and asks to speak with the Duke; Escalus replies that the Duke has given him full control over this matter. The Duke states that he’s witnessed a lot of corruption in Vienna and Escalus threatens to torture him.

Angelo then asks Lucio to retell his accusations against Friar Lodowick about him insulting the Duke’s reputation. The Duke corrects him, saying that it was Lucio who slandered the Duke and that he (Friar Lodowick) loves the Duke as he loves himself. Escalus orders the provost to lead the Duke to prison and the Duke tells the provost not to (the poor provost). Lucio then pulls off the Duke’s hood, revealing his identity.

At this point, pretty much everyone involved in some disagreement realizes that the truth is about to come out. The Duke asks Angelo what he has to say for himself and Angelo confesses to his crimes and asks to be executed. Instead, the Duke orders him to marry Mariana immediately; the two exit. The Duke then turns to Isabella and she says she’s ashamed she reached so far above her station and sought his help when he was disguised. The duke replies that she must be wondering why he didn’t reveal his identity and why he allowed Claudio to die. He tells her that Claudio’s death came sooner than he thought, but that Claudio is better off now. Mariana and Angelo arrive, newly married, and the Duke tells Isabella that in repayment Angelo shall be executed for Claudio’s death. Mariana is aghast, asking the Duke not to mock her so by allowing her to marry the man she loves only to snatch him away from her. Mariana asks for Angelo to be pardoned but the Duke refuses, telling her that he had them marry only so her virtue would remain unsullied and that she’s now free to find a better man. Mariana asks Isabella for her help pleading for Angelo’s life.

Isabella gets on her knees and begs the Duke to pardon Angelo, stating that his heart was in the right place when he tried to cleanse the city. The Duke ignores Isabella for a moment and instead asks the provost why Claudio was executed at such an odd hour. The Duke then “fires” the provost for obeying private orders and the provost insists that he went against those orders to save Barnadine. The Duke asks to see the prisoner. The provost leads out Barnardine and a covered Claudio. The Duke proceeds to pardon Barnadine and asks the friar to take over care of the man. The Duke then asks who the covered man is; the provost replies that it’s another prisoner who was meant for execution and that the man looks an awful lot like Claudio. The provost uncovers Claudio, much to Isabella and Angelo’s surprise.

The Duke proceeds to pardon Claudio, allowing him to marry Juliet, and asks Isabella to marry him. The Duke also orders Lucio to marry the woman he admitted to impregnating before concluding that everything has ended happily for everyone, though Isabella never answers the Duke’s proposal and he just assumes it’s a done deal.

Of Interest

We can’t talk about Measure for Measure without talking about sex; it’s central to the play and the driving force for the entire plot. Unlike in other plays, where sex is a happy act that characters look forward to after marriage, here it’s very negative. Rather than bringing life it causes death. There’s even a scene in a brothel, which only happens in one other Shakespearean play (Pericles, I believe, which we’ll get to in the coming weeks). There are also jokes about venereal diseases, including syphilis. All in all, the play deals with some raunchy and unattractive issues.

Different characters view sex in different ways. To Claudio, sex is self-destructive; he slept with his girlfriend consensually and got her pregnant. The couple feel as if they’re already married in every way but officially, and that they will be in truth once the issue with Juliet’s dowry gets hashed out. Still, sex in this situation condemns Claudio to death; how can he not view sex as self-destructive?.

Isabella, on the other hand, abhors fornication. She tries to preserve her chastity throughout the play and was entering a convent to do just that. In addition, she believes her chastity is worth more than her brother’s life; he’s already sinned, and there’s no redemption to him if her own soul gets tainted. She’s prudish for all the right reasons, though Claudio eventually tells her she’s being selfish for holding her chastity above his life (though obviously Claudio doesn’t hold chastity in as high regard as Isabella, both because he’s proven his willingness to sin with premarital sex and because he’s male, whose chastity has never been as important as a woman’s).

And then there’s Angelo, who’s so self-righteous in the beginning and until his own morals fall through temptation. He becomes so physically desirous of Isabella that he proposes what basically amounts to rape. What’s more, Angelo is fully aware of his fall and realizes that he’s actually worse than Claudio because he (Angelo) lusts after Isabella because of her chastity; at least Claudio is truly in love with Juliet and doesn’t just give in to physical lusts.

And then there’s Vienna itself, which seems to have become a mini-Sodom and Gomorrah. The entire reason the Duke goes on leave centers around how the Viennese government deals with this rampant sexuality. Angelo’s answer is to repress that sexuality and have the stringent laws uphold Christian values without leniency. Punishment for transgressions should be severe (like death). It’s a clear and drastic view and doesn’t allow for human nature, and Angelo’s own fall shows the flaws in his plan.

The moral of the story? Don’t have premarital sex and don’t give in to authority figures who try to manipulate you into bed. I think. That’s a moral, right? Or perhaps, just be thankful we don’t live in Vienna under Angelo’s rule.

Nota Bene

If you notice, Isabella never answers the Duke at the end of the play and says she’ll marry him. Perhaps it’s assumed that she’ll agree, perhaps she doesn’t really have recourse to deny the proposal, or perhaps it’s because her approval isn’t needed. It’s up to us (and production choices) to fill in the blanks and figure out whether Isabella is happy, saddened, outraged, or complacent with the Duke’s proposal. It’s not very tidy but it’s an interesting aspect of the play.


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