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Measure For Measure

By: William Shakespeare

Measure for Measure is a play by William Shakespeare, probably written in 1603 or 1604 and first performed in 1604, according to available records. It was published in the First Folio of 1623. The play's plot features its protagonist, Duke Vincentio of Vienna, stepping out from public life to observe the affairs of the city under the governance of his deputy, Angelo. Angelo's harsh and ascetic public image is compared to his abhorrent personal conduct once in office, in which he exploits his power to procure a sexual favor from Isabella, whom he considers enigmatically beautiful. The tension in the play is eventually resolved through Duke Vincentio's intervention, which is considered an early use of the deus ex machina in English literature.

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, must leave the city on a diplomatic mission. He instates a strict judge, Angelo, to act as his steward until he returns.

 

The next scene opens with a group of soldiers bantering as they walk along a Viennese street, hopeful that they will soon find work when war breaks out with Hungary. Mistress Overdone, the operator of a nearby brothel, interjects to scold them for their flippant talk. She compares their bad behavior to that of the relatively upstanding Claudio, who is, she tells them, soon to be executed for the crime of sleeping with a woman out of wedlock. One of the soldiers, Claudio's friend, Lucio, is astonished at this news and rushes off. Pompey Bum, an employee of Mistress Overdone, enters as he leaves, bringing more distressing news: Angelo has issued a proclamation that all the brothels in the city are to be torn down.

 

Claudio is led past Pompey and Overdone as they speak, and explains to Lucio what has happened to him. Claudio was engaged to be married to his lover, Juliet, but, as they had not yet completed the legal technicalities, they were still considered to be unmarried when Juliet became pregnant by him. Angelo, as the interim ruler of the city, has enforced laws Vincentio let slide, including an outdated legal clause stating that fornication is punishable by death. Hearing this, Lucio leaves to visit Claudio's sister, the novice nun Isabella, and asks her to intercede with Angelo on Claudio's behalf.

 

Isabella obtains an audience with Angelo, and pleads for mercy on Claudio's behalf. As they exchange arguments, Angelo is increasingly overcome with his desire for Isabella, and he eventually offers her a deal: Angelo will spare Claudio's life if Isabella yields him her virginity. Isabella refuses and threatens to publicly expose his lechery, but he points out that no one will believe her word over his reputation. She leaves to visit her brother in prison, and counsels him to prepare himself for death. Claudio desperately begs Isabella to save his life, but Isabella, though torn, ultimately repeats her refusal to yield to Angelo, citing a belief that it would be wrong for her to sacrifice her own immortal soul (and that of Claudio, if his entreaties were responsible for her loss of her virtue) to save Claudio's transient earthly life.

 

Duke Vincentio, meanwhile, has not truly left the city. Instead, he has donned a disguise as a friar named Lodowick, wanting to secretly view the city's affairs and the effects of Angelo's temporary rule. In his guise as a friar, he befriends Isabella, and with her arranges two tricks to thwart Angelo's evil intentions:

 

  1. First, a "bed trick" is arranged. Angelo has previously refused to fulfill a betrothal binding him to the lady Mariana, despite her love for him, because her dowry was lost at sea. Isabella comes to an agreement with Mariana, then sends word to Angelo that she has decided to submit to him with the condition that their meeting occurs in perfect darkness and in silence. Mariana takes Isabella's place and has sex with Angelo, who continues to believe it was Isabella in bed with him. In some interpretations of the law this constitutes consummation of their betrothal, and therefore their marriage; notably, this same interpretation would also make Claudio's and Juliet's marriage legal.
  2. After having sex with Mariana (believing her to be Isabella), Angelo goes back on his word. He sends a message to the prison that he wishes to see Claudio beheaded, thus necessitating the "head trick." The Duke attempts to arrange the execution of another prisoner whose head could be sent in Claudio's place. However, the criminal Barnardine refuses to be executed in his drunken state. Instead, the head of a pirate named Ragozine is sent to Angelo; Ragozine had recently died of a fever, and was fortunately of similar appearance to Claudio.

 

The plot comes to a climax with the "return" to Vienna of the Duke himself. Isabella and Mariana publicly petition him, and he hears their claims against Angelo, which Angelo smoothly denies. As the scene develops, it appears that Friar Lodowick will be blamed for the accusations leveled against Angelo. The Duke leaves Angelo to judge the cause against Lodowick, returning in his disguise when Lodowick is summoned moments later. When Angelo attempts to seal the case against Lodowick, the Duke reveals himself, thereby exposing Angelo as a liar and confirming the allegations brought by Isabella and Mariana. He proposes that Angelo be executed, but first compels him to marry Mariana, so that his estate may go to Mariana as compensation for her lost dowry. Mariana pleads for Angelo's life, even enlisting the aid of Isabella (who is not yet aware her brother Claudio is still living). The Duke pretends not to heed the women's petition, until he reveals that Claudio has not, in fact, been executed, at which point he relents. The Duke then proposes marriage to Isabella. Isabella does not reply, and her reaction is interpreted differently in different productions: her silent acceptance is the most common variation. This is one of the "open silences" of the play.

 

A sub-plot concerns Claudio's friend Lucio, who frequently slanders the duke to the friar, and in the last act slanders the friar to the duke, providing opportunities for comic consternation on Vincentio's part and landing Lucio in trouble when it is revealed that the duke and the friar are one and the same. Lucio's punishment is to be forced into marrying Kate Keepdown, a prostitute whom he had impregnated and abandoned.

 

Book Details

Language

English

Original Language

English

Published In

1623

Author

William Shakespeare

United Kingdom

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. The son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, he was probably educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, where he...

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