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Shakespeare's Works
• The Plays
Measure for Measure

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Measure for Measure

But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep

Act 2, scene 2, lines 146–151

Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.

Act 5, scene 1, lines 466–468

Measure for Measure is among the most passionately discussed of Shakespeare's plays. In it, a duke temporarily removes himself from governing his city-state, deputizing a member of his administration, Angelo, to enforce the laws more rigorously. Angelo chooses as his first victim Claudio, condemning him to death because he impregnated Juliet before their marriage.

Claudio's sister Isabella, who is entering a convent, pleads for her brother's life. Angelo attempts to extort sex from her, but Isabella preserves her chastity. The duke, in disguise, eavesdrops as she tells her brother about Angelo's behavior, then offers to ally himself with her against Angelo.

Modern responses to the play show how it can be transformed by its reception in present culture to evoke continuing fascination. To some, the duke (the government) seems meddlesome; to others, he is properly imposing moral standards. Angelo and Isabella's encounter exemplifies sexual harassment. Others see a woman's right to control her body in Isabella's choice between her virginity and her brother's life.

Shakespeare is believed to have written Measure for Measure in 1604; it was performed at court that December. The play was first published in the First Folio in 1623. His principal source for Measure for Measure was another play, George Whetstone’s two-part Promos and Cassandra.

Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 1997 Folger Shakespeare Library


Further reading
Ivo Kamps and Karen Raber, eds. Measure for Measure: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford, St. Martin’s, 2004.

David McCandless. Gender and Performance in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies.Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Stuart M. Tave. Lovers, Clowns, and Fairies: An Essay on Comedies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Measure for Measure

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