Skip to main content
Measure for Measure /

Further Reading: Measure for Measure

Adelman, Janet. “Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare’s Personality, edited by Norman Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard Paris, pp. 151–74. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1989.

Adelman maintains that the bed trick in All’s Well and Measure serves “to legitimize sexual desire” by allowing Bertram and Angelo, respectively, to direct their illicit desires “back toward their socially sanctioned mates,” thereby effecting the “conventional festive ending in marriage.” The similarities end there, however, since marriage functions as a “cure” in All’s Well but as a “punishment” in Measure. The duke’s marriage proposal to Isabella, moreover, is shocking and unsettling because by the end of the play the duke has become for Isabella the “embodiment of the fantasied asexual father.”

Baines, Barbara J. “Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure.” Studies in English Literature 30 (1990): 283–301.

Baines takes issue with Reifer’s focus on Isabella’s “powerlessness” (see below) to argue that Isabella’s choice of chastity both empowers her and establishes her identity in the social structure of Vienna, so that “its forfeiture would constitute for her a form of social and psychological suicide.” Chastity is the “definitive virtue” in the world of Measure for Measure, not for theological or religious reasons but “precisely because it is a site and mode of secular power”: i.e., the State appropriates chastity to further its own ends—social health and patriarchy. The duke’s proposal to Isabella at the end shows the extent to which “authority privileges chastity,” which in turn (by virtue of its political and secular imperatives) “authorizes authority.”

Desmet, Christy. “ ‘Who Is’t Can Read a Woman?’: Rhetoric and Gender in Venus and Adonis, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Reading Shakespeare’s Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity, pp. 134–63, esp. pp. 144–54. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

The Renaissance ambivalence toward rhetoric as either decorative entrapment or a means to promote the civic good was often personified in terms of a woman’s virtues or vices: rhetoric as noble lady (judicial public debate) vs. rhetoric as whore (ornate dissembling). It is within this ambivalence about rhetoric and its relation to truth that Desmet locates the moral ambiguity of Isabella, a skilled orator who flatters and lies for a good cause. By appropriating male argumentative strategies and analogies, Isabella illustrates “cross-identification”—the verbal equivalent of cross-dressing. In the final scene, where she is given a prominent voice in the debate surrounding Angelo’s case, Isabella in her role as seductive sophist “trespasses into the male domain of judicial debate and for this reason threatens both masculine rhetoric and the masculine political prerogative.” Her ultimate silence in the face of the duke’s marriage proposal reveals Shakespeare’s own unease about the power of rhetoric, particularly feminine rhetoric.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 72–87. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

In this materialist reading of Measure for Measure, Dollimore observes that the play’s overriding concern with sexual transgression is rooted in political rather than ethical considerations: “Signify[ing] neither the unregeneracy of the flesh, nor the ludic subversive carnivalesque,” sexual license provides the means for the state to legitimate its own authority because authority must control deviant behavior. In Measure for Measure “the more we attend to the supposed subversiveness of sexual license, and the authoritarian response to it, the more we are led away from the vice itself toward social tensions which intersect with it.” Dollimore includes among the tensions prominent in the winter of 1604 the following: fear of a war with Spain, the plague, treason trials, and economic difficulties in London.

Friedman, Michael D. “ ‘O, let him marry her!’: Matrimony and Recompense in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 454–64.

Intrigued by the ambiguity surrounding the duke’s sudden marriage proposal to Isabella, Friedman proposes that a production of Measure for Measure “need not strive to make the play conform to conventions of romantic comedy in which marriage represents the culmination of erotic desire. If a production avoids importing the modern notion that a proposal of matrimony presupposes love,” the audience may still derive comic pleasure from seeing the male characters, including the duke, accept responsibility for their own actions. All of the marriages that conclude Measure for Measure “are equally rooted in a Renaissance belief in recompense for sexual crimes, even where reciprocal affection also exists.” The essay includes discussion of the following productions: Adrian Noble’s 1983 and Trevor Nunn’s 1991 Royal Shakespeare Company revivals; Michael Bogdanov’s 1985 and Michael Langham’s 1992 stagings at Stratford, Ontario; and Michael Kahn’s 1992 interpretation for The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Gless, Darryl J. Measure for Measure: The Law and the Convent. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Concerned with the intellectual context of the play, Gless draws upon contemporary legal and religious documents to probe Measure for Measure’s depiction of flawed characters who wrestle with the ambiguities of morality in a journey toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal. Shakespeare “appears consistently to have selected and dramatized doctrines that are especially flexible and tolerant of adjustment to particular circumstances.” The play’s thematic core centers on the Sermon on the Mount passage in Matthew, which does not forbid judgment but exhorts “proper judgment”—that which conforms with the laws of charity and with recognition of one’s own sinfulness. Lucio, Isabella, Angelo, and Claudio all fail to judge with charity. In Gless’s view, the duke functions as the instrument of a benign Providence that oversees the characters’ ultimate redemption.

Hawkes, Terence. “Take Me to Your Leda.” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 21–32. Reprinted in Meaning by Shakespeare, pp. 61–78. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Hawkes uses contrasting readings of Measure for Measure provided by G. Wilson Knight and William Empson in 1930 (and a similar clash between the interpretations of F. R. Leavis and L. C. Knights in 1942) to reveal how the play “periodically functions as a cultural arena in which significant ideological conflict takes place.” The diametrically opposed readings offer a model for the critical divisions that have developed since the 1930s in determining where the critical emphasis should lie—with the author (Zeus) or with the reader/audience (Leda). Hawkes finds it appropriate that the “divide” between fixity of meaning (Knight and Leavis) vs. ambiguity (Empson and Knights) is centered on a play that is a “study of system, trial, and breakdown,” in which any communication of “prepackaged, coherent, and unified ‘meaning’ seem[s] an impossible project.”

Hayne, Victoria. “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 1–29.

Hayne argues that Measure for Measure participates in a cultural debate aired in books, sermons, and parliamentary bills of Tudor-Stuart England, the terms of which “centered not on whether sexual behavior should be regulated but on how: the alternatives were penance or death.” The play exploits the ambiguities inherent in the fluid state of Elizabethan/Jacobean marriage formation. Just as the practice in the courts of the day often “winked” at sexual transgressions, opting for mediation and modification of “draconian” laws, so by way of comic conventions Shakespeare modifies the puritanical retribution of Angelo. By mingling social and literary conventions, Measure for Measure “takes up, and implicates its audience’s theatrical responses in, its position in the contemporary debate over sexual regulation.”

Kaplan, M. Lindsay. “Slander for Slander in Measure for Measure.” Renaissance Drama, New Series 21 (1990): 23–54.

Kaplan applies her findings on “how slander figured as theater” in political and dramatic practice in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England to an analysis of Measure for Measure. The English legal system as a whole operated “as a type of institutionalized slander” in that punishment, by making a criminal infamous, “essentially functioned as defamation.” Focusing on the relation between the privately delivered slanders of Lucio against the duke and the duke’s own publicly articulated criticism of the corrupt state of Vienna (5.1.356–62), Kaplan observes how the duke’s punishment of Lucio indicates the former’s greater concern with enforcing laws banning the “slandering” of princes than with laws against fornication. Lucio’s unpardonable offense lies not in criticizing the duke’s authority but in “competing with it.” Kaplan concludes that Measure for Measure “employs the state’s own methods of exposure to criticize the arbitrariness of its response to theater, and to warn that the greater peril of theatrical slander lies in the ruler’s, not the theater’s, abuse of it.”

Leonard, Nancy S. “Substitutions in Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies.” English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979): 281–301.

Leonard focuses on the act of substitution as the dramatic means by which Shakespeare makes theatrically coherent the ambiguity of judgment that is central to the problem comedies. Where impersonation of a fictive character yields delight and manifests versatility in the romantic comedies, substitution of one character for another in plays like Measure for Measure compels testing of character against role and other characters—a process that beneficially engages both principal agents (the duke and Isabella) and the ones substituted for them (Angelo and Mariana).

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince, trans. Robert M. Adams. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

In this famous 16th-century political treatise, Machiavelli draws upon his experience as a member of the Florentine government in order to present his conception of the kind of strong leader and tactics required to impose political order for the good of the unified Italy he envisioned. Because Machiavelli separates politics from ethics and is more concerned with ends than with means, his name has become identified with all that is cynical and even diabolical in state affairs. In Shakespeare’s England, this exaggeratedly negative reputation gave rise to the conventional villain known as the Machiavel. Measure for Measure’s “duke of dark corners” is not a Machiavel in the vein of Richard III, but some critics argue for an affinity between his strategies and policies and Machiavelli’s political tenets.

Miles, Rosalind. The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Investigation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976.

Miles’s study falls into two parts. The first reviews Measure for Measure’s stage history from 1604 to the early 1970s, tracing the peaks and valleys in its reception; Measure for Measure has been especially susceptible to shifts in taste and morality. The second part provides a detailed analysis of the play’s three main characters (the duke, Angelo, and Isabella), overall design, and plot mechanisms; Miles pays special attention to Shakespeare’s use of such popular conventions as disguise, stock character types, and the bed trick.

Mowat, Barbara A. “Shakespearean Tragicomedy.” In Renaissance Tragicomedy: Explorations in Genre and Politics, edited by Nancy Klein Maguire, pp. 80–96. New York: AMS Press, 1987.

Mowat considers the problem plays (All’s Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida) experiments in tragicomedy as defined by Guarini in his 1601 Compendio della poesia tragicomica: a story in which tragic and comic parts are mixed, with persons of high rank approaching death but ultimately avoiding it, and a miraculously achieved “happy ending” that purges melancholy. While Measure for Measure may deviate from the model in some respects (e.g., its “happy ending” lacks a sense of the “miraculous”), it conforms to Guarini’s essential requirement: the blending of “action, grave or comic, and speech ‘tending toward commiseration or toward laughter.’ ” In Measure for Measure Shakespeare “selects and shapes a story in which the events themselves are blends of the conventionally comic and the conventionally tragic. Lust and death are so intermingled . . . that the language of the play swings from the deeply serious to the sardonic to the genuinely amusing, with the tragicomic balance being maintained throughout.” Even in the multiple marriages that conclude the play, the emotional response is mixed: marriage is a punishment for Lucio, “a fate less-bad-than-death” for Angelo, “an after-the-fact rite” for Claudio, and finally a “joyous celebration” for the duke and Isabella—provided she accepts his proposal.

Pope, Elizabeth. “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Survey 2 (1949): 66–82. Reprinted in George Geckle, ed., Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Measure for Measure, pp. 50–72. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Pope interprets Measure for Measure as being “very largely concerned with the ‘Prince’s duty,’ particularly in regard to the administration of justice.” Interest in the privileges and duties of a ruler was especially keen in 1603–4 with the accession of James I, who had written on the subject of kingship in Basilicon Doron. Pope examines contemporary thinking on equity, forgiveness, and the subject of rule as expounded in Renaissance sermons, tracts, and biblical commentaries. Divine Right theory, which posits the ruler as God’s substitute on Earth, explains why the duke moves so easily through the play—“like an embodied Providence.” In Measure for Measure Shakespeare strengthens, clarifies, and attempts to resolve the “disturbing discrepancy between the concepts of religious mercy and secular justice” found in the commentaries on the “measure-for-measure” passage from Matthew and Luke as it relates to matters of rule. The doctrinal teaching on the passage is of “primary importance, since it covers most—if not all—of the major ethical issues that appear in Measure for Measure.”

Riefer, Marcia. “ ‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 157–69.

More than any other previous Shakespearean play, Measure for Measure “exposes the dehumanizing effects on women of living in a world dominated by powerful men who would like to recreate womanhood according to their fantasies.” Riefer rejects the typical ways of viewing Isabella as either “idealized saint” or “denigrated vixen,” seeing her instead as a victim of sexual subjugation who dwindles from “an articulate, compassionate woman” during her first encounter with Angelo “to a stunned, angry, defensive woman” in her later confrontations with him and Claudio and “to finally a shadow of her former articulate self, on her knees before male authority in Act 5.” Her final speech urging mercy for Angelo—filled with “casuistical legalisms”—is the “opposite” of moral growth and provides further proof of her loss of a personal voice—a loss that makes Measure for Measure “Isabella’s tragedy.”

Rossiter, A.P. “Measure for Measure.” In Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, edited by Graham Storey, pp. 152–70. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961.

Rejecting neatly imposed Christian allegorical solutions to Measure for Measure, Rossiter finds the play riddled with ambiguities which are essential to its dramatic structure and which, therefore, cannot be easily resolved. Shakespeare may have intended a “higher” Christian ethic in Measure for Measure, but he fails to achieve it because of flawed character development and because the texture of the writing after 3.1 “goes thin,” thus revealing a lack of “inner conviction.” Instead of functioning as “an image of Providence,” the duke, who holds the key to the way we interpret the ending, is a “shadowy figure.” For Rossiter, the two confrontations between Angelo and Isabella are unique in the Shakespeare canon, few scenes matching their power on the modern stage.

Schleiner, Louise. “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure.” PMLA 97 (1982): 227–36.

Schleiner agrees with those who find in the play’s many biblical allusions a parallel between the duke and God (as testing master, redeemer, and judge), but she interprets the parallel within a comic, not didactic, context. The duke is not God but a ruler whose “quixotic attempts” to imitate God (as a good ruler should, according to the political/religious thinking of the time) yield “mixed and humorous results.” The key to Measure for Measure’s delicate balance between laughter and darkness lies in the duke’s function as moral tester, a role he performs throughout this “chameleon” play. The duke is “fallible, meddling, and laughable but beneficent, inventive, and in large measure successful in helping his subjects.”

Stevenson, David L. The Achievement of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Stevenson classifies Measure for Measure as an intellectual comedy on “moral obtuseness” constructed around “the twin themes of mercy and justice” in a schematic design of interrelated ironies and reversals that are finally resolved through the “balancing out of paradox.” In addition to a discussion of the play’s overall dramatic design, the volume includes a scene-by-scene analysis, a survey of critical resistance to the play, and a refutation of readings that derive from theological interpretation. The “stuff” of Measure for Measure is “the tantalizing excitement, the fear, the shame of man’s sexuality, his shared common denominator of sexual desire.” For Stevenson, the play is Shakespeare’s “most ingeniously constructed comedy.”

Summers, Joseph H. “Comedy of Justice: Measure for Measure.” In Dreams of Love and Power: On Shakespeare’s Plays, pp. 68–94. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Summers points out that, while the dramaturgy of most of Shakespeare’s plays allows us to know the characters and their world by Act 2 and thus anticipate likely developments, in Measure for Measure we cannot at all predict what will happen. Proceeding through the play scene by scene, Summers shows how “we are reduced to a state of childlike waiting for the revelations of wonders by a secretive duke and a mysterious playwright.” The last scene presents a masque of judgment in which we “are invited to be baffled by and then to rejoice in a complicated, limited . . . working out of a happy ending” that suggests the “unimaginable dream” of “justice fully satisfied and yet everyone forgiven.”

Watson, Robert N. “False Immortality in Measure for Measure: Comic Means, Tragic Ends.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 411–32.

Watson classifies Measure for Measure as tragicomedy because it persistently subverts comedy’s promise of immortality (whether in the form of fame, salvation, or procreation) and replaces it “with an emphasis on the destruction of the individual, an emphasis that is typical of tragedy.” Instead of dispelling the pervasive darkness of this “death-filled” play, the marriages that conclude the action, by virtue of their abrupt and formulaic nature, “encourage . . . a suspicion that the aftermath of marriage and death alike is merely a biological process with no regard for human consciousness.” Watson speculates that Measure for Measure is a product of the plague year 1603 “not only in its emphasis on the replenishment of the population but also in its portrayal of a city abandoned by its benevolent but exasperated Lord to an agency of deadly retribution.”

Wheeler, Richard P. “Vincentio and the Sins of Others: The Expense of Spirit in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare’s Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, pp. 92–153. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1981.

Wheeler makes extensive use of Freudian and contemporary psychoanalysis in his study of the problem comedies and where they fit in Shakespeare’s development. The chapter on Measure for Measure discusses the play under the headings “Angelo’s Brief Authority,” “Sexuality, Life and Death,” “Deputation and the Sins of Others,” and “Ghostly Fathers and Spectral Women.” Wheeler relates the conflicts in Measure for Measure to those that Shakespeare “masters more fully” in his tragedies; Measure for Measure is, in fact, disturbing as a comedy because it depicts the kind of psychological complexity we associate more with tragic drama. A play dominated by “mistrust of sexuality” and informed by an attitude that views sexuality as debased, Measure for Measure is “guided to its comic conclusion by a character whose essence is the denial of family ties and sexuality, the denial, that is to say, of the essence of comedy.” While the marriage of Kate Keepdown and Lucio is “an appropriately debased culmination of the play’s unpurged tension between sexuality and the moral order,” the marriage proposal of the duke (ghostly father) to Isabella (aspiring nun) is, Wheeler concludes, “the appropriately barren culmination of the play’s moralized comic design.”