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Measure for Measure /

Historical Background

1. King James

For more than two centuries, readers and critics have argued for connections between King James I, who became King of England in 1603, and Measure for Measure, which was performed for James’s court in Whitehall on December 26, 1604. A record of this performance survives among the accounts of the Office of the Revels, which was responsible for providing the king with entertainment. However, there is no documentary evidence to indicate that the play was specially written or even adapted for court performance, and it was the rare play that is known to have been written specifically for performance at court or that is known to have had its first performance there.

Nevertheless, critics have repeatedly argued that Measure for Measure’s duke was created by Shakespeare as a flattering representation or an idealization of King James or as a vehicle for Shakespeare to instruct the new king in just rulership. They argue, first, that lines 1.1.73–76 reflect James’s dislike for crowds: “I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes. / Though it do well, I do not relish well / [The people’s] loud applause and aves vehement,” says the duke; and then he goes on in a way that has been read as Shakespeare’s flattery of the king: “Nor do I think the man of safe discretion / That does affect it.” King James was reported by his contemporaries to be a good deal less polite than the duke in dismissing his counselors’ urging that he display himself to his subjects: “ ‘God’s wounds!’ ” James would reportedly “cry out in Scottish, ‘I will pull down my breeches and they shall also see my arse.’ ”

Shakespeare’s duke is also supposed to have mirrored James I by disguising himself and spying on his subjects, and by his display of mercy at the play’s end. Like the argument about the shared dislike of crowds, however, these similarities have little substance. Shakespeare’s duke is not consistent in avoiding crowds, since he appears to go out of his way to attract one when he formally returns to power in the play’s last act. James I never did disguise himself; it was his grandfather, James V of Scotland, who sometimes went among his people in disguise. Further, stories of rulers going around incognito date back to classical times, and there is nothing specific to link the duke to James V. And, while it is true that once in the winter of 1603–4 James I did arrange to have delivery of pardons for some prisoners delayed until the men had actually mounted the scaffold on which they were to be executed, it is hard to find much resemblance between this incident and the end of Measure for Measure.

Critics have also searched King James’s published writings for statements analogous to the dialogue of the play. The favorite source is James’s Basilicon Doron, a book of advice about kingship that James wrote for his son Prince Henry. Published in England in 1603, the year of James’s accession to the English throne, it was reportedly widely read. Full of Renaissance commonplaces about the duties of a ruler, Basilicon Doron cannot be shown to have provided Shakespeare anything that he could not have read or heard in many other places. So the several passages in it that are more or less analogous to passages in Measure for Measure—passages, for example, about the ruler’s obligation to exercise self-control or about the calumny that rulers unjustly suffer—do not demonstrate that Shakespeare sought to reflect back to King James the monarch’s own prescriptions on rulership.

Thus the search for connections between James I and Shakespeare’s duke must rest, at least for now, with a handful of tempting but unsubstantiated resemblances.

2. Betrothal and Marriage

Measure for Measure is in large part a play about betrothal and marriage. Thus readers and audiences of the play can understand and enjoy it better if they are acquainted with the social customs and religious rituals concerning marriage in Shakespeare’s England. (Even though the play is set in Vienna, the customs, if not the laws, are those of England.) The best source for a survey of these customs is Victoria Hayne’s article listed among the “Further Readings”; the present discussion is greatly indebted to her work.

As Hayne demonstrates, the passage from being single to being married in Shakespeare’s England was a complex and often extended one, not like our practice today when one is single until the wedding and then married after it. Rather, English custom of Shakespeare’s day enjoined upon a couple a series of steps, some of which they took privately, some publicly; some steps they took as a couple, others as members of their families. Marriage began in courtship, which was usually brief in Shakespeare’s day. The extent of family involvement in this early stage depended on the class to which the couple belonged; the higher the class, the greater the family involvement. Then would come a private exchange of a promise to marry, followed by a more or less public betrothal in a ceremony called “handfasting,” in which the couple joined hands and exchanged vows, usually before witnesses.

Many couples appear to have regarded themselves as, at this point, actually married and free to begin their sexual relationship. But in the eyes of the church, the couple were not yet married and would not be until banns were read on three successive Sundays in their parish church, the marriage then solemnized in a church wedding, the couple formally bedded after their wedding feast, and, finally, they consummated their marriage.

Entwined among these social and religious practices was the legal process of negotiating a dowry, a process that had no fixed place in the passage from courtship toward marriage. Again class came into play: the higher the class of the couple, the bigger the dowry and the more important the negotiation of it, and therefore the earlier in the courtship the dowry needed to be settled. If the couple were from families that enjoyed less social importance or less wealth, the romantic development of their relationship might outstrip the legal process of negotiation of the dowry. Because of the complexity of the interaction that preceded the church wedding, it was customary in England for the church to be lenient to its members who began their sexual relations rather too far in advance of other steps they needed to take in their passage toward marriage. To sum up: between courtship and marriage, one had to accept the indeterminate status of being neither single nor married, and of being both single and married. While one was enduring the passage toward marriage, one was therefore subject to being represented in different ways depending on the point of view from which one was being judged.

It is the conflict among these diverse viewpoints that Measure for Measure dramatizes. Three couples in the play are on the way to marriage, and none of them has quite made it even by the end of the play. The first couple are Claudio and Juliet. Claudio narrates the impasse they have reached in seeking to marry:

    upon a true contract

I got possession of Julietta’s bed.

You know the lady. She is fast my wife,

Save that we do the denunciation lack

Of outward order. This we came not to

Only for propagation of a dower

Remaining in the coffer of her friends,

From whom we thought it meet to hide our love

Till time had made them for us. But it chances

The stealth of our most mutual entertainment

With character too gross is writ on Juliet.


Claudio’s account makes it clear that he and Juliet have passed through courtship and made private promises to marry each other. There is even a suggestion in Claudio’s language that they have progressed as far as “handfasting”—“She is fast my wife”—but it seems that if such a ceremony took place it was none too public, for the couple were concerned to keep their relationship secret from Juliet’s relatives (“her friends”) because the matter of the dowry was as yet an unresolved concern. Nevertheless, Claudio and Juliet have begun their sexual relationship, as has become all too evident in Juliet’s visible pregnancy. From Claudio’s viewpoint, he and Juliet have some justification for thinking they are married; again, as he says, “She is fast my wife.” (As Hayne shows, this view was widely shared in Shakespeare’s England by the many couples who thought of themselves as married before completing all the steps toward wedlock and who therefore engaged in sexual relations before solemnizing their marriage in church.) Most of the other characters in the play who voice an opinion take Claudio’s viewpoint, even though those in the play who figure human conduct in religious terms all regard Claudio and Juliet as having sinned, as do the couple themselves. Only Angelo, who alone seems to have the power to enforce his viewpoint, regards Claudio as a criminal deserving of death for fornication, or pre-marital sex. Angelo’s judgment and Viennese law appear extremely harsh—far harsher than English church law or social custom of the period—but Angelo’s charge that Claudio engaged in pre-marital sex has some basis: from one contemporary viewpoint, the church’s, Claudio and Juliet are not yet married.

And, it later becomes clear, Angelo himself and his betrothed, Mariana, are in a comparable situation. Indeed, this couple have proceeded through many more of the steps toward marriage than have Juliet and Claudio, even though Angelo now reserves to himself the state of a single man. The duke describes the situation of Angelo and Mariana:

[Mariana] should this Angelo have married, was affianced to her oath, and the nuptial appointed. Between which time of the contract and limit of the solemnity, her brother Frederick was wracked at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister. But mark how heavily this befell to the poor gentlewoman. There she lost a noble and renowned brother, in his love toward her ever most kind and natural; with him, the portion and sinew of her fortune, her marriage dowry; with both, her combinate husband, this well-seeming Angelo . . . [who] left her in her tears and dried not one of them with his comfort, swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor; in few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them but relents not.


From the duke’s account it would seem that Angelo and Mariana had taken all the steps toward marriage, including successful dowry negotiations, up to the wedding itself, and that Angelo had backed out when the promised dowry vanished in a shipwreck just before the date set for the wedding. Because, in Shakespeare’s England, the commitment to marriage became stronger the more steps the couple took toward their wedding, Angelo is much closer to being married to Mariana than Claudio is to Juliet. Claudio publicly honors his vows to Juliet in accepting responsibility for her pregnancy, while Angelo abandons Mariana to her grief, defaming her reputation to justify his act. Perhaps this difference in the number of steps taken goes part of the way toward explaining why the duke, in disguise as friar, can assure Mariana that because Angelo “is your husband on a precontract [a pre-existing contract of marriage]. / To bring you . . . together [sexually] ’tis no sin” (4.1.79–80). (Strictly speaking, the duke is in error; the church regarded sex before the wedding as a sin. Indeed, the duke acknowledges the church’s viewpoint when he insists that Angelo’s last act be to marry Mariana in order to remove from her reputation any possible stain for pre-marital sex.) Thus Angelo and Mariana, like Claudio and Juliet, are, as Christy Desmet also notes, both married and not married, depending on whether one takes the duke’s viewpoint expressed in 4.1 or Angelo’s expressed in 5.1, but the duke’s claim that Angelo is Mariana’s “husband” has more legal and social support. (For a different interpretation of the Angelo-Mariana relationship, see the “Modern Perspective.”)

The last couple whose progress toward marriage has been halted prematurely are Lucio and Kate Keepdown. The play gives us little information about them; they seem to have been at a very early stage on the way to marriage when their sexual relationship began. According to Mistress Overdone, Lucio promised Kate marriage and impregnated her (3.2.200–2); Lucio foolishly confides to the friar (who is the duke in disguise) that he fathered a child upon a woman and then denied paternity under oath (4.3.184–87). It would seem then that Lucio and Kate got no further than a private promise to marry, rather than a handfasting before witnesses, because there were no witnesses to contradict Lucio’s perjury. Yet, this private promise binds Lucio to marry Kate when the duke enforces the law.

The complex rituals and customs associated with marriage in Shakespeare’s day and the variety of perspectives available for the assessment of people’s marital states provide a rich mine of subject matter for Measure for Measure, a play that explores ethics, morality, and the law in ways generations of readers have continued to find fascinating long after the customs and rituals have changed.

3. Isabella and the Order of Poor Clares

When Shakespeare made Isabella a “votarist of Saint Clare”—that is, a member of the religious community of enclosed nuns known as the Order of Saint Clare—such religious orders had been gone from England for many decades. Despite this fact, both the dialogue of Measure for Measure and Isabella’s and Francisca’s names appropriately reflect the Order of Saint Clare.

The Order of Poor Clares, as it is popularly known, was founded by St. Clare in 1212 as a kind of sister order to the Franciscans, an order of friars devoted to the extraordinarily difficult task of living the lives of monks in the secular world. The first Clares were brought to England in the late thirteenth century, where a convent was established just outside the walls of the City of London near Aldgate. This convent was turned over to Henry VIII in 1539, when Roman Catholic monastic establishments in England were dissolved; Henry in turn gave the convent to a Church of England bishop.

We do not know how Shakespeare obtained his information about Poor Clares or about life in enclosed convents, but the conversation between Sister Francisca and Isabella is remarkably in line with the “rule” under which the London convent of Poor Clares functioned. While most convents of Poor Clares operated under the Hugoline Constitutions, the London convent lived in accord with a rule popularly (and interestingly) known as “the Isabella Rule,” developed by the Blessed Isabella, sister of King Louis IX of France. Critics are now beginning to suggest that it is no coincidence that Shakespeare named his heroine “Isabella” and named the nun whom we meet “Francisca,” since the Clares are a Franciscan order.

A fifteenth-century manuscript, “The Rewle of Sustris Menouresses Enclosid,” gives the details of the Isabella Rule as it was practiced in the London convent. There are several points of similarity between this rule and the convent life described in Measure for Measure. For example, Isabella and Sister Francisca enter in 1.4 in the middle of the nun’s instructions to Isabella about the “restraints” upon the “sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.” Such a conversation is in line with “The Rewle of Sustris Menouresses Enclosid,” which instructs that “All those which this religious life shall take . . . before that they . . . shall enter into religious life, that it be well declared to them the hardnesses and the sharpnesses by which they come to joy of paradise and these which they shall be bound to after [i.e., in conformity with] this religious life.”

To take a second example: At the sound of Lucio’s voice, Francisca says to Isabella,

Turn you the key and know his business of him.

You may; I may not. You are yet unsworn.

When you have vowed, you must not speak with men

But in the presence of the Prioress.


In “The Rewle” are several paragraphs delineating who should control the key to the convent and explaining that “When anybody to any of the sisters shall speak, first shall the abbess be warned thereof . . . , and if she grant, then shall the sister speak with the stranger so that she have two other sisters at the least with her, that they must see and hear what that they do or speak. . . . The sisters [should] take good heed . . . that none of them . . . speak to no man that is entered but in the manner and by the ordinance foresaid. . . .” (There is no parallel in “The Rewle” to Francisca’s instructions in lines 13–14: “Then, if you speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak.”)

The relevance of this fifteenth-century manuscript to Measure for Measure was first pointed out by G. K. Hunter (“Six Notes on Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare Quarterly 15:3 [1964]: 167–72). Darryl J. Gless seems to have been the first to note that it was, in fact, possible for Shakespeare to have seen the manuscript, since it was owned by Charles Howard, earl of Nottingham and patron of the acting company known as the Admiral’s Men. Howard donated the manuscript to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library in 1604, the year that Measure for Measure was probably written. (See Gless in the “Further Reading.”) The manuscript of “The Rewle of Sustris Menouresses Enclosid” was published in A Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book and Two Franciscan Rules, “edited from a xv century ms. in the Bodleian Library, with an introduction, notes, and glossary by Walter W. Seton” (London: Early English Text Society, 1914, rpt. 1937, pages 63–119). We found Seton’s introduction particularly helpful in drafting this part of the Historical Background. We have modernized the language quoted from “The Rewle.”

4. Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure has as its title a biblical allusion that is also a highly suggestive part of the play’s dialogue. The duke embeds the play’s title in a context that alludes to more than one biblical passage:

The very mercy of the law cries out

Most audible, even from his proper tongue,

“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death.”

Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;

Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.


Several of the biblical allusions in this passage would suggest that the words “measure . . . for measure” are drawn from the Old Testament, which often develops the theme of retribution found in the duke’s speech just quoted. Compare the speech to Leviticus 24.19–21, for example:

And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbor as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.

Closely similar language is also to be found in Exodus 21:23–25, “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” and in Deuteronomy 19:19–21, “Then shall ye do unto him as he had thought to have done unto his brother. . . . And thine eye shall not pity, but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” The duke’s speech thus creates a strong impression that “measure for measure” belongs to a class of Old Testament texts that authorize and even seem to require a merciless imposition of penalties for wrongs that are precisely equal in severity to the wrongs.

However, the phrase “measure for measure” can also be associated with biblical passages from the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount, which develops a theme of mercy that explicitly contradicts the Old Testament’s emphasis on retribution: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 5.38–39, 7.1–2). (One finds comparable language in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”) The action in the play that may be most in harmony with this New Testament context of the play’s title is Isabella’s renunciation of any desire for revenge against Angelo and her plea to the duke to spare Angelo’s life, even though she is still laboring under the misinformation that Angelo has put Claudio to death. Critics have suggested that the duke uses the phrase “measure for measure” in his speech to Isabella as a hint to her about her Christian obligation to mercy.

Whether or not we read the duke’s speech in this way, implications of the New Testament passages associated with the phrase “measure for measure” may seem to resonate throughout this play. These New Testament passages remind all judges not to impose penalties on those within their power without reflecting on their own faults and their own dependence on divine mercy. In trying to persuade Angelo to revoke the death penalty for Claudio, Escalus encourages Angelo to engage in such reflection:

Let but your Honor know,

Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue,

That, in the working of your own affections,

Had time cohered with place, or place with wishing,

Or that the resolute acting of your blood

Could have attained th’ effect of your own purpose,

Whether you had not sometime in your life

Erred in this point which now you censure him,

And pulled the law upon you.


Later, the duke, disguised as a friar, twice refers to the obligations that the New Testament imposes on Angelo to require of others a moral standard no higher than the one that Angelo himself has achieved in his own life. On one occasion, speaking to Escalus, the duke seems to threaten Angelo:

If [Angelo’s] own life answer the straitness of his proceeding, it shall become him well; wherein if he chance to fail, he hath sentenced himself.


On another occasion the duke pretends to defend Angelo’s harshness on the grounds that Angelo’s own life is the very model of perfect rectitude requisite for such judgmental harshness:

    His life is paralleled

Even with the stroke and line of his great justice.

He doth with holy abstinence subdue

That in himself which he spurs on his power

To qualify in others. Were he mealed with that

Which he corrects, then were he tyrannous,

But this being so, he’s just.


This sample of passages from Measure for Measure indicates the importance, without exhausting the implications, of the biblical allusion in the play’s suggestive title.