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Measure for Measure /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Measure for Measure

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Measure for Measure, for example, you will find the words kersey (coarse cloth), foppery (foolishness, folly), sith (since), and foison (abundance). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Measure for Measure, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Measure for Measure, for example, the word meat has the meaning of “food” in general (rather than a particular kind of food), owe is used where we would say “own” or “possess,” straight is used where we would say “immediately,” friends where we would say “relatives,” and unhappy where we would say “unfortunate.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to establish the multiple settings in which the fiction of his play is to be imagined as taking place. Measure for Measure brings together worlds that we in modern culture ordinarily regard as being widely separated from each other. The first of these is the highest level of public administration and of the justice system of Vienna, built up for us in the play’s opening dialogue with reference to “terms of common justice,” “deputation,” and “secondary,” or subordinate. By the play’s second act, however—and repeatedly thereafter—the elevated language of this world is brought into connection with accounts of an underworld of organized prostitution, of a “hothouse,” a “whoremaster,” and a “trot.” Thus Measure for Measure brings together, with some satiric effect, two language worlds that are conventionally regarded as far removed from each other in terms of respectability. Into these worlds comes Isabella, who is first presented to us in an altogether distinct setting, the convent, which becomes vivid to us with such terms as “votarists,” “renouncement,” and “Prioress.” The collision of perspectives that makes for intense drama in Measure for Measure arises in part from the play’s bringing together characters who come from such different settings.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech pattern or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. In reading for yourself, do as the actor does. That is, when you become puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Look first for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often rearranges verbs and subjects (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Measure for Measure, when Lucio says “Upon his place . . . / Governs Lord Angelo,” he is using such a construction. (The “normal” arrangement would be “Lord Angelo governs.”) The duke also inverts subject and verb when he says “Then was your sin of heavier kind than his.” Shakespeare frequently places the object before both the subject and the verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”) or between the subject and the verb (“I him hit”). Escalus’s “A power I have” is an example of such an inversion, as is Isabella’s “men their creation mar.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, the duke’s “Old Escalus, / Though first in question, is thy secondary”; here the phrase “Though first in question” separates the subject (“Escalus”) from its verb (“is”). Or take the duke’s lines “We have with a leavened and preparèd choice / Proceeded to you,” where the normal construction “We have proceeded” is interrupted by the clause “with a leavened and preparèd choice.” In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words in the way exemplified in this discussion. You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions—a structure that is sometimes used in Measure for Measure. When Isabella is challenging Angelo’s authority for condemning her brother to death, she uses a striking example of such an expanding construction:

           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.


Here, after stating the subject of her sentence (“man”), Isabella postpones the verb “plays” until she has fully characterized “man” in a profoundly disturbing way as exercising Godlike authority with no better judgment than “an angry ape.”

Often in Measure for Measure, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Angelo uses such a construction just as he is about to declare his desire for Isabella to her:

And from this testimony of your own sex,

Since I suppose we are made to be no stronger

Than faults may shake our frames, let me be bold.


The basic sentence elements do not appear until his last four words (“let me be bold”). The emphasis thus falls on the basis for his conviction that Isabella must succumb to his advances, namely, her own testimony that women are “ten times frail” (“this testimony of your own sex”), and his belief that human beings are not strong enough to withstand temptation (“we are made . . . no stronger than faults may shake our frames”).

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In Measure for Measure omissions both maintain the rhythm of the blank verse and contribute to the strong sense of urgency that marks the play. For example, when Angelo is being addressed by his own servant and by the supplicant Isabella, both the servant and Isabella use elliptical constructions as if to signal that Angelo presents himself as so occupied with the administration of justice in Vienna that he will not take the time to hear any more words from others than are absolutely necessary to convey meaning. His servant announces Isabella to him with the words “Here is the sister of the man condemned / Desires access to you” (instead of saying “Here is the condemned man’s sister who desires access to you”), and Isabella introduces her petition to Angelo saying “I have a brother is condemned to die” instead of “I have a brother who is condemned to die.” Angelo too addresses himself in soliloquy in language marked by omission, as if the efficient use of language is so habitual to him that it conditions even his innermost thoughts: “God in my mouth, / As if I did but only chew His name, / And in my heart the strong and swelling evil / Of my conception.” The more standard construction would be “God [is] in my mouth” and “in my heart [is] the strong and swelling evil.”

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will discuss in any detail only three kinds of wordplay, puns, similes, and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). Much of the humor of Measure for Measure depends on puns. One pair of puns early in the play arises in the first speech of the First Gentleman, who is apparently hopeful of bettering himself through service in a military campaign he expects the Duke of Vienna to join in leading against the King of Hungary: “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!” The first pun in this speech involves the word peace, which has two meanings here. Initially its meaning is “Heaven’s peace” or “God’s peace,” which is asked for in the familiar prayer Dona nobis pacem, “grant us thy peace.” But this use of the word peace becomes a pun when the word acquires the second meaning of “peace treaty” (in “the King of Hungary’s” peace). And the First Gentleman’s speech also employs the contemporary pun on “Hungary/hungry” and on “Hungarians” as “hungry people.” The suggestion is that if peace between warring dukedoms and kingdoms is achieved, he and other soldiers will go hungry.

When these would-be soldiers are approached by the bawd Mistress Overdone, they begin to pun on words about money and syphilis, both associated with prostitution (syphilis being particularly virulent in the period of this play):

LUCIO  Behold, behold, where Madam Mitigation
comes! I have purchased as many diseases under
her roof as come to—

SECOND GENTLEMAN  To what, I pray?

LUCIO  Judge.

SECOND GENTLEMAN  To three thousand dolors a year.

FIRST GENTLEMAN  Ay, and more.

LUCIO  A French crown more.


In the Second Gentleman’s line, “To three thousand dolors a year,” the word dolors means “pains” or “diseases,” including venereal diseases; however, coming after the earlier lines “I have purchased . . . diseases,” dolors is also a pun on “dollars.” And Lucio’s use of the term French crown is a pun that refers both to a coin and to syphilis, which, in a slur on the French current in England at this time, was known as the “French disease.”

Metaphors and similes are plays on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. Similes make the verbal act of comparison explicit through the use of “like” or “as”; metaphors simply assert their identification of one thing with another. One particularly vivid simile from early in the play is given to Claudio:

          Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that raven down their proper bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die.


Here he compares the ravenous appetite exhibited by rats for the poison prepared to destroy them (“their proper bane”) with human inclination toward evil and with the deathly consequences, in his case, of having yielded to that inclination.

Vivid though Claudio’s figure of speech is, a series of figures employed by the duke in the first scene is perhaps more typical of the play. Like Claudio’s simile, the duke’s figures are concerned with morality, but, as so often in the language of Measure for Measure, they borrow the terms of their comparison from the Bible, specifically from the Christian New Testament. In the following passage the duke begins by alluding to Luke 8.16, which reads: “No man when he lighteth a candle covereth it under a vessel . . . but setteth it on a candlestick that they that enter in may see the light.”

          Thyself and thy belongings

Are not thine own so proper as to waste

Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do.

Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues

Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike

As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touched

But to fine issues, nor nature never lends

The smallest scruple of her excellence

But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines

Herself the glory of a creditor,

Both thanks and use.


In the passage in Luke’s Gospel, the light of the candle stands for a gift from God bestowed on an individual, a gift that, as the passage indicates, carries with it the obligation that the individual use it for the benefit of others. Drawing on this passage, the duke constructs a simile in which Angelo’s God-given “virtues” are “lamps”—torches lit by “Heaven” for the good of others, not just for himself. As the passage develops, however, it abandons its biblical allusiveness in favor of the language of economics, and it takes up a combination of metaphor and simile. “Nature” is first presented to us, in a metaphor, as a person making a loan: “nature never lends. . . .” This metaphor is followed by a simile in which nature is explicitly compared to a “thrifty goddess, [who] determines herself the glory of a creditor.” In her role as “creditor,” she seeks to profit from “use,” that is, “interest” on her loan. But “use” is also a pun, for it means not only “interest” but also the use, for the benefit of others, to which the creature who receives nature’s excellence is obliged to put it.

Measure for Measure often contains such series of figures of speech as we have observed in the duke’s words, series that are complicated because of the succession and interrelation of the figures. Such weighty language is perhaps necessary for a play that, though comic in structure, centers upon issues of lust, prostitution, disease, tyranny, betrayal, and death. The characters, represented as trying to come to terms with inner and outer pressures, are often given contorted language to reflect their emotional turmoil and to pull us deeply into their struggles.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions” (of which there are few in the early printed text of Measure for Measure); some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Occasionally the dialogue of Measure for Measure calls for actors to perform vivid gestures, such as Lucio’s struggle with the duke in the last scene, during which the hood of the friar’s robe in which the duke is disguised is pulled from his head, revealing his identity. Much of the action demanded by the play’s dialogue, however, is more routine. For example, at the beginning of the play, when the duke says to Escalus “There is our commission, / From which we would not have you warp,” it is reasonably clear that with these words the duke hands Escalus a document, and we provide a stage direction to this effect. Again, later in the play when a messenger enters and addresses the provost with the words “My lord hath sent you this note,” it is fairly certain that this dialogue is accompanied by the transfer of a letter from the messenger to the provost. And so again we provide a stage direction that says as much: “giving Provost a paper.”

Even such routine action can present problems if the dialogue appears to indicate that while one character is proffering a document to another, the intended recipient is hesitant to take what is offered. Such problems emerge very early in Measure for Measure when the duke says to Angelo “Take thy commission,” and Angelo tries to dissuade the duke from creating him deputy:

                                          Now, good my lord,

Let there be some more test made of my mettle

Before so noble and so great a figure

Be stamped upon it.


Responding to Angelo, the duke then says in part “Therefore, take your honors,” an order not very different from his earlier command “Take thy commission.” The repetition of the initial command leaves indeterminate the precise location in the dialogue at which Angelo accepts his commission from the duke. In terms of the culture of early seventeenth-century Europe, it seems to us quite unlikely that a subject (Angelo) would defy the first royal command “Take thy commission” and leave the duke holding out the document to him while Angelo tries, in humble words, to persuade the duke to reconsider the appointment; we have therefore inserted after this first command the stage direction “He hands Angelo a paper.” Some directors choose to have Angelo wait to accept the commission until the second command, “Therefore, take your honors,” and a good actor can make Angelo’s hesitation an effective moment.

We fully recognize, then, that even though we as editors have placed stage directions where we feel reasonably sure our suggestions are valid, readers, directors, and actors will need to use their own imaginations and their own understandings of the play for their individual stagings.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.