edited by J. W. Lever
In a city swamped by impotent law and sexual decadence, Shakespeare reveals repressed desire, skewed hypocrisy and arbitrary justice. His only play to be set in Vienna, Measure for Measure has, along with Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well, been labelled a ‘problem play’, although in its first appearance in print in the 1623 First Folio, it is listed under the ‘Comedies’. Using conventional literary and dramatic devices such as the bed trick and the disguised ruler (whose humanist piety some critics have seen as a direct nod to the newly crowned James I), the play’s main source lies in the Italian writer Cinthio’s prose Hecatommithi (1565) (whence Shakespeare had also drawn the inspiration for Othello). Shakespeare reworks Cinthio’s tragic ending of rape and execution so that his play ends, as is usual for a comedy, in multiple marriages.
The Duke of Vienna lends his power to the uncompromising Angelo and pretends to leave the city, but remains disguised as a friar. Angelo begins to enforce the city’s neglected laws, and condemns Claudio to death for getting Juliet pregnant out of wedlock. Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, begs Angelo for mercy, but he falls in love with her. He offers her a bargain: Claudio will be released if Isabella sleeps with Angelo. Isabella will not consent, even when her brother encourages her.
The Duke, who was visiting Claudio in prison still disguised as a friar, overhears Isabella talking to Claudio. He suggests they trick Angelo into thinking that he is sleeping with Isabella, but he will really be sleeping with Marianna, his ex-fiancée whom he abandoned.
Their trick is successful but Angelo does not pardon Claudio: he is still to be executed, and his head sent to Angelo. The Duke intervenes, and gets the Provost to agree to send another prisoner’s head instead – initially Barnadine’s, but then Ragozine’s when Barnardine refuses to be executed.
The Duke ‘returns’ to the city as himself. Isabella, not recognising him as the Friar who helped her, begs him for justice. The Duke pretends to dismiss her. Mariana arrives as a witness. The Duke re-enters as the Friar. When he reveals himself, Angelo confesses and the Duke orders him to marry Mariana then condemns him to death: Angelo is pardoned when Mariana pleads for him. Claudio is revealed to be alive. The Duke proposes to Isabella.
The first record of performance for Measure for Measure was at the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, on 26th December 1604, though it was probably composed and performed earlier that year. The play’s exploration of illicit sexuality led to it being underperformed or bowdlerised throughout the centuries that followed its publication; at the start of the twentieth century, critics and practitioners ‘uncovered’ the play’s emphasis on grace and divine atonement.