51 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

Measure For Measure

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1604

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Measure for Measure is a play written by William Shakespeare. It was first performed in 1604 and is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because of its ambiguous tone that shifts between tragedy and comedy. Shakespeare was a prolific poet and playwright during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. While his earlier works were primarily comedies and histories, Measure for Measure was written during the period in which Shakespeare began to write many of his most well-known tragedies. While the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s works, the First Folio of 1623, classified Measure for Measure as a comedy, its dark subject matter and somber tone has much in common with tragedy as well. The play explores the concepts of justice, hypocrisy, and mercy, questioning how the law can be righteously enforced when humans are all tempted to sin.

This guide uses the version found in The Works of Shakespeare (The Globe Edition), published in 1866 and available online at Open Source Shakespeare.

Content Warning: Measure for Measure depicts sexual coercion, which this guide describes and discusses.

Plot Summary

Measure for Measure is set in the city of Vienna, ruled by Duke Vincentio. The Duke decides to leave the city, designating the strict and incorruptible Angelo as his deputy until he returns. Angelo agrees to enforce the city’s laws in Vincentio’s absence.

Soon after the Duke’s departure, a young gentleman named Lucio learns from the brothel operator Mistress Overdone that his friend, Claudio, has been imprisoned by Angelo. While Claudio is far more upstanding than Lucio, who has impregnated a sex worker and refuses to marry her, Claudio is set to be executed for getting his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant before they were legally married. Lucio goes to find Claudio. Meanwhile Pompey, a bartender and pimp at the brothel, laments that Angelo‘s harsh enforcement of the city laws is damaging the business of the brothels in the city suburbs.

Claudio runs into Lucio on his way to prison and asks him to find Isabella, Claudio‘s virtuous sister, so that she can beg Angelo for mercy. Lucio goes and finds Isabella about to enter a convent of nuns, but he convinces her that her persuasive speech might be able to move Angelo to change his mind and spare her brother. She goes to an audience with Angelo and argues that all men are tempted by the sin of fornication, and therefore it is right to show mercy to those who violate the law against it.

Angelo is fascinated by Isabella’s piety and beauty, becoming ironically tempted by her goodness. He offers her a bargain wherein he will release Claudio if she agrees to give up her virginity and have sex with him. Isabella refuses, claiming that this would damage her immortal soul’s chance of salvation while her brother’s earthly life is inevitably going to end. Angelo reminds her that his upstanding reputation will protect him if she considers trying to expose his corrupt request.

Meanwhile, Duke Vincentio has not actually left the city, but has instead disguised himself as a friar called Lodowick. He explains that he wanted Angelo to begin enforcing the laws again to avoid appearing like a tyrant, and he is staying to observe the impact of this change upon Vienna’s society. He counsels Claudio to prepare himself for death through prayer and piety, but overhears Isabella telling her brother about Angelo’s offer. Realizing Angelo’s hypocrisy, the disguised Vincentio arranges a trick to save Claudio and spare Isabella’s soul. He brings Isabella to a local woman named Mariana who was once engaged to marry Angelo, but he coldly refused to wed her after she lost her dowry in a shipwreck. They plan a “bed trick,” a common trope of Renaissance drama wherein the two women will switch places in the dark and Angelo will have sex with Mariana instead of Isabella. Vincentio also arranges with the provost of the prison to have another criminal’s head sent to Angelo in place of Claudio’s, although he conceals this plan from Isabella so she will think that her brother is truly dead. Additionally, Vincentio converses with Lucio, who accuses the duke of being foolish, lecherous, and incompetent, all without realizing that he is speaking to the man in disguise.

After Angelo has sex with Mariana, believing her to be Isabella, he sends orders to the prison commanding that Claudio should still be executed. Isabella is furious when she realizes his dishonesty, but Vincentio counsels her to wait until the duke returns to make a public accusation. He puts aside his friar disguise and sends word that he is returning and will meet Angelo publicly by the city gates when he arrives.

When Vincentio returns, Isabella and Mariana expose Angelo’s corruption. While Vincentio pretends not to believe them at first, he allows them to rationally explain what occurred and present their testimony as evidence. He then appears in the disguise of Friar Lodowick again to confirm the story. However, Lucio pulls off Lodowick’s hood during the trial, exposing that he was the duke all along.

Angelo immediately confesses his crimes and begs to be executed. However, Mariana pleads for his life, asking Vincentio to be merciful and allow him to become a better man as her husband. Isabella joins Mariana in asking for mercy, even though she still believes that Angelo executed her brother. Vincentio finally reveals that Claudio is alive and proposes marriage to Isabella. She does not respond to his request. In the final sequence, Lucio is finally punished for slandering the duke and impregnating a sex worker. Vincentio forces him to marry the woman and then has him hung for his crimes.

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