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Measure for Measure, MFFE Version 1.02 with castcards for 6 – 12 readers

Measure for Measure - bookIntroduction:

The Play:

The First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays includes Measure for Measure in the comedies. A Shakespearean comedy usually involves young couples in love, struggling to overcome difficulties (internal or external), before the celebration of marriage at the end of the play.

Measure for Measure doesn’t really fit well into this structure. Sure, there are lots of marriages at the end of the play, but love seems to be mostly absent. Mariana, who only enters the play in Act IV, loves Angelo, but he does not love her. Claudio and Julietta are a loving couple, but their relationship plays only a small part of the play. Isabella is probably as surprised as we are when the Duke proposes to her, and it is not certain that she accepts him. And Lucio is not at all happy to be marrying his whore, Mistress Kate Keepdown, the mother of his child.

The relationship at the heart of the play, between Angelo and Isabella is certainly nothing to do with love. Both seem to have repressed their sexuality, Isabella is a nun, and Angelo is a puritan, ‘begot between two stockfishes’ and ‘his urine is congealed ice’.

When Angelo is put in the powerful position of being able to grant the supplicant nun Isabella’s desire to save her brother’s life, his sexuality breaks through his self-imposed bonds, and he offers her a trade: her brother’s life for her body.

Love, in Measure for Measure, seems to have been replaced by sex and power relationships.

The categorisation of Measure for Measure as a comedy was questioned by F. S. Boas in Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896) who suggested that it (along with some other plays) should be called as a ‘Problem’ play, because it dealt with a social problem – prostitution, or in modern terms, the male attitudes shown to women in the play.

Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure in 1603 – 1604, using Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra as his primary source for the story of Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio. The first known performance of the play was at King James’ Christmas celebrations on Boxing Day, 1604.

The title of the play is linked to a verse from the Sermon of the Mount: “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.”

The story of Angelo, Claudio, and Isabella explores Elizabethan / Jacobean ideas about sex and power, and Justice, Equity and Mercy, in a Christian context. The puritanical Angelo shows no mercy to Claudio, Pompey Bum and the other habitués of Mistress Overdone’s brothel, and eventually asks none for himself.

Isabella is a novitiate nun, required to suppress her sexuality, though it still pops out in times of stress in the language she uses. When she pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life, he falls in lust with her, and proposes an exchange: her brother’s life for her body. She becomes angry with him, and tries to blackmail him with this proposition for her brother’s life. When this fails, she becomes angry with her brother for pleading for his life at the expense of her virginity. At the end of the play, thinking her brother dead at Angelo’s hands, she overcomes her reservations to request mercy for Angelo, when asked to do so by Mariana.

As well as this story of Angelo and Isabella, there is in Measure for Measure, the story of the Duke of Venice who is concerned with the “properties” of government, and with “sufficiency” in office. This political sub-plot is obviously significant given that the Duke’s role is the largest (839 lines in the MFFE edition), nearly twice as large as Isabella’s part (439 lines). It is also Shakespeare’s main addition to his source, Promos and Cassandra.

There is also a significant comic sub-plot, involving a suburban brothel run by Mistress Overdone for whom Pompey Bum works as a bawd, or pimp, and the clientele, including Lucio, a friend of Claudio. Angelo has banned all brothels in the suburbs and so all the characters involved with the brothel are at risk of arrest, and most of them do end up in prison.

Lucio acts as a bridge between the comic sub-plot and the main story. Claudio asks him to tell Isabella, Claudio’s sister, that he has been arrested and is to be executed. Lucio does this, and supports Isabella in her first pleading with Angelo. In the later Acts, when the Duke is working hard to make sure that all turns out well, Lucio acts as a foil to the disguised Duke, running him down to his face, and in Act V, he interrupts the trial scene with his own, unwished for, and usually wrong comments on the proceedings.

As the play is a comedy, it ends with all happily resolved, with Isabella having learned compassion, and Angelo contrite and married to Mariana, and pretty much everyone married to someone.

The Context:

Elizabeth I died on March 24th 1603. James I (of England) succeeded her, unifying the English and Scottish crowns. On 5th April, James left Edinburgh, on a slow progress through England, reaching London on 7th May, and was crowned on 25th July.

On his way south, James publicly dramatized a personal interpretation of the ageless conflict between mercy and justice. As Davidson points out in The Role of James I in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: ‘As carefully reported in the anonymous The True Narration, a cut-purse was taken ” doing the deed ” at the King’s temporary court, at ” New-warke upon Trent.” April 21, 1603. The King saw his chance to demonstrate his theories, and, abruptly: his Majestie . . . directed a Warrant, presently . . . to have him hanged. . . . The King ere he went from New-warke, as he had commanded this Silken base thief, in justice to be put to death, so in his benign and gracious mercy, he gives life to all the other poor and wretched prisoners, clearing the Castle of them.’

This example of the King’s view of Justice and Mercy was well-reported in London.

How did the change from Queen Elizabeth to James I affect the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and Shakespeare in particular? Twelve days after arriving in London, James issued a royal patent which gave a Charter to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as “The King’s Men”. Nine of the leading members, including Shakespeare, were made Grooms of the Chamber and were each given 4 ½ yards of red cloth for their costumes at the coronation.

There was intense interest in the new king in London, the first new English monarch in nearly fifty years. Rumours about him and his character circulated. These were stimulated by the publication of James’ book on statecraft addressed to his son, Basilikon Doron, published in 1603 in London, which went through four editions in that year.

It was obviously important to Shakespeare and The King’s Men, that they establish themselves in favour with the new king. By Christmas 1604, when they performed eleven of the fourteen or fifteen plays put on at court they had achieved this.

A play they performed that Christmas was Measure for Measure. The play was no doubt designed to increase their favour with the King, because the Duke’s political opinions closely matched King James’. In his article, The Role of James I in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure David Stevenson points out:

James, as demonstrated by the incident at Newark outlined above, was known to have a fascination with Justice and Mercy. This is one of the important themes of Measure for Measure.

James was known to have a distaste for displaying himself in front of the noisy London crowds. The Duke has two or more speeches which reflect this:

I’ll privily away. I love the people
But do not like to stage me to their eyes…
(I. i. 68-73)


The general, subject to a well-wish’d King,
Quit their own part, and in obsequious fondness
Crowd to his presence, where their untaught love
Must needs appear offence.
(II. iv. 24-30)

Even more persuasively, Davidson demonstrates that Shakespeare carefully mined the Basilicon Doron in order to be able to dramatise the intellectual interests of his new patron in his comedy.

It seems clear that Shakespeare, at the very least, increased the importance of the Duke in the story of Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio, and made the Duke’s views reflect those of the new King, in order to interest and flatter him. This may explain why the Duke has such a large role in the play, but we still need to see whether that inflated role ‘works’ in the completed play.

It must be remembered that early Jacobean England was a strong Christian culture. Henry VIII had broken with the Pope and the Catholic Church to become Head of the Church in 1533, primarily to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn in the hopes of begetting a male heir. Since then, England had drifted away from Catholic beliefs and towards Protestant beliefs. Perhaps the biggest driver for change was the printing of the Bible in English which allowed each Englishman who could read to make his own mind up about Christian dogma.

Whether Catholic or Protestant, the Jacobean Englishman and woman were likely to have a firm belief in damnation for sinners, so Isabella’s claim that ‘Better it were a brother died at once, Than that a sister, by redeeming him, Should die for ever’ would have a strength which perhaps it does not today.

Similarly, a belief in a life of sacrifice in a nunnery would be better understood then, than it would today in a world where most people aim for self-realization.

Also, Measure for Measure explores Christian thinking about Justice, Mercy, Equity, and the role of marriage which would be familiar to a Jacobean audience, but requires careful study to become familiar to most modern audiences.

The Plot:

The Duke of Vienna (Vincentio) thinks that Vienna has become too sexually permissive, and so decides to take ‘leave-of-absence’. He leaves a puritanical subordinate, Angelo, as his deputy, to tighten up the moral climate.

Claudio, who is living with Juliet, has made her pregnant but is not formally married to her. Under a law forbidding sex outside marriage, Angelo arrests and sentences him to death.

Angelo also decides to close all the brothels in the suburbs. This provides a comic sub-plot, involving Pompey Bum, a pimp; Mistress Overdone, a brothel-keeper; Elbow, a police constable, and various gentlemen, clients of the brothel, including Lucio, most of whom urge Angelo to adopt a more pragmatic approach to prostitution.

When Lucio hears of Claudio’s arrest and forthcoming execution, he tells Isabella, a novitiate nun, and sister of Claudio. Isabella meets with Angelo, and encouraged by Lucio, tries to persuade him to let Claudio live. She uses her considerable intelligence and knowledge of rhetoric, but Angelo is not persuaded. However, despite his puritanical past, he finds himself sexually attracted to Isabella:

O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints doth bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigour, art, and nature
Once stir my temper: but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite.

He asks Isabella to meet with him again the next day when they continue their rhetorical debate. At that meeting, he suggests to Isabella that, if she sleeps with him, he will let Claudio live, though in fact, he intends to have Claudio executed come what may. Isabella rejects his offer in rather sensual, or even masochistic language:

Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies
And strip myself to death as to a bed,
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.

She rushes off to prison to tell Claudio that he must die, because she will not yield her virginity, and so her eternal soul, to save his life. She is disappointed to find that he is not very keen to die to preserve her virginity, and attacks him, again in sexually charged language:

O you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life
From your sister’s shame!

Luckily the Duke, disguised as a Friar, overhears their conversation, and contrives a number of tricks to save Isabella and Claudio from Angelo:

First, he proposes a ‘bed trick’ to Isabella. He suggests that she tell Angelo that she agrees to meet him somewhere dark so that he can make love to her. Mariana, who was engaged to Angelo and still loves him, will make the rendezvous instead of Isabella. Isabella and Mariana are happy to agree to this plan.

Secondly, he devises a trick for Claudio. Angelo insists that Claudio is executed and that Claudio’s head is sent to him as proof of his death. To save Claudio, the Friar proposes that Barnadine, a criminal, be executed, and his head sent instead of Claudio’s. When Barnadine refuses to be executed, another criminal, Ragozine, obligingly dies, and his head is sent to Angelo.

Next, the Duke writes to Angelo and his court to say that he is returning to Vienna, and wants to be met at the gates by Angelo, the court, and any individual who wants to make a complaint about the administration in his absence.

The play is now set up for Act Five. The Duke arrives at the gates of Vienna, is met by Angelo, and Isabella denounces Angelo’s behaviour implying that he has deflowered her. Angelo denies this, but Mariana comes forward to say that she lay with Angelo, to replace Isabella.

After many twists and turns, it comes out that the Duke stayed in Vienna disguised as a friar, and was aware of all that went on.

Angelo confesses his crime. He is forced to marry Mariana, and then is be executed, but when Isabella, still believing that Claudio has been killed by him, calls for mercy to be shown to Angelo, he is allowed to live.

Claudio, who has been hidden by the Duke, is revealed alive, and marries Juliet, his pregnant girlfriend.

Lucio, who has irritated the Duke by being rude about him on every conceivable occasion, is punished by being forced to marry a prostitute that he has made pregnant.

And a final surprise – the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella in front of the assembled Viennese citizens and dignitories. She is so surprised that she doesn’t speak again after the Duke’s proposal, making her response to his offer ambiguous. In most productions, she accepts the Duke, taking on the responsibilities of wife and eventual motherhood, instead of becoming a nun.

C21 performance considerations:

Having read the play out loud a number of times in playreadings, and having watched the BBC version, it seems that the play causes a number of difficulties for a modern audience:

the Duke’s behaviour in the second half of the play, is unacceptable – male authoritarian figures with arbitrary power are no longer acceptable – even if one imagined the Duke as a trickster figure.

all the women who have been involved in readings agreed that all the female roles in the play were subservient to the men, which of course is no longer acceptable. Personally, I do not read Isabella as subservient to anyone.

Christians who read the play found it much easier to accept than non-Christians

Those who had seen the play nearly all accepted these reservations but said that, on stage, the play works.

And yet the play explores our attitudes to sex, something of great interest to most, so how can it be presented to make sense to a modern audience?

Leaving aside The Duke, the story focuses on Angelo, Claudio, and Isabella, with a comic sub-plot involving Pompey Bum, Mistress Overdone, and the prisoners. This comic sub-plot is certainly amusing enough to play well, and Lucio is a very amusing part, so there seems to be no real difficulty with the comic sub-plot.

The story of Angelo and Isabella is powerful, and both characters grow in the play.

All this provides the basis for an interesting production, so we are left with two main problems for a modern audience:

the Duke’s behaviour in the second half of the play, is unacceptable – male authoritarian figures with arbitrary power are no longer acceptable – even if one imagined the Duke as a trickster figure.

all the women who have been involved in readings agreed that all the female roles in the play were subservient to the men, which of course is no longer acceptable. Personally, I do not read Isabella as subservient to anyone.

These should not be insurmountable in a production. A number of options come to mind:

Setting the play in an authoritarian dictatorship might make the Duke’s behaviour believable

Setting the play in Freud’s Vienna, might make the female subservience comprehendable

Emphasising the religious environment of the play through music and set

For a sophisticated audience, taking a leaf out of Mabou Mines production of Ibsen’s Dollshouse directed by Lee Breuer (see the Mabou Mines DVD) could be fun. The ‘post-dramatic’, ‘melodramatic’ style of this production would help a lot with some of the difficulties of Measure to Measure: The acting style allows for rapid oscillations between tragic and comic, particularly relevant for the trickster Duke’s machinations in the second half; the self-referential, mocking, approach would again help to defuse the cultural difficulties in Measure for Measure, as it does in The Dollshouse

I am almost tempted to take up my director’s baton again.

Downloads available:

Measure for Measure MFFE Version 1.02 Playreading / Production pack for 6 – 12 readers

 Without Notes:

Measure for Measure MFFE Version 1.02 epub

Measure for Measure MFFE Version 1.02 for Kindles 

 Measure for Measure MFFE Version 1.02 as a pdf 

Measure for Measure MFFE Version 1.02 as a Microsoft Word doc