Measure for Measure

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John Philip Kemble as Vincentio in the 1794 rendition of Measure for Measure John Philip Kemble (1757-1823), as Vicentio in 'Measure for Measure' by William Shakespeare, 1794 British School Victoria and Albert Museum.jpg
John Philip Kemble as Vincentio in the 1794 rendition of Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1603 or 1604 and first performed in 1604, according to available records. It was published in the First Folio of 1623.


The play centers on the despotic and puritan Angelo, a deputy entrusted to rule the city of Vienna in the absence of Duke Vincentio, who instead disguises himself as a humble friar to observe Angelo's regency and the lives of his citizens. Angelo persecutes a young man named Claudio for the crime of fornication, sentencing him to death on a technicality, only to fall madly in love with Claudio's sister, a chaste and innocent nun named Isabella, when she comes to plead for her brother's life.

Measure for Measure was printed as a comedy in the First Folio and continues to be classified as one. Though it shares features with other Shakespearean comedies, such as the use of word play and irony, and the employment of disguise and substitution as plot devices, it also features tragic elements such as executions and soliloquies, with Claudio's speech in particular having been favorably compared to the speeches of tragic heroes like Prince Hamlet. [1] [2] It is often cited as one of Shakespeare's problem plays due to its ambiguous tone.


Synopsis and themes

Claudio and Isabella (1850) by William Holman Hunt William Hunt Claudio and Isabella Shakespeare Measure for Measure.jpg
Claudio and Isabella (1850) by William Holman Hunt
Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais John Everett Millais - Mariana - Google Art Project.jpg
Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, must leave the city on a diplomatic mission. He instates a strict judge, Angelo, to act as his deputy until he returns.

The next scene opens with Lucio and a group of soldiers bantering on the topics of religion, prostitution, and sexual disease, as they walk along a Viennese street, hopeful that they will soon find work when war breaks out with Hungary. Mistress Overdone, the operator of a nearby brothel, interjects to scold them for their flippant talk. She compares their bad behavior to that of the relatively upstanding Claudio, who is, she tells them, soon to be executed for the crime of sleeping with a woman out of wedlock. One of the gentlemen, Claudio's friend, Lucio, a "fantastic", is astonished at this news and rushes off. Pompey Bum, an employee of Mistress Overdone, enters as he leaves, bringing more distressing news: Angelo has issued a proclamation that all the brothels in the suburbs are to be torn down.

Pompey Bum, as he was portrayed by nineteenth-century actor John Liston John Liston as Pompey in Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare (cropped).jpg
Pompey Bum, as he was portrayed by nineteenth-century actor John Liston

Claudio is led past Pompey and Overdone by the Provost as they speak, and explains to Lucio what has happened to him. Claudio was engaged to be married to his lover, Juliet, but, as they had not yet completed the legal technicalities, they were still considered to be unmarried when Juliet became pregnant by him. Angelo, as the interim ruler of the city, has enforced laws that Vincentio had let slide, including an outdated legal clause stating that fornication is punishable by death. Hearing this, Lucio leaves to visit Claudio's sister, the novice nun Isabella, and asks her to intercede with Angelo on Claudio's behalf.

Following Lucio's revelation to her, Isabella quickly obtains an audience with Angelo, and pleads for mercy on Claudio's behalf. As they exchange arguments, Angelo is increasingly overcome with his desire for Isabella, and he eventually offers her a deal: Angelo will spare Claudio's life if Isabella yields him her virginity. Isabella refuses and threatens to publicly expose his lechery, but he points out that no one will believe her word over his reputation. She leaves to visit her brother in prison, and counsels him to prepare himself for death. Claudio desperately begs Isabella to save his life, but Isabella, though torn, ultimately repeats her refusal to yield to Angelo, citing a belief that it would be wrong for her to sacrifice her own immortal soul (and that of Claudio, if his entreaties were responsible for her loss of her virtue) to save Claudio's transient earthly life.


Duke Vincentio, meanwhile, has not truly left the city. Instead, he has donned a disguise as a friar named Lodowick, wanting to secretly view the city's affairs and the effects of Angelo's temporary rule. In his guise as a friar, he befriends Isabella, and with her arranges two tricks to thwart Angelo's evil intentions:

Mariana (1888) by Valentine Cameron Prinsep Prinsep - Mariana.jpg
Mariana (1888) by Valentine Cameron Prinsep
  1. First, a "bed trick" is arranged. Angelo has previously refused to fulfill a betrothal binding him to the lady Mariana, despite her love for him, because her dowry was lost at sea. Isabella comes to an agreement with Mariana, then sends word to Angelo that she has decided to submit to him with the condition that their meeting occurs in perfect darkness and in silence. Mariana takes Isabella's place and has sex with Angelo, who continues to believe it was Isabella in bed with him. In some interpretations of the law this constitutes consummation of their betrothal, and therefore their marriage; notably, this same interpretation would also make Claudio's and Juliet's marriage legal.
  2. After having sex with Mariana (believing her to be Isabella), Angelo goes back on his word. He sends a message to the prison that he wishes to see Claudio beheaded, thus necessitating the "head trick". The Duke attempts to arrange the execution of another prisoner whose head could be sent in Claudio's place. However, the dissolute criminal Barnardine refuses to be executed in his drunken state. Instead, the head of Ragozine the pirate is sent to Angelo; Ragozine had recently died of a fever, and was fortunately of similar appearance to Claudio.


The plot comes to a climax with the "return" to Vienna of the Duke himself. Isabella and Mariana publicly petition him, and he hears their claims against Angelo, which Angelo smoothly denies. As the scene develops, it appears that Friar Lodowick will be blamed for the accusations leveled against Angelo. The Duke leaves Angelo to judge the cause against Lodowick, returning in his disguise when Lodowick is summoned moments later. When Angelo attempts to seal the case against Lodowick, the Duke reveals himself, thereby exposing Angelo as a liar and confirming the allegations brought by Isabella and Mariana. He proposes that Angelo be executed, but first compels him to marry Mariana, so that his estate may go to Mariana as compensation for her lost dowry.

Mariana pleads for Angelo's life, even enlisting the aid of Isabella (who is not yet aware her brother Claudio is still living). The Duke pretends not to heed the women's petition, until he reveals that Claudio has not, in fact, been executed, at which point he relents. The Duke then proposes marriage to Isabella. Isabella does not reply, and her reaction is interpreted differently in different productions: her silent acceptance is the most common variation, and for Shakespeare's audiences, would have been interpreted as an unequivocal "yes", meaning that additional dialogue was unrequired. This is one of the "open silences" of the play, and has been widely interpreted by various adaptations.

A sub-plot concerns Claudio's friend Lucio, who frequently slanders the duke to the friar, and in the last act slanders the friar to the duke, providing opportunities for comic consternation on Vincentio's part and landing Lucio in trouble when it is revealed that the duke and the friar are one and the same. Lucio's punishment is to be forced into marrying Kate Keepdown, a prostitute whom he had impregnated and abandoned.


The play's main themes include justice, "morality and mercy in Vienna", and the dichotomy between corruption and purity: "some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall". Mercy and virtue prevail, as the play does not end tragically, with virtues such as compassion and forgiveness being exercised at the end of the production. While the play focuses on justice overall, the final scene illustrates that Shakespeare intended for moral justice to temper strict civil justice: a number of the characters receive understanding and leniency, instead of the harsh punishment to which they, according to the law, could have been sentenced. [3] Vincentio's reappearance is considered an early use of the deus ex machina in English literature. [4]

Source texts

The play draws on two distinct sources. The original is "The Story of Epitia", a story from Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, first published in 1565. [5] Shakespeare was familiar with this book as it contains the original source for Shakespeare's Othello . Cinthio also published the same story in a play version with some small differences, of which Shakespeare may or may not have been aware. The original story is an unmitigated tragedy in that Isabella's counterpart is forced to sleep with Angelo's counterpart, and her brother is still killed.

A 1793 painting by William Hamilton of Isabella appealing to Angelo Isabella appealing to Angelo (Hamilton, 1793).jpg
A 1793 painting by William Hamilton of Isabella appealing to Angelo

The other main source for the play is George Whetstone's 1578 lengthy two-part closet drama Promos and Cassandra, which itself is sourced from Cinthio. Whetstone adapted Cinthio's story by adding the comic elements and the bed and head tricks. [5] :20

The title of the play appears as a line of dialogue:

An Angelo for Claudio, death for death:
Haste still paies haste, and leasure, answers leasure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure:

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, act V, scene i

It is generally understood to be a biblical reference to the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 7: [6]

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 2

Peter Meilaender has argued that Measure for Measure is largely based on biblical references, focusing on the themes of sin, restraint, mercy, and rebirth. [7] Amongst such Gospel comparisons, [8] [9] the Gospel of Matthew has been viewed as a source.

A 2016 essay by the literary critic Giuseppe Leone analyses parallels between the episode of Claudio's supposed beheading and that of John the Baptist, as narrated in Matthew 14:1–12. In particular, Leone argues that in Shakespeare's treatment of the perpetrator's demand for Claudio's head there is an expression of Angelo's pleasure in his power to have his will enacted, and to reap satisfaction from that power through the tangible token: He orders the severed head be brought "for my better satisfaction". The demand for the Baptist's head from Herodias, through her daughter, fulfils a similar function. Herod Antipas' public oath of providing Herodias' daughter with whatever she demanded ensured the Baptist's execution, without necessitating the production of his remains. In Leone's view, his stepdaughter's demand, "Give me here John Baptist's head on a platter" serves the same purpose of allowing for self-satisfied gloating in power over others. Neither of the source texts, from Cinthio and Whetstone, have anything similar. The executed victim in those works is ordered to be sent to the sister, without either of the perpetrators, Iuriste and Promos, showing any interest in obtaining or viewing the remains. Their satisfaction comes solely from their mistreatment of the sister. For Leone, this divergence from Measure's literary precursors and its concurrence with the Gospel text, constructs a strong case for Matthew's Gospel as a source. [10]

Date, text and authorship

The first page of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, printed in the First Folio of 1623 First-page-first-folio-measure-for-measure.jpg
The first page of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, printed in the First Folio of 1623

Measure for Measure is believed to have been written in 1603 or 1604. The play was first published in 1623 in the First Folio.

In their book Shakespeare Reshaped, 1606–1623, Gary Taylor and John Jowett argue that part of the text of Measure that survives is not in its original form, but rather the product of a revision after Shakespeare's death by Thomas Middleton. They present stylistic evidence that patches of writing are by Middleton, and argue that Middleton changed the setting to Vienna from the original Italy. [11] Braunmuller and Watson summarize the case for Middleton, suggesting it should be seen as "an intriguing hypothesis rather than a fully proven attribution". [12] David Bevington suggests an alternate theory that the text can be stylistically credited to the professional scrivener Ralph Crane, who is usually credited for some of the better and unchanged texts in the Folio like that of The Tempest . [13]

It is generally accepted that a garbled sentence during the Duke's opening speech (lines 8–9 in most editions) represents a place where a line has been lost, possibly due to a printer's error. Because the folio is the only source, there is no possibility of recovering it. [13]

Performance history

Isabella (1888) by Francis William Topham Topham - Isabella.jpg
Isabella (1888) by Francis William Topham

The earliest recorded performance of Measure for Measure took place on St. Stephen's night, 26 December 1604.

During the Restoration, Measure was one of many Shakespearean plays adapted to the tastes of a new audience. Sir William Davenant inserted Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing into his adaptation, called The Law Against Lovers . Samuel Pepys saw the hybrid play on 18 February 1662; he describes it in his Diary as "a good play, and well performed"—he was especially impressed by the singing and dancing of the young actress who played Viola, Beatrice's sister (Davenant's creation). Davenant rehabilitated Angelo, who is now only testing Isabella's chastity; the play ends with a triple marriage. This, among the earliest of Restoration adaptations, appears not to have succeeded on stage.

Charles Gildon returned to Shakespeare's text in a 1699 production at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Gildon's adaptation, entitled Beauty the Best Advocate, removes all of the low-comic characters. Moreover, by making both Angelo and Mariana, and Claudio and Juliet, secretly married, he eliminates almost all of the illicit sexuality that is so central to Shakespeare's play. In addition, he integrates into the play scenes from Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas , which Angelo watches sporadically throughout the play. Gildon also offers a partly facetious epilogue, spoken by Shakespeare's ghost, who complains of the constant revisions of his work. Like Davenant's, Gildon's version did not gain currency and was not revived.

John Rich presented a version closer to Shakespeare's original in 1720. [14]

In late Victorian times, the subject matter of the play was deemed controversial, and there was an outcry when Adelaide Neilson appeared as Isabella in the 1870s. [15] The Oxford University Dramatic Society found it necessary to edit it when staging it in February 1906, [15] with Gervais Rentoul as Angelo and Maud Hoffman as Isabella, and the same text was used when Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton staged it at the Adelphi Theatre in the following month. [16]

William Poel produced the play in 1893 at the Royalty and in 1908 at the Gaiety in Manchester, with himself as Angelo. In line with his other Elizabethan performances, these used the uncut text of Shakespeare's original with only minimal alterations. The use of an unlocalised stage lacking scenery, and the swift, musical delivery of dramatic speech set the standard for the rapidity and continuity shown in modern productions. Poel's work also marked the first determined attempt by a producer to give a modern psychological or theological reading of both the characters and the overall message of the play. [17]

"Measure for Measure" Act II, Scene 1, the Examination of Froth and Clown by Escalus and Justice (from the Boydell series), Robert Smirke (n.d.) 'Measure for Measure', Act II, Scene 1, the Examination of Froth and Clown by Escalus and Justice (from the Boydell series) Robert Smirke (1753-1845) Royal Shakespeare Theatre.jpg
"Measure for Measure" Act II, Scene 1, the Examination of Froth and Clown by Escalus and Justice (from the Boydell series), Robert Smirke (n.d.)

Notable 20th century productions of Measure for Measure include Charles Laughton as Angelo at the Old Vic Theatre in 1933, and Peter Brook's 1950 staging at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with John Gielgud as Angelo and Barbara Jefford as Isabella. [18] In 1957 John Houseman and Jack Landau directed a production at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City that starred Nina Foch and Richard Waring (Jerry Stiller appeared in the minor role of Barnardine). [19] In 1962, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a production directed by John Blatchley starring Marius Goring as Angelo and Judi Dench as Isabella. The play has only once been produced on Broadway, in a 1973 production also directed by Houseman that featured David Ogden Stiers as Vincentio, Kevin Kline in the small role of Friar Peter, and Patti Lupone in two small roles. [20] In 1976, there was a New York Shakespeare Festival production featuring Sam Waterston as the Duke, Meryl Streep as Isabella, John Cazale as Angelo, Lenny Baker as Lucio, Jeffrey Tambor as Elbow, and Judith Light as Francisca. [21] In April 1981 director Michael Rudman presented a version with an all-black cast at London's National Theatre. [22] Rudman re-staged his concept at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1993, starring Kevin Kline as the Duke with André Braugher as Angelo and Lisa Gay Hamilton as Isabella. [23] In 2013, Robert Falls directed a version set in 1970s pre-Disney Times Square, New York at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. [24] This version was available for streaming between April 26 and May 9, 2021. [25]

Between 2013 and 2017, the theatre company Cheek by Jowl staged a Russian-language version of the play in association with the Pushkin Theatre, Moscow, and the Barbican Centre, London. The production was directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod. [26] [27]

In 2018, Josie Rourke directed a uniquely gender-reversal production of the play at the Donmar Warehouse in London, in which Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell successively alternate the roles of Angelo and Isabella. [28] [29]

Adaptations and cultural references

1899 illustration by W. E. F. Britten for Tennyson's "Mariana" W.E.F. Britten - The Early Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson - Mariana.jpg
1899 illustration by W. E. F. Britten for Tennyson's "Mariana"

Film adaptations

Radio adaptations

Musical adaptations

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