Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's most notoriously complex plays. Incorporating elements of both comedy and tragedy, the play elicits both spontaneous laughter, and genuine concern. Is the ending cheerful or cathartic? Are the characters saved or doomed? Is justice served, or is Vienna thrown even further into the tumultuous gray area between right and wrong? While there may not be easy answers to any of these questions, it might help to first wrap your head around the play's scholarly context. Check out Max Shulman's thoughts on the play's literary features before you get your tickets.
Measure a Measure of Funny in Form
At the turn of the 16th century, a genre of play known as the “city comedy” became popular with London audiences. Plays such as Ben Jonson’s Everyman in his Humor and Thomas Middleton’s The Family of Love were making the boards, dramatizing the misdeeds and mischief of the gritty city. Urban environments featured people from all different places, classes, and denominations, and mixing them together made for intrigue. William Shakespeare, well-established by then as the Globe Theatre’s ace playwright, wanted to cash in on the popularity of the genre and wrote his version around 1603. Shakespeare never seems content with standard forms, so Measure for Measure has as much in common with traditional tragedies as it does with comedies. Certainly, it’s uproariously funny, has lots of plot turns (a telltale of comic structure as the machine of comedy is fueled by happenstance and chaos), and ends with the multiple marriages that signify a traditional comedy. However, the play reads a lot like one of the Bard’s darker works. Its villain is not a bumbling fool or troublemaking fairy, but a legitimately dangerous individual (he’s not alone, as Much Ado’s Don John is no saint). The action of the play is sparked by a traditional tragic device known as the “monstrous bargain” in which a woman is asked to give her maidenhead for the life of her lover, father, or brother. And the play’s resolution comes in the form of another tragic trope called the “bed trick” (which I’ll leave to you to define). The marriages at the end of the play may indeed fulfill comic design, but they are essentially between strangers, and more by writ than by love. Like other city comedies, the play prominently features the workings of urban commerce, but Shakespeare’s characters are bartering not in standard goods, but in flesh and death.
Just look at Angelo and Isabella. Tragedy has always been interested in absolutists. Immovable objects and unstoppable forces make for good conflict that can’t end well. Take Sophocles’ Antigone versus Kreon, Euripides’ Pentheus versus Dionysus, or Ibsen’s Brandt versus everyone. Angelo begins as an absolutist. He believes in moral clarity and that he is an instrument of that clarity, but he falls to that human impulse that tugs at all our hearts, minds, and loins. The irony is that Isabella is another absolutist, or more appropriately, a true devotee, who inadvertently prompts his move from puritan to profligate.
The ease of Angelo’s fall draws attention to Shakespeare’s central point, which is the flimsiness of morality as a concept. How can simple moral clarity exist among the chaos and variety that makes up a city? The city manifests the unruly and changeable nature of humankind and those in the play that attempt to control it are doomed to fail. The play literally begins with a supposed moral leader quietly abdicating for a pilgrimage of self-discovery. Whether you find Vincentio selfish or admirable, his actions seem to undermine the very notion of a system of rule. Between Vincentio and Angelo, we see how laissez-faire and judicial puritanism both fail as forms of governance. You might call Angelo harsh and Isabella fanatical, but first recognize the absence of moderation in the world around them. How difficult it becomes to isolate the righteous from reproachable. Shakespeare asks: can you have commerce without treachery? Love without lust? Faith without freedom? The play is full of these conflicts and oppositions. As always, Shakespeare raises such questions, but strategically avoids giving answers. Perhaps what we can conclude is that what is the rule and what is right, what is prescribed and what is compassionate are rarely related to each other.
— Max Shulman, Assistant Professor, UCCS