Arbitrary Morality Under the Public Panopticon in Measure For Measure

William Shakespeare, the alleged author of "Measure For Measure".

William Shakespeare, the alleged author of “Measure For Measure”.

Measure For Measure (an Elizabethan version of Undercover Boss) is considered by some to be one of the problem plays among the canon of work that has been attributed to Shakespeare, though it was listed as a comedy in the First Folio.  This seems to me to be the appropriate classification as, though it does have some macabre elements, its plot does seem to fit the prototypical outline of a comedy.  It begins with a tragic situation (Claudio is sentenced to death) and ends in several marriages; four in fact, as many as As You Like It, and nobody, save a pirate who died of fever, is met with death.  I’d have to say, there seems little room for an argument for this play to be anything other than a comedy.  Though I wouldn’t consider it a ‘problem play’, that does not mean it is not without its problems, neither though is it without its merits.  Regardless of what genre one may feel the play falls under, it is not the genre that makes the play so great, but rather its commentary on themes such as: justice, mercy and revenge, and its commentary on arbitrary morals and how people feel compelled to act one way publicly, in accordance with social contrivances, an another way in private, where the ever watching eye if the panoptical public is not present.


Kate Nelligan, who played Isabella in the 1979 film adaptation of "Measure For Measure".

Kate Nelligan, who played Isabella in the 1979 film adaptation of “Measure For Measure”.

The edition I read was the Arden edition edited with an introduction by J.W. Lever.  I wasn’t enamoured with the introduction and it didn’t seem to offer as much in the way of analysis as some of the other Arden editions.  In fact, of the four Arden editions I have, this is by far the shortest introduction, and it read, for the most part, more like the editor’s notes than an introduction. Much of it is spent discussing the problems with the text, or rather the corruption of the text though instances of revision and changes made by typesetters.  Upon reading Lever’s introduction, I felt as though the work had been filtered through so many people that the original author was no longer even present in the text and that it would therefore be not worth reading (though this is not the case).  Another large portion of the introduction discusses the origin story.  Shakespeare, it seems, never had an original bone in his body.  Each of the plays attributed to Shakespeare were lifted from other stories and he would simple make changes and format them for the stage.  It is perhaps unfair to suggest that there was no originality in them of course, as he often made drastic changes and, most would argue, greatly enhanced the source material.  The source material for most plays is clear, but for Measure For Measure, Lever suggests there are several viable options.  For me though, though it is relevant to know that there is room for corruption of the original text, neither this fact, nor the actual source material, is that important to me because no definitive answers can be provided and, as such, all we have is the text before us.  Whichever portions the author added or took away from the source material is redundant, because the bottom line is that the author (outside of the corruption of the text) chose to keep whatever is present in the text.  These two issues take up perhaps more than half of the introduction, or at least very close to half, and so leaves little room for analysis, though Lever does provide some insightful analysis as well.



"The Best Little Whore House In Texas" shares some similar themes with "Measure For Measure".

The Best Little Whore House In Texas” shares some similar themes with “Measure For Measure”.

As is the case with many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, this play’s is moved by some interesting female characters, though they are perhaps not as well rounded as some of the other women in the Shakespearean canon, and the reader is left wanting more in some instances, most notably with Mistress Overdone.  Overdone is the madam of a brothel in a community where morality laws, though always present, are now being strictly enforced.  One is reminded of The Best Little Whore House In Texas in plot, though Measure For Measure places the brothel as a peripheral element in the play, and not the focus.  Still, it would have been interesting to hear an argument articulated by Overdone in defense of her practices, much as George Bernard Shaw did in his masterpiece Mrs. Warren’s Profession.  Juliet and Mariana are both interesting, but both have small roles and so it is Isabella who the audience spends most of its time with.  She is a woman about to enter a nunnery before she discovers that her brother Claudio has been sentence to death for fornicating with Juliet (who herself faces no criminal charges, implying that women are perhaps not responsible for such actions), to whom he is betrothed, but because he could not afford a banns, the court does not recognize their relationship.  Isabella pleads with Angelo, the judge who has sentenced her brother, and is propositioned by Angelo; her body for her brother’s life.  One might assume that she would be torn, but she is not.  She rejects this outright on her own and when her brother asks her to do it, she is repulsed by him.  There are a number of interesting implications here, one being that it is the female who maintains her chastity.  We see similar themes in both The Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It. 


George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Professions" picks up on themes left unturned in "Measure For Measure" and allows a stronger female presence.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Professions” picks up on themes left unturned in “Measure For Measure” and allows a stronger female presence.

In these works there are women who are going out to travel on their own, and knowing the wantonness of men, opt to disguise themselves as men in order to preserve their maidenhead.  In both instances it is implied that not only are men willing to engaged in sex acts prohibited by social custom and even law, but that they would be more than willing to force themselves on women to do so.  Angelo, the judge, is willing to do the same here and Claudio is more than willing to pimp out his sister to save his own skin.  Isabella has no knight willing to fight for her virtue.  Her brother, were he an extension of the courtly tradition, should be willing to die to protect a maiden’s virtue, but instead she is asked to give up her virtue to protect him in an interesting reversal.  We see in these exchanges that the men are more concerned with their own needs and desires than they are with the virtue they are supposed to protect.  Inversely though, we see also that Isabella is more concerned with maintaining social conventions than she is with protecting the family which she claims to care so much about.  She claims that such an act would kill her soul, but being Christian she knows of the Christian god’s boundless forgiveness but still holds onto social conventions, suggesting that it is not simply concern for her soul that is preventing her submission to Angelo.


In Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons", Sir Thomas More remains silent, as Isabella does in "Measure For Measure".  Is this silence acceptance, or denial?  Or perhaps something else?

In Robert Bolt’s “A Man For All Seasons”, Sir Thomas More remains silent, as Isabella does in “Measure For Measure”. Is this silence acceptance, or denial? Or perhaps something else?

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, where the play takes place, pretends to be away, but disguises himself as a Friar throughout the narrative that he might witness the goings on in his community and observes how the judicial system works.  In the process he acts as puppeteer to Isabella and Mariana (who was betrothed to Angelo until Angelo called the wedding off when her dowry was lost at sea).  Vincentio orchestrates a plot in which Isabella maintains her chastity, and Angelo inadvertently consummates his betrothal to Mariana who poses as Isabella in a darkened room (sadly, this scene happens off stage).  Angelo is false to his word and orders Claudio executed regardless of his belief that Isabella has fulfilled her end of the bargain, but Vincentio ultimately brings all the parties together.  He orders Angelo’s execution, just as Angelo had ordered Claudio’s (measure for measure here, as per the scripture found in Matthew 7.1-2), but Isabella, who believes her brother to be dead, begs that he be spared, demonstrating true virtue and mercy.  In the end, Mariana and Juliet find marriage, Isabella, rather than going to the nunnery, is proposed to by Vincentio (since the prince is god’s representative on earth, Isabella still serves god as she would in the nunnery) and Vincentio also orders that Lucio marry the sex worker he claims to have gotten pregnant and deserted earlier in the play.  The marriage between Isabella and Vincentio is perhaps the most important as it is the culmination of the main purpose of the play.  Because secular law and religious law were at odds in court, Vincentio, the Duke, acts first as duke, then as a friar, fulfilling both secular and religious roles, and then proposes to a woman who was headed to the nunnery, acting as Isabella’s surrogate to Christ.  The play seems to ultimately present the prince or king as the representative of god on earth and therefore an amalgamation of the secular and religious.  It is perhaps important to note that Isabella doesn’t outright accept Vincentio’s proposal, but her silence is generally accepted as an acceptance of the proposal (though upon reading A Man For All Seasons, it is clear that silence can be taken in more ways than one).


Adrienne Corri, who portrayed Mistress Overdone in the 1979 film adaptation of "Measure For Measure".

Adrienne Corri, who portrayed Mistress Overdone in the 1979 film adaptation of “Measure For Measure”.

There is more to the play then simply defending the King as god’s representative on earth, as it also speaks to social constructs and how they work in opposition to nature.  We see how law works against nature, making illegal the natural sex act and punishing it.  This is the case with Claudio and with Mistress Overdone’s profession, which is thriving.  We see the law takes aim to charter the sex act and takes offence when the people fail to oblige the court’s authority, but we see also that the court is unable to heed its own instruction as Angelo twice fails to obey it, first be renouncing his betrothal (a legal contract), and then again by blackmailing Isabella into engaging in an unlawful sex act with him.  The natural world, it seems, cannot be tamed, even by those who are supposed to represent the force that is meant to control it.



Thomas Hobbes, author of "The Leviathan", which suggests humanity is in a natural state of war and needs a unifying fear/power to maintain peace.

Thomas Hobbes, author of “Leviathan“, which suggests humanity is in a natural state of war and needs a unifying fear/power to maintain peace.

There are also Hobbesian elements to the play.  Claudio, for example, states that from “too much liberty… [comes] the immoderate use… Our natures do pursue,/ Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/ A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die” (1.2.117-122).  Here, Claudio seems to be a mouthpiece for Hobbes, suggesting that in a natural state, humans lack restraint.  The Duke seems to reiterate this sentiment suggesting that when the rod is not used, it becomes “more mock’d than fear’d” (2.1.27).  This seems to suggest that the Hobbesian notion that a common fear among the masses induces peace.  Angelo furthers this when he argues that he does not wish to “make a scarecrow of the law,/ Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,/ And let it keep one shape till custom make it/ Their perch, and not their terror” (3.1.1-4).  Angelo seems to suggest the law must be rigid and perhaps ever changing so as to maintain the fear among the population.  His application though ultimately proves to be flawed as the Duke demonstrates that while an excess of liberty is counterproductive, so too is tyranny.  A middle way is what seems to work best at the conclusion of the play.


If I was playing fantasy casting director, I'd be sure to reserve a spot for Christina Hendricks in an adaptation of "Measure For Measure".  Perhaps Mistress Overdone, if only her role weren't so small.

If I was playing fantasy casting director, I’d be sure to reserve a spot for Christina Hendricks in an adaptation of “Measure For Measure”. Perhaps Mistress Overdone, if only her role weren’t so small.

The play works on many levels.  It is a satisfying narrative on most levels, even if, as is the case with most of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, there are some inconsistencies and plot flaws.  There is also a portion of the play where the Duke allows Isabella to believe her brother is dead, which serves a plot point, but he still comes across as an ass for doing it.  The female characters could have been more developed, and I feel like we missed out on some great dialogue with Mistress Overdone.  It would have also been interesting to see a development of the sex worker who was abandoned by Lucio.  It is one of the flaws of the play that the women are underrepresented and that the author chooses tell the story through male characters, despite the fact that the play focuses on Isabella’s moral conflict (even Overdone’s perspective is superseded by Pompey, who is a mere servant to Overdone).  Overall though, as far as the comedies attributed to Shakespeare, Measure For Measure is certainly among the best.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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