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Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare

Other authors: Thomas Middleton (probable reviser)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,762432,572 (3.65)136
Telling his followers he is leaving the city on affairs of state, the Duke of Vienna appoints the puritanical Angelo to govern in his absence. Will Angelo prove as virtuous as he seems once power is in his hands? Roaming the city disguised as a friar, the duke looks on as Angelo's lust for the virtuous Isabella sweeps him into the corruption he has so sternly condemned in others. The duke's manipulation at last produces a happy ending for this dark comedy, with its brilliant exploration of the themes of justice and mercy.… (more)

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The play examines the complex interplay of mercy and justice. Shakespeare adapted the story from Epitia, a tragedy by Italian dramatist Giambattista Giraldi (also called Cinthio), and especially from a two-part play by George Whetstone titled Promos and Cassandra (1578).

The play opens with Vincentio, the benevolent duke of Vienna, commissioning his deputy Angelo to govern the city while he travels to Poland. In actuality, the duke remains in Vienna disguised as a friar in order to watch what unfolds. Following the letter of the law, Angelo passes the death sentence on Claudio, a nobleman convicted for impregnating his betrothed, Juliet. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice in a nunnery, pleads his case to Angelo. This new deputy ruler, a man of stern and rigorous self-control, finds to his consternation and amazement that he lusts after Isabella; her virgin purity awakens in him a desire that more profligate sexual opportunities could not. Hating himself for doing so, he offers to spare Claudio’s life if Isabella will have sex with him. She refuses and is further outraged when her brother begs her to reconsider. On the advice of the disguised Vincentio, Isabella schedules the rendezvous but secretly arranges for her place to be taken by Mariana, the woman Angelo was once engaged to marry but whom he then disavowed because her dowry had been lost. Afterward, Angelo reneges on his promise to save Claudio, fearing that the young man knows too much and is therefore dangerous. Vincentio, reemerging at last from his supposed journey, presides over a finale in which Angelo is discredited and ordered to marry Mariana. Claudio, having been saved from execution by the secret substitution of one who has died in prison, is allowed to marry Juliet. Lucio, an engaging but irresponsible woman chaser and scandalmonger, is reproved by Vincentio and obliged to marry a whore with whom he has had a child. The rascally underworld figures (the bawd Mistress Overdone, her pimp Pompey, and her customer Froth) who have exploited the sexual freedom of Vienna despite the wonderfully inept policing attempts of Constable Elbow are finally brought to justice, partly through the careful supervision of the magistrate Escalus. Vincentio asks Isabella to give up her idea of being a nun in order to become his wife. ( )
  Marcos_Augusto | Jan 20, 2022 |
43. Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
originally performed: 1604
format: 223-page Signet Classic
acquired: June
read: Aug 16 – Sep 19
time reading: 14:27, 3.9 mpp
rating: 4
locations: Vienna
about the author: April 23, 1564 – April 23, 1616

[[Sankalapuram Nagarajan]] – editor (c1964, 1988, 1998)
[[Sylvan Barnet]] – series editor (c1963, 1988, 1998)
[[G. Wilson Knight]] – Measure for Measure and the Gospels (1949)
[[Mary Lascelles]] – from [2045459::Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure] (1953)
[[Marcia Reifer Poulsen]] – “Instruments for some more mightier member”: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure (1984)
[[Ruth Nevo]] – Complex Sexuality (1987)
[[Sankalapuram Nagarajan]] – Measure for Measure on Stage and Screen (c1964, 1988, 1998)

Our latest Shakespeare group read on Litsy. It's odd that this is considered one of Shakespeare's better plays. It's mainly provocative, generating frustration from an involved audience or reader. The play centers on a sexual assault, a sleep-with-me-or-else scenario, and a ruling duke playing director, resolving all the problems. But this duke creates problems for the audience. We aren't satisfied. The bad guys aren‘t punished and the good one is strained by dilemma, and then mid-play she becomes a humble role player in the Duke's production. Our good guy is Isabella, a young attractive nun who spends the whole play trying to preserve her chastity in a impossible situation controlled by the surrounding men. The play ends with the duke marrying her...

A more detailed synopsis here: The setting is a Vienna whose general character is captured by the wide spread of syphilis. The ruling Duke takes a leave to visit some other place, and places the city in the hands of the a known extremely upright citizen, Angelo. The Duke doesn't actually leave, he disguises himself as a friar and stays in town to see what will happen. Angelo starts enforcing Vienna's neglected draconian laws, and condemns Claudio to execution for impregnating his unofficial fiancé. Claudio begs his sister Isabella's help. She is becoming a nun in an extreme order of St. Claire. She pleads Claudio's case to Angelo, who, after huffing and puffing about how he's just all about the law, gives Isabella the ultimatum, sleep with me or Claudio dies. Isabella, caught in this dilemma, goes to her brother with the intention of his accepting this as unreasonable, but Claudio wants to live.

At this point the play takes a turn. The Duke in disguise works out resolutions, and then has to figure out what to do when everything starts to go wrong. He becomes something of a harried director, working out how everyone should shake out and then trying to fix whatever backfires. First he uses the bed trick and has Isabella swap herself out with Angelo's own spurned ex-fiancé. (it works) Later he has deal with Angelo's reneging. Instead of releasing Claudio, he moves up his execution to immediate, afraid of Claudio seeking a revenge of honor. In the end the Duke takes off his disguise and places judgment of everyone. No one dies, Angelo is dealt with. Claudio is released, and Isabella's chastity is preserved. And then the Duke slips in that he will marry Isabella.

There are source stories, but Shakespeare manages within the framework for his own purposes. It becomes a look at variations of self righteousness within variations of power and control. Power corrupts. Self-righteousness is flaw. And, the titles notes a prominent theme: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.", Matthew 7:1-2.

I enjoyed this play, but more it riled me up and led to great conversations in my group. It's not artistic and moving, like say Hamlet, as much as it is upsetting. And the play's history doesn't help. In the 1940's the Duke was popularly viewed as a divine, Jesus-like figure, saving everyone. This view was pushed in a 1948 essay by [[G. Wilson Knight]] (included in the Signet edition) and performances followed along. That perspective is practically criminal from some standpoints, including my own expressed here. On the surface to Duke is a good guy. Underneath he's really a kind of monster. He creates the problems and then get what he wants out of it, and gets away with it. I think as an audience we're supposed to see that and be really annoyed. And to have a audience critically buy into him and see him as a Jesus-like hero seems to add another level to what he gets away with. Of course, interpretation is all open to social trends and personal perspectives, including those within our self-identified #metoo era. (I think most contemporary performances are more nuanced and more aware of the display of powerplay, and the abuse of the powerless.)

https://www.librarything.com/topic/333774#7612203 ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Sep 25, 2021 |
The scene with Isabella and Claudio in the prison is, I think, one of the best Shakespeare scenes of all times. There's almost nowhere else where you get something like it, two good characters who love each other but bring each other immense pain because they fundamentally disagree-- Isabella believes that nothing is worth staining her soul, and Claudio is terrified to die, and neither can understand each other and are betrayed and made desperate by the other's stance. Measure is such an interesting play because the challenges of the plot don't come from contrivance (like mistaken identity in Comedy of Errors or miscommunication in R&J) or from a villain who schemes for no discernible reason (Iago in Othello or Much Ado's Don John) but from characters who really seem to have genuine beliefs that, because of the complex nature of the legal and moral world of Vienna, happen to be at cross-purposes. The closest the play gets to a meddling villain is its hero(?), Duke Vincentio, who reads like a Prospero with the shine off.

There are no bad roles in this play, each one has something to think about and struggle with-- Mariana the lover of the loathsome, Lucio the good friend and bad citizen, the put-upon middleman of the Provost, beset Julietta, earnest and malaprop-ing Elbow, Escalus the kindly justice hemmed in by his duty to the Duke. There are some truly great scenes, and lots that are difficult to wrangle but have a lot of potential for depth. Basically, I love the problem plays, and this one takes the cake.

By the way, do yourself a favor and read about Davenant's The Law Against Lovers, a mid-17th century adaptation that combined the plot with Much Ado About Nothing, and yes, it seems to be as weird as that sounds. ( )
1 vote misslevel | Sep 22, 2021 |
To me, this one seemed a little less convoluted than some of Shakespeare's plots. It's fairly straightforward, and—to me, at least—all the more enjoyable for that.

The fact that it deals with a crooked ruler abusing his power also tended to resonate with me, in these days of Trump.

The thing that bothered me was, at the end, did anything really change? The Duke, toward the beginning, bemoans the fact that, for years, the laws had been flouted and never enforced, and that a strong hand was needed to restore order and justice. Obviously, Angelo was the wrong man for the job, but...in the end, did anything change? Did I miss something? ( )
  TobinElliott | Sep 3, 2021 |
If ever you need an example of an old-school fuckboy, look no further than Shakespeare’s Angelo! Very quickly in the play he became one of my least favourite literary characters, because he immediately proved himself to be a total pedant for rules, an unfair judge of people who differ from himself, and an absolute hypocrite! Shakespeare is known for his dramatic characters who reveal the darker side of human nature (along with the brighter and more whimsical), so technically Angelo plays his part in revealing how power-mad some people can get when they’re zealots, but that doesn’t make it any easier to identify with Angelo. If one learns anything by this play (besides never trusting anyone to be reasonable or truthful) it’s that one should never be an ass because karma will ensure that you are given what you deserve. ( )
  JaimieRiella | Feb 25, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (102 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Shakespeareprimary authorall editionscalculated
Middleton, Thomasprobable revisersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baldini, GabrieleEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Barnet, SylvanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Braunmuller, Albert RichardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Briggs, JuliaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brooke, C. F. TuckerEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harding, DavisEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harrison, George B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hart, H. c.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kittredge, George LymanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Knight, Wilson G.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lamar, VirginiaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lascelles, MaryContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lever, J. W.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nagarajan, SankalapuramIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nevo, RuthContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nosworthy, J.M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Poulsen, Marcia RieferContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Watson, Robert N.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wright, Louis B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kill for faults of his own liking.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.
They say, best men are moulded out of faults,

And, for the most, become much more the better

For being a little bad.
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This work is for the complete Measure for Measure only. Do not combine this work with abridgements, adaptations or simplifications (such as "Shakespeare Made Easy"), Cliffs Notes or similar study guides, or anything else that does not contain the full text. Do not include any video recordings. Additionally, do not combine this with other plays.
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Telling his followers he is leaving the city on affairs of state, the Duke of Vienna appoints the puritanical Angelo to govern in his absence. Will Angelo prove as virtuous as he seems once power is in his hands? Roaming the city disguised as a friar, the duke looks on as Angelo's lust for the virtuous Isabella sweeps him into the corruption he has so sternly condemned in others. The duke's manipulation at last produces a happy ending for this dark comedy, with its brilliant exploration of the themes of justice and mercy.

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