Measure for Measure

Main Characters

Isabella — a virtuous young woman; sister to Claudio

Vincentio — the Duke of Vienna; he spends most of his time disguised as a friar

Claudio — Isabella's brother; sentenced to death for impregnating an unmarried woman

Lord Angelo — a hypocrite who rules strictly and without mercy

Escalus — a wise lord who advises Angelo

Lucio — a flamboyant bachelor

Mariana — Angelo's fiancée

Mistress Overdone — a madam

Pompey — a clown who works for Mistress Overdone

Provost — the jailer

Elbow — a dimwitted constable

Barnadine — a prisoner in the jail

Juliet — Claudio's lover


Measure for Measure takes its title from the Gospel of Matthew: “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2), a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus' most famous sermons.

While some documents indicate it was first performed at court at Whitehall on St. Stephen's Night (December 26) 1604, others suggest that it was written and first performed earlier that year. Lucio's allusion to a hopedfor peace may well refer to King James I's attempts in 1604 to negotiate a peace agreement with Spain; the proclamation to tear down the brothels may refer to King James's edict in 1603 to tear down houses affected by the plague (the plague and venereal disease were often related in Renaissance literature). A number of critics have noted similarities between Duke Vincentio's and King James's dislike of crowds, his use of disguise, and his aversion to slander.

Giovanni Battista Giraldi (also known as Cinthio), an Italian writer and philosopher, first wrote this story as a 1565 novella called Hecatommithi, then as a play called Epita in 1583. Another dramatist, George Whetstone, wrote the story as a play in 1578 called Promos and Cassandra, and in 1581 Thomas Lupton wrote a play called Too Good to Be True.

The earliest, and thus most authoritative, text for the play is the First Folio, which was printed in 1623. The lack of stage directions suggests it is a prompt copy. Shakespeare took the source of the play from a real case in Italy. In 1547, a judge promised a murderer he would not be sentenced to death if the murderer's wife had sex with him. After he had enjoyed himself, the judge went back on his word and executed the man anyway.

The Play

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is concerned about what his people think of his ruling ability. To discover the truth, he appoints his deputy, Angelo, to rule in his place, saying he is taking a sabbatical. He empowers Angelo to enforce unpopular morality laws, mostly because he wants to maintain a good and fair image with his people and doesn't want to accept the unpopular task of being strict. Angelo, a zealot, is perfect for the task. Vincentio puts on a show of leaving, but he remains in town disguised as a monk.

Claudio's Death Sentence

Angelo's harshness upsets a lot of people, particularly when Claudio is arrested for getting his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant before they are married. Angelo condemns him to death. While agreeing with his moral stance, Claudio's sister, Isabella, nevertheless pleads with Angelo for her brother's life.

Angelo won't budge at first. Gradually, Isabella's beauty and chaste virtue excite him. He propositions her: He will pardon Claudio if she sleeps with him. Isabella turns him down, vowing that her chastity and honor are her life.

When she tells Claudio what happened, he at first goes along, but soon tries to talk his sister into trading her virtue for his life. Vincentio (in disguise) overhears their conversation and sets into motion a plot to save both Claudio and Isabella from their predicament.

The Duke Steps In

Duke Vincentio knows Angelo was once engaged to Mariana, who still loves him. He persuades Isabella to feign acceptance of Angelo's offer and when the moment comes, Mariana will switch places in the dark with Isabella (the bed trick of All's Well That Ends Well). Mariana agrees, and events go as planned except that after getting his way, Angelo orders Claudio's execution anyway.

Luckily, Duke Vincentio hears about this and persuades the jailer to substitute another condemned man for Claudio and to carry out the execution “as planned.” Isabella is led to believe that Claudio has died, that Angelo has betrayed her, and that she should seek justice from the Vincentio, who is expected to return soon.

Isabel and Mariana make their accusations against Angelo to Duke Vincentio, who appears as himself. Angelo first says Isabella is lying and blames the “monk” for putting her up to this. When Vincentio reveals himself as the monk, Angelo is forced to throw himself on the mercy of Vincentio and Isabella. Claudio is revealed to be alive, Mariana pleads for Angelo's life, and Vincentio orders that Angelo should marry Mariana and Claudio should marry Juliet. Vincentio then tells Isabella he will marry her. She, however, never says another word.


Measure for Measure has been faulted for not tying up the ending in a neat, satisfying bow. It's like leaving the heroine hanging from a tree over the edge of a cliff. Questions have to be asked: Why does Isabella agree to Vincentio's plan? The bed switch still makes Mariana commit the same crime for which Claudio is condemned. Isabella still condemns her brother's actions. She agrees with Angelo, but not about the punishment he intends to mete out. Perhaps Shakespeare simply got tired of the play and didn't untangle the plot twists and tie up the loose ends. Perhaps he wanted his audience to think about how much more true such tangles are to life than are neat endings.

At the beginning of the play Isabella was about to become a nun. At no time during the play does she profess love for Vincentio, or he for her. He's disguised as a monk for most of it anyway. Yet we are left with the distinct impression she will become his bride.

Although Measure for Measure explores themes of sexual harassment and women's rights (ideas that had rarely been explored at the time), it is not a play about women's liberation. Yes, it touches on issues of sexuality and the independence of women. But the female characters in Measure for Measure are quite different from the feisty women of earlier comedies. Here, however, no male disguise protects the heroines.

The play certainly raises important moral issues. Its structure revolves around secret identities: Vincentio disguises himself as a monk, and most of the problems are resolved when he reveals his identity. Vincentio solves Claudio and Isabella's problem with a plan involving mistaken identity. Mariana takes Isabella's place, and the head of a dead pirate is used to deceive Angelo.

Duke Vincentio, in effect, functions as a kind of puppetmaster. He may have placed a proxy ruler in power during his absence, but he is still pulling the strings. He is an interesting paradox: a character who is wise but unable to maintain order.

Measure for Measure is also a problem play because it does not follow through with the moral questions it raises. No one reconsiders his or her beliefs about freedom, justice, sexual relationships, or morality, and Isabella in particular never really has to deal with the consequences of having to commit a sin in order to save her brother.

Famous Lines

“Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win By fearing to attempt” (Act I, Scene IV).

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (Act II, Scene I).

“Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?” (Act II, Scene II).

“O, it is excellent To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant” (Act II, Scene II).

“The miserable have no other medicine, But only hope” (Act III, Scene I).

“O, what may man within him hide, Though angel on the outward side!” (Act III, Scene II).

“They say, best men are moulded out of faults, And, for the most, become much more the better For being a little bad” (Act V, Scene I).

“What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (Act V, Scene I).

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