Year of the Bard: Measure for Measure

Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful. – Shakespeare

After quite a long dry spell, during which I was too busy/tired to read, I dove back into The Bard.  The play: Measure for Measure.  I had not heard a lot of this one in my school years, so had no expectations.  What follows is the very basic run down.

Claudio got Juliet (his fiancé) pregnant.  While usually not a big deal, Angelo decides that Claudio should be put to death, and so Claudio is imprisoned for most of this play.  There is a Duke, who is disguised as a friar so he can observe Angelo.  Isabella, Claudio’s sister and a nun-to-be hears of Claudio’s plight and beseeches Angelo on her brother’s behalf.  Angelo says he’ll free him, if Isabella has sex with him.  Isabella refuses, but also knows nobody would believe her if she accuses Angelo.  She seeks advice from Claudio, and he begs her to do as Angelo says.  She refuses.  Angelo had previously been engaged to Mariana, but when she loses her dowry in a storm, he breaks it off.  The two women conspire, and Isabella leads Angelo to believe she will give in to his demands, but at the last minute switches places with Mariana.  The act of consummation pretty much seals the deal on their engagement.  Angelo had told everyone he had beheaded Claudio, when in fact, and unbeknownst to him, he was given the head of a man, who shared physical attributes with Claudio, and had died naturally.  All is revealed.  The Duke, no longer under the disguise of Friar says Angelo should die.  Mariana pleads her case, enlisting Isabella (who at that time still though Claudio is dead).  Angelo is given a reprieve.  Claudio is released.  The Duke asks for Isabella’s hand, but she does not respond.

This play is in the same section as Shakespeare’s other comedies, but apart from some dialogue with Barnardine (a drunk prisoner), I didn’t find it all to be that funny.  Angelo says Juliet’s sin of having sex with Claudio is worse than Claudio having sex with Juliet.  And yet it’s Claudio who is led away to be killed.  Angelo is a hypocrite, and Claudio really is no better.  He begs and pleads that Isabella give in to Angelo, to renounce her vows and her immortal soul to pay penance for the very thing he’s begging Isabella to do. And Mariana, so in love with Angelo, is willing to look past his faults to marry him.  “O my dear lord, I crave no other, nor no better man.”  I am not convinced Angelo fully repented of his ways.   What kind of marriage would that be for the two of them?  How many modern marriages begin this way?  Okay, maybe not exactly this way.

And the Duke!  The Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, but there is no response.  How do you think she would respond?  Would she decline the proposal and take up the habit?  Or would she accept?  I believe she does not accept the Duke’s proposal (would the Duke allow that? Would he respect her choice?). She is a woman who has strength of her convictions.  I mean, good grief, she thought Angelo had gone through with her brother’s beheading and she still joined with Mariana in asking the Duke’s favour on behalf of Angelo.  So no, I don’t think she agreed to his proposal.  And I also think the Duke would respect that.  Maybe I’m being too optimistic.  Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I think whoever plays Isabella and the Duke needs to have those questions answered before they play out that scene.  Maybe Isabella is unsure.  Maybe she needs to have a real heart-to-heart with her mother superior.  Ambiguousness at the end of something is cool for me, as long as there are leanings of a conclusion.  Even though I might not see it, I know there are possibilities out there, and that’s enough for me.

Going back to the designation of comedy.  I can see some formulas that we see in other Shakespeare’s comedies which probably led it to be classified as such.  It’s certainly not a tragedy or a history, but I’m not convinced it should be in the same classification of comedy.  Since I’m still pretty early in the Year of the Bard journey, I’d like to classify it as “miscellaneous”.  There might be other plays out there which deserve the same classification.



  1. The only Shakespeare play I’ve ever acted in, and one of my favorites because of the timeless political commentary. You get Angelo, the by-the-book leader who insists the law must be followed regarding Claudio unless his sister, the nun, is willing to sleep with him! And we think political corruption is modern? Love this play.

    • Who did you play? It certainly played with morals and ethics, didn’t it? I find more and more how absolutely timeless Shakespeare is in his writings. I don’t know if I’ll blog about the plays I’ve written outside this journey of mine, but one of my all-time favourites is Titus Andronicus for it’s political commentary.

      • Heh. I played Mistress O and my roommate played the Mother at the Convent… amusingly reversed roles, as it turned out! Still friends with the guy who played Pompey – we had a blast. I’ve neither seen nor studied Titus Adronicus… would like to, someday.

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