Measure for Measure - Stephen Orgel, Jonathon Crewe, William Shakespeare Measure for Measure, as the title suggests, is all about weighing out appropriate portions – of love, of mercy, of justice. The plot is simple enough. The Duke of Vienna, concerned that his people have thrown off restraint and have sunk too far into liberty, leaves the city in the hands of Angelo, a man notorious for his strictness and inhuman discipline. As Lucio observes in two instances (once to Isabella and again to the Duke):

“…Upon his place,
Governs Lord Angelo; a man whose blood
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense,
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edges
With profits of the mind, study, and fast.”


“Some report a sea-maid spawned him; some, that he was begot between two stock-fishes. But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true: and he is a motion generative; that’s infallible.” (Act 1, scene 4; Act 3, scene 2, respectively)

In the meantime, the Duke disguises himself as a humble friar to observe what transpires.

Angelo, true to form, imprisons and condemns Claudio for lechery – he has got with child his fiancée Julietta. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a woman who plans to enter a nunnery, importunes Angelo for mercy. Angelo refuses unless she sleeps with him (and even then he plans to kill Claudio; as Angelo says: “He should have lived, / Save that his riotous youth, with dangerous sense, / Might in times to come have ta’en revenge, / By so receiving a dishonor’d life / With ransom of such shame”).

At this point, the Duke (in his guise as friar) steps in and devises a plan whereby Isabella will appear to submit, but in her stead will step Mariana, Angelo’s spurned fiancée, who still loves him (for some reason; you’re reminded of Helena’s inexplicable love for Bertram from All’s Well That Ends Well). The bed-trick succeeds and Angelo is hoist on his own petard. The Duke pardons him and Claudio, and both men marry their women. Lucio (in a subplot) is forced to marry a prostitute whom he got pregnant (in punishment for lese majesté), and the Duke proposes to Isabella:

“… Dear Isabel,
I have a motion which imports your good;
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine.”
(Act 5, scene 1)

Isabella’s reply (wholly nonverbal) depends upon how the play is staged: Does she accept? Does she decline? Is she left standing in confusion, as some productions have played?

And, again paralleling All’s Well, it’s an open question as to what the future holds for these couples as only one is a mutual love match (maybe two, if you accept Isabella falling for the Duke).

Though he gets away with rape and sexual harassment, I think Angelo is the most interesting character in the play. His unswerving commitment to the abstract ideal of justice comes face to face with the reality of his own, human nature and he finds that it’s not so easy to be a paragon of the law:

“From thee, even from they virtue!
What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now,
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder’d how.”
(Act 2, scene 3)