Measure for Measure: by Shakespeare - Summary

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      Measure for Measure, a play by William Shakespeare formally comedy but so dark in tone that it is more often neutrally classed among the problem plays. It was published in the First Folio of 1623. The main source is George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra, translation of a play by Cinthio.

      Disturbed by the unruliness of Vienna, Duke Vincentio resolves to absent himself from rule and entrust law enforcement to his puritanical deputy, Angelo. Disguised as a friar, the duke remains in Vienna to observe the consequences of his decision. Angelo orders the destruction of the brothels and, invoking a law against lechery, imprisons Claudio for impregnating the woman to whom he is betrothed. Knowing that the penalty is death, Claudio asks his sister, Isabella, a novice in a nunnery, to intercede. Confronted by Isabella, the unyielding Angelo experiences his own lust. He offers Claudio’s life as an exchange for Isabella’s body. Outraged when Claudio begs her to accept the offer, Isabella abandons him, but is persuaded by the disguised duke to play a trick on Angelo. The duke reveals that Angelo had broken a marriage contract with a certain Mariana when Mariana’s dowry was lost. Mourning her lost love, Mariana now lives in isolation. She would willingly take Isabella’s place in Angelo’s bed. The substitution is arranged, but the duke’s scheme is ruined by Angelo's decision to have Claudio killed despite his promise to Isabella. The fortunate death in prison of a pirate with some physical resemblance to Claudio gives the duke another opportunity to thwart Angelo, whose villainy is unmasked when the duke makes his unexpected ‘return’ to Vienna. Claudio can now marry the pregnant Juliet, Angelo’s punishment is to marry Mariana, and the duke declares his love for the chaste Isabella.

      Measure for Measure raises more enduring issues than can be resolved by its conventional comic ending. After Isabella’s two finely written encounters with Angelo, in which issues of justice and mercy; morality and the law, sin and grace are raised, the hurried plotting of the bed-trick and Claudio’s escape seem perfunctory. It may be that Shakespeare was forced, through theatrical exigency, to finish in haste what he had begun in comparative leisure. Associated by date with Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well that Ends Well, this play is also associated in moral tone with these other ‘problem’ comedies.

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