Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

** SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read this book and are still hoping to be surprised by the ending do NOT continue reading, no matter how provocative this bolded writing is. **

Shakespeare tends to be an amoral writer. He does not attempt to push ethical principles on the reader, but simply tells a story for its own sake. In his play Richard III, the protagonist, Richard, is clearly a villain. The audience doesn’t mind when he seduces the widow of a man he killed over the dead man’s casket, because he is simply filling his role as villain. The audience doesn’t condemn him, but watches in a mixture of disgust and fascination as he achieves what first seemed impossible. Villains are supposed to be evil; if they weren’t, the audience would be disappointed. Measure for Measure is one of the most complex Shakespearean plays because it doesn’t follow the usual guidelines of a comedy. Some of its characters, who are by role “good” commit evil, leaving the reader slightly confused, but simultaneously intrigued. The play also raises questions of human worth, employing characters who struggle with the concept. Although the play ends “happy”, hence classifyingMeasure for Measure as a comedy, the reader is left with a sinking feeling that all is not entirely well. Measure for Measure blends the elements of Tragedy and Comedy to create one of Shakespeare’s most thought provoking plays.

One of the slightly disconcerting elements of this play is the presence of evil and selfishness in characters who are supposed to be considered good. Claudio is scheduled to be executed for impregnating his lover Juliet. At this point we can accept Claudio. His sex with Juliet is revealed to be consensual, and thus the audience has no qualms about it. However, when his sister Isabella, a nun, visits him, Claudio’s selfishness becomes apparent. Isabella has approached Antonio (the stand-in for the Duke who has sentenced Antonio to death) to plead for her brother’s pardoning. Antonio tells her if she surrenders her virginity to him, he will set Claudio free (revealing Antonio’s hypocrisy). Isabella assumes that Claudio could not accept that bargain. When she tells him of Antonio’s suggestion, Claudio first condemns the idea, however three lines later he is begging his sister to go through with the deal. At this point, I no longer am able to hope Claudio will be pardoned. He is willing to shame and sacrifice his sister to free himself. Isabella and Mariana (Antonio’s scorned ex-fiancé) devise a plan and eventually free Claudio. The feeling of joyful contentment that is usually experienced at the finish of most Shakespeare comedy’s such as The Merry Wives of Windsor or Twelfth Night is absent. It has been revealed that Claudio values himself over his sister. How can there be joyousness after that?

The play raises questions of human worth, one example is Claudio’s disregarded of Isabella’s worth. The Duke, disguised as the friar, clearly finds certain human lives more valuable than others as well. To spare Isabella’s virginity, he sends Mariana, to be with Antonio carnally. In order to spare Claudio’s life, the Duke must find another man’s head to send to Antonio. The Duke decides to kill Barnardine, another prisoner who is planned to be executed at a later time. Barnardine is drunk, and therefore is not to be killed. The only thing that saves Barnardine from being executed at this time is the natural death of another prisoner. Were it not for that good fortune, Barnardine’s drunken state would have been ignored and he would have been executed.

Certain instances in the play give it a darker undertone. The Duke, disguised as the friar, helps to create a plan to save Claudio, spare Isabella’s virginity, and “avenge” Mariana. It becomes clear that the Duke knew of Mariana’s abandonment prior to Antonio’s appointment, therefore knew that Antonio was a hypocrite. Yet, he appoints him anyway, leaving his people to suffer under his unyielding hand. Mariana’s role in the plot to reveal Antonio is also disturbing. She has no objection to letting her body be used in the friar’s plot. She also is not officially married, and is ironically is committing Claudio and Juliet’s same crime.

Measure for Measure, transcends the usual Shakespearean formula and exists as its own entity. The utilization of complex and vastly human characters allows readers to judge and question characters. The exchanges between characters are comical while the entire premise of the play remains somber.


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