Published Humanitas, Volume XXIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2010
Measure for Measure is a very odd play. Shakespeare juxtaposes the brothels and the prison of Vienna to the court and the church, and there is much doubt about which comes off best in the comparison. The intricate plot of the play, in an inevitably too sketchy summary, is this: Duke Vincentio leaves Vienna suddenly, deputizing Angelo to govern in his absence. Angelo sentences a young fellow, Claudio, to be beheaded for lechery. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a religious novice, attempts to convince him otherwise. Somehow, Angelo finds himself proposing a deal to Isabella: Claudio’s head for her maidenhead. She refuses. The Duke, who has been wandering about town disguised as a friar, learns of it and readily persuades Isabella to go through with the play’s notorious bed trick: a midnight switch, maidenhead-for-maidenhead, Angelo’s jilted fiancée, Mariana, disguised as Isabella, substituting for Isabella herself. Mariana does it; but Angelo, none the wiser, does not release Claudio. The Duke then switches heads—another prisoner’s for Claudio’s—and makes plans for a spectacular return to town.

Angelo is brought to justice, in a manner of speaking. And what with one thing and another, the Duke proposes to Isabella. If the demands of the genre are met the two of them join the celebrations of three other happy couples in a perfectly symmetrical comic ending. All in all, very odd. Dark matters are brought to light—things usually presented by Shakespeare in the tragedies—and yet, despite our impressions to the contrary, no one seems to do anything terribly wrong, and no one seems punished in the end. Except for Angelo, that is. Allan Bloom claims that he is the only one to suffer “punishment and humiliation” (Bloom 1993, 330).

It is conventional to describe Measure for Measure as a “problem play,” and to avoid the problem of its content by emphasizing the problem of its form. It begins as a tragedy, but half-way through it becomes a comedy. Northrop Frye, for one, considers this to be the most important question of the play. He writes: “Measure for Measure is not a play about the philosophy of government . . . [or] the social problem of prostitution . . . [but rather] about the relation of all such things to the structure of comedy” (Frye 1983, 24). Insofar as the play’s cross-dressed genre can be made to yield a content, it is often read as a sophisticated Christian allegory.

This is a preview. Read the full article here.