Shakespeare Saturdays: Measure for Measure

Shakespeare saturdays

Measure for Measure, in my opinion, is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays. That might be because I’m interested in early modern representations of religion (don’t ask) but Measure for Measure is certainly worth looking into.

First-page-first-folio-measure-for-measureMeasure for Measure was probably written in 1603 or 1604 but it wasn’t published until it appeared in the First Folio. The play is a Shakespearean comedy – these plays tend to end in marriage rather than death – but it is sometimes referred to as a ‘problem play’ because it shifts violently between dark, psychological drama and more straightforward comic material. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies are incredibly dark but this play doesn’t feel like a Shakespearean comedy when you’re watching it.

Quick plot summary: The Duke of Vienna steps out from public life and disguises himself as a friar in order to see if power will corrupt his chosen substitute. Claudio, a young gentleman, gets Juliet, a prostitute, pregnant and the Madame wants him executed for his crime. Isabella, a novice and sister to Claudio, begs for his life to Angelo, the guy who is ruling in the Duke’s absence, and he agrees to spare Claudio as long as Isabella gives up her virginity to him. Angelo is a giant creep and I hate him so much. The Duke reveals himself and sorts everything out, proposes to Isabella (who never answers him), and that’s the end of the play. Yay!

British School; John Philip Kemble (1757-1823), as Vicentio in 'Measure for Measure' by William Shakespeare, 1794

Three moments in the play always stand out to me and these are the ‘bed-trick’, the ‘head-trick’, and the ‘open silence’ at the end of the play.

Bed-tricks are, essentially, rape and you will not change my mind. In a bed trick, one woman takes the place of another during sex with a man. Isabella, in this case, agrees to submit to Angelo’s wishes but states that they must meet in perfect darkness and silence. Mariana takes her place and has sex with Angelo, fulfilling their betrothal, but Angelo thinks he’s had his way with Isabella (who never wanted to have sex with him in the first place).

The head-trick is funnier, even if it is fairly dark. Angelo, after having sex with ‘Isabella’, goes back on his word and orders to see Claudio’s head. He wants him executing ASAP. This leads to the Duke scrambling around looking for a head to show to Angelo because they can’t show him Claudio’s head but they need to show him someone’s head. Thankfully, a pirate had recently died of a fever so they send his head to Angelo instead.

Finally, the open silence at the end of the play – where Isabella doesn’t answer the Duke’s proposal of marriage – is one of the most interesting ends of any Shakespearean play. This is why the play doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘comedy’ genre. If the play was following the comedy formula, Isabella should have agreed and they should have been married in the final scene of the play. Instead, the play ends without an answer and this has caused debate among scholars and Shakespeare fans for years. Does she want to marry him? Does she want to become a nun? We never get an answer. Most performances stage this as a ‘silent acceptance’ but I have never read it this way.

The earliest recorded performance of Measure for Measure took place on St. Stephen’s night (the 26th of December) 1604. However, that’s the only performance recorded during Shakespeare’s own time.

If we fast-forward to the Restoration era, we find that Measure for Measure was adapted by Sir William Davenant in 1662. I’ve said this in previous Shakespeare Saturdays post but very few of Shakespeare’s plays escaped the adaptor’s pen during the Restoration era because writers felt a great need to ‘correct’ his work so that it was suitable for a new audience. Davenant inserted Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing into his adaptation – because that makes so much sense – and he renamed it The Law Against Lovers. Everyone’s favourite diarist, Samuel Pepys, saw the new play on the 18th of February 1662 and he describes as ‘a good play, and well performed’.1 I cannot believe that I’ve finally found a play that Pepys liked! The play barely resembles Shakespeare’s original so this brings me to the conclusion that Pepys didn’t actually like Shakespeare’s plays. He just liked to complain about them in his diary. However, the play doesn’t seem to have been a success, even if Pepys did like it.

Charles Gildon produced an adaptation in 1699 and Gildon removed almost all of the illicit sexuality in the play. That’s the most integral part of the play! He also removed the comic characters. This adaptation failed too, which isn’t a surprise. In 1720, John Rich staged an adaptation that was much closer to Shakespeare’s original play but the play continued to be edited and revised into the twentieth century because it was often deemed too controversial for the stage. I’m sure that Shakespeare would have been proud of that last legacy.

Promos and CassandraScholars have identified two distinct sources which the play draws upon. Firstly, there is ‘The Story of Epitia’ which appears in Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi (1565). This is the same book which contains the original source for Othello. The other main source for the play is George Whetstone’s 1578 two-part closet drama Promos and Cassandra, which is also sourced from Cinthio. Whetstone added the comic elements and the bed and head tricks that we also see in Shakespeare’s play.

Peter Meilaender has argued that Measure for Measure is largely based on biblical references, focusing on the themes of sin, restraint, mercy, and rebirth but I find that unlikely. Yes, there are some biblical references in the play. Even the title is thought to be a reference to Matthew 7:2 – For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you – but it makes much more sense that Shakespeare based his play on the two contemporaneous sources mentioned above. If Shakespeare had been writing a religious play, it would have made more sense for him to write about Protestants rather than Catholics because of the religious climate that he lived in. Unless he was critiquing the Catholic Church, of course. However, this play is more about agency and justice than it is about mocking the Catholic Church.

Semi-interesting facts:

  • It is generally accepted that a garbled sentence during the Duke’s opening speech (lines 8–9 in most editions) represents a place where a line has been lost, possibly due to a printer’s error. As the Folio is the only source, there is no possibility of recovering this sentence.
  • Mariana from Measure for Measure inspired Tennyson for his poem “Mariana” (1830)

There are several versions of Measure for Measure available in print – I’d recommend the OUP* or Arden* editions – but it’s also available for free via MIT.

This post contains affiliate links which are clearly marked with an asterisk. I will receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you.

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1. Samuel Pepys via The Diary of Samuel Pepys

1. Title page of Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare (1623) – via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
2. John Philip Kemble as Vicentio (1794) – via Art UK
3. Title page of Promos and Cassandra by George Whetstone (1578) via The British Library

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