Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare

The title immediately announces that the play is about justice and hypocrisy. The biblical reference the title alludes to is found in Matthew 7: 1 - 5 ; "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you, And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me remove the speck from your eye," and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Angelo's name announces how his character is to be perceived, at least at first; by the end of the play it is obvious that he is more of a Lucifer, the fallen angel

Act 1


We learn that Vincentio is leaving Vienna and deputing Escalus and Angelo in his absence, with Angelo as the head man. The "if" in Escalus' line

"If any in Vienna be of worth
To undergo such ample grace and honour
It is Lord Angelo"

may be seen as a suggestion by Shakespeare, if not by Escalus, that no-one is really "of worth" to be given such responsibility". Even so, Angelo is presented as having the reputation of a man of honour and, to be fair to him, he does not seek or want this commission; he is aware he may not be up to the job, as revealed by his line

"Let there be some more test made of my meteal
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamped upon it."

Nevertheless, Vincentio imposes the commission on Angelo, giving him not only responsibility to enforce the law but also the right to adapt it :

"your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good."

Vincentio gives the impression at this point that he is leaving on urgent business.

The abdication of responsibility and the consequences that ensue is a theme dealt with by Shakespeare in The Tempest, in which Prospero introduces Antonio to a power which subsequently corrupts him. To an extent at least, Vincentio is the villain of this play; Angelo is forced into a position not of his choosing, which becomes his downfall.


This is a difficult and tedious scene. We see in it, however, that Vienna has very much run to moral seed; the prevailing moral ambience is lax. We learn of Claudio's arrest, though we don't yet know who he is. In the midst of this moral scourging, however, injustice remains; though all suburban brothels are to be "plucked down", the ones in the city are not, because, "a wise burgher put in for them." The burghers were meant to be the respectable members of society; it's as if all London's brothels were to be closed down except for those nearest the Old Bailey and the Houses of Parliament, for the convenience of judges and politicians!

Look at Claudio's line "yet still, 'tis just" (line 132 in my text). What do you think the tone is here?

We learn that Claudio & Julietta were committed to each other; this was not a one night stand:

"Upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed."

Nor was it rape, as Claudio refers to "our most mutual entertainment".

This being the case Isabella's pleas for mercy are strengthened. Claudio suspects that Angelo is making an example of him to gain prestige and reputation : "'tis surely for a name." We may feel that is wrong that someone in Claudio's situation should be made the scapegoat for an obviously immoral society; is Angelo's first mistake his indiscriminate choice of example?


Vincentio reveals to Friar Thomas, and thereby to us, why he has pretended to leave Vienna without really doing so, and why he has placed Angelo in charge: Firstly it is because he has let his dukedom run to seed and wants someone else to take responsibility for sorting out the mess so that he does not become unpopular himself! Friar Thomas expresses our feeling that

"It rested in your Grace
T'unloose this tied - up justice"

and that Vincentio is evading his rightful responsibilities.

Secondly, Vincentio is testing Angelo, who seems to him too perfect. Vincentio wants to see if Angelo is all that he appears;

"hence shall we see
If power change purpose, what our seemers be."

Nowadays this would be called entrapment and held to be illegal. It does introduce the common Shakespearian theme of appearance versus reality, however; the idea that things are not always what they seem to be.


We meet Isabella and find out how holy she is; she wants fewer privileges and more restrictions! We learn that she is about to take her final vows as a nun. The idea that Angelo is unnaturally abstemious is stressed -"a man whose blood is very snow broth" - and the suggestion that he is using Claudio as an example is repeated.

Act 1 contains all the seeds of what is to come: the sexuality theme; doubts about Angelo; the undermining of Vincentio's moral authority.

Act 2


Escalus urges mercy on Angelo and reminds him that he is also human. Angelo insists that the law must be firm and says it should apply equally to himself !

"When I, that do censure him, do so offend
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death
And nothing come in partial."

Escalus' line "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall" is prophetic, as Angelo's downfall is his own perceived virtue and his attraction to Isabella's actual virtue.

Elbow begins the low life comedy of this scene. His mangling of the English language is comparable to that of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and his role in this play is similar to Dogberry's. This comic scene, as well as making the groundlings laugh, continues the idea that sexuality is an irrepressible force which cannot be legislated against:

Pompey: Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?

Escalus: No, Pompey
Pompey: truly, sir, in my humble opinion, they will to't then.

Escalus reveals himself to be more mercifully inclined than Angelo, but to see the logic of Angelo's actions:

"Mercy is not itself that oft looks so;
Pardon is still the nurse of second woe."


Isabella comes to plead for Claudio, acknowledging his sin yet loving him. She reminds Angelo that it is in his power to be merciful and that he is human, as Claudio is. Does her suggestion that

"if he had been as you, and you as he
You would have slipt, like him"

open Angelo's mind to the possibility?

Isabella reminds Angelo that God has set a precedent for mercy:

"Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;
and He that might the vantage best have took,
Found out the remedy"

and suggests that Angelo would be in a bad way were God to judge him as harshly as he is judging Claudio:

"How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgement, should
but judge as you are?"

Claudio hides from this argument behind the shield of the law:

"It is the law, not I, condemn your brother."

Yet we have known from the outset that Angelo has been given authority to qualify the law, so this is a cop out. Angelo admits that Claudio is being used as an example to others and says that in showing no mercy to Claudio he is showing more to others, by deterring them from sinning. Isabella accuses Angelo of tyrrany, taking advantage of the authority he's been given to lord it over others. She does not believe in the purity of his motivation. Does the audience? She reminds Angelo, again, that he is human and challenges hin to

"Go to your bososm;
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault"

Does this open the door further to his desires for her, by reminding him of his own sexuality? Certainly he begins to listen to her -

"She speaks, and 'tis
Such sense that my sense breeds with it."

and it is only a few lines later that he sees he is in the way of temptation:
"I am that way going to temptation
Where prayers cross."

There is a pun here on the word "honour" which is ongoing in this scene; She uses "Your honour" as a title, wishing him to be kept safe; he is aware that his honour is anything but safe, the way he is feeling about her! After she has left he soliloquizes about his inner turmoil and his newly discovered desires, which disgust him but which he feels powerless against -

"this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite."

Now he sees what temptation is in a way which is new to him-

"Ever till now
When men were fond, I smil'd and wonder'd how."


Vincentio turns up at the prison in disguise as a friar. He tells Julietta that her sin was "of heavier kind" than Claudio's, though I can't see how he makes that out; presumably she's the seductress and he was just a weak man, putty in her hands. After all, the church at the time would have it, Eve gave Adam the apple and are at the root of all sin. Bloody men!


Angelo finds he can no longer pray; his desires have cut off his contact with God and he is planning something bad with regard to Isabella - some "strong and swelling evil". He seems powerless in the face of this. He is aware that his status and appearance have been deceptive and that he has been guilty of "false seeming". We're back to that appearance v. reality issue again. When he hears that Isabella is coming, he finds himself completely unable to function; he feels he is being smothered by his desires for Isabella.
Puns about "pleasure" and "honour" follow, Isabella being unaware of the double entendre being read into her words.

Angelo presents Isabella with the theoretical possibility that she might be able to buy her brother's life with her body, which idea she rejects utterly. As yet Angelo has not revealed his intentions. When he does come clean and proposition her, she thinks it's a set up;

"I know your virtue hath a licence in't
Which seems ,(there's that word again) a little fouler than it is
To pluck on others."

She thinks he is making trial of her and cannot believe he is serious. When she realises he is, she exclaims bitterly about the dangers of "seeming" and threatens to expose him. He gives himself up to his intentions at this point and no longer even tries to resist his instincts -

"I have begun;
And now I give my sensual race the rein:"

Up till now I have been able to see Angelo as a victim of his own inexperience and Vincentio's entrapment, but this is the moment of choice for him and he chooses to abuse his power and exploit Isabella's vulnerability. He threatens that, unless she gives way, not only will Claudio die but he will die painfully. Bastard! The theme of seeming arises again with his parting shot,

"My false o'erweighs your true."

Isabella exits to tell her brother what has happened, in full expectation that he will support her. Little does she know...

Act 3


Compare Vincentio's speech about the nature of life here to Hamlet's soliloquy in 3:1;56 -88. Is this really what Vincentio thinks, or is he playing a part?

Isabella tells Claudio what Angelo's demands are and his first response is "Thou shal't not do it", yet he quickly weakens and suggests that it wouldn't be much of a sin. This is prompted by his fear of death, and the words in which he expresses this fear are similar to Hamlet's speech already referred to. Isabella feels very let down by his recation. The audience might well be torn, possibly along gender lines, able to see both sides of the issue.

Vincentio assures Claudio that Angelo was only testing Isabella. He lies, saying he is Angelo's confessor. He uses the same excuse of his vows to get close to Isabella and involves her in a scheme to force Angelo to behave rightly by his betrothed, Marianna. We haven't heard of her before, but she is evidence that Angelo was flawed even before Isabella came on the scene; Angelo had been affianced to Marianna but when the ship carrying her dowry sank, he abandoned her, using as his excuse allegations of sexual impropriety. There are similarities here with Claudio(again)'s treatment of Hero, in Much Ado About Nothing except that in Much Ado Claudio is deceived by Don Pedro's villainy whereas it would appear that Angelo is the deceiver, not the deceived.

The fact that Vincentio knew this of Angelo surely makes him even more culpable in placing such a man in charge of his dukedom.

The plan hatched is a bed swap. This is a classic Elizabethan/Jacobean comedic trick and one must not look too hard at its plausibility; here is a case, if ever there was one, for willing suspension of disbelief. Isabella will pretend to consent to Angelo, but the woman waiting for him in the bed will be Marianna. Once he has bedded her, he will be stuck with her, and justice will be done. Do you think the concept of justice is beginning to get a little soiled here? Can justice ever emerge from deceit? Does the end justify the means? What is happening here is that Isabella is saving her brother from the consequences of his fornication by encouraging it in Marianna, yet the virtuous Isabella, so hot on her own honour, doesn't have a problem with this. Is anyone what they seem to be?


The theme of appearance v. reality continues; Angelo, we hear, "cannot stand a whoremonger", yet we know he is one. Vincentio comments on this in his characteristically verbose manner

: "That were we all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free."

In the guise of a friar Vincentio learns how he is perceived in Vienna. There is comedy here, because Lucio doesn't know to whom he speaks, but we also learn that, according to Lucio, Vincentio is touched by the faults he is trying to erase from his dukedom and this is why he has been lax previously -

"he had some feeling of the sport;
he knew the service, and that instructed him
to mercy."

This may be true, as in line 292 Vincentio makes reference to "my vice". How does this make us feel about him and his behaviour?

In this scene the sense that Angelo will get his come-uppance strengthens; the words of Vincentio are ominous:

"If his own life answer the straitness of
his proceeding, it shall become him wee; wherein
if he chance to fail, he hath sentenced himself."

Vincentio's closing soliloquy here is in verse, indeed in rhyming couplets. This is very formal compared to what has gone before. Vincentio could be seen to be acting as the chorus at this point, which might account for the unaccustomed rigidity of the verse form.

The idea of seeming is again raised -

"O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side."

Act 4


Vincentio, disguised as a friar, encourages Marianna to deceive and have sex with Angelo. He tells her "'tis no sin" to do this. He's taking a lot on himself, since it is her immortal soul he's playing with. On the other hand, they were pre - contracted, which was more binding than engagements are these days.


When Claudio's "pardon", bought, as Angelo thinks, by Isabella's sacrifice arrives, it turns out to be an instruction to execute Claudio and bring Angelo his head! It would seem that Angelo is covering his tracks -"more depends on it than we must yet deliver." Now he is abusing his position big time, even more than before, which was bad enough.

Vincentio arranges for Barnardine's head to be disguised and delivered instead of Claudio's. Vincentio hears Barnardine's confession and shrives him before he dies. I have a problem with this since Vincentio isn't really a friar and so can't give absolution. Logically, by denying Barnardine a real priest, Vincentio is risking his eternal soul. Vincentio seems to play fast and loose with other people's eternities.


Realising just how unfitted for death Barnardine is, Vincentio finds a substitute. Maybe I maligned him earlier ...maybe.

He now proceeds to play with Isabella's feelings -

"I will keep her ignorant of her good
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected."

Is this for her good or his own ? Certainly we later find him proposing to her, so maybe this is a way of softening her up to his advances. He tells her that Claudio is already dead and sets everything up for a climactic revelation. He vows by his "holy order" that he is not misleading her, but, of course, he's only pretending to be in holy orders.


This conversation between Escalus and Angelo serves to fill the audience in on Vincentio's plan.

Angelo's soliloquy in this scene reveals his sense of guilt and shame. He is punishing himself, but does this moral awareness after the fact justify the fact that Vincentio allows him to live at the end of the play?

4:5 & 4:6

The plot is pushed ahead, but not much

Act 5


Vincentio's assertion that Angelo's "desert" should be made public is ironic; Angelo is unaware that his true desert is about to be made known - he is going to be outed, and Vincentio is part of the plot.

Isabella's complaints about Angelo make great use of the words "justice" and "truth". The effect of all this repetition is to suggest that these concepts, in the hands of Angelo, have become no more than words, losing any real validity.

One thing I do like about this scene is the way Vincentio's continuing anger with Lucio, who has described the Duke to the "friar" in no flattering terms, is allowed to intrude into Isabella's business. It adds a comic element which helps to generate suspense by holding up the dramatic flow of the main plot.

Isabella and Marianna tell their stories and Vincentio disappears and reappears as the friar. When he reveals his true identity Angelo begs for immediate death. Instead he is freed and sent away with Marianna to marry her. Marriage as punishment, now there's a thought. Vincentio continues to pretend to Isabella that Claudio is dead. Then Angelo reappears, married, and Vincentio says that he's to be executed for his unjust treatment of Claudio. Isabella shows her mercy by pleading for his life, when she could easily have demanded vengeance, measure for measure. Maybe this was his intention, to enable her to show her worth. On the other hand, he proposes marriage to he immediately after he has revealed the living Claudio, so maybe this was a ploy to get the girl for himself. If this is the case, how much better is he than Angelo? We don't get told whether or not Isabella assents to his plan. I hope she doesn't; he's a scheming, devious, manipulative toad and I don't see it as a marriage made in heaven, but then again, neither is that between Angelo and Marianna or Lucio and his whore.

Technically this play is a comedy, in that it ends "happily", with marriages rather than deaths. But really this is a serious and depressing examination of the concept of justice:

Angelo is let off lightly, despite his serious and manifold crimes, whereas Lucio gets it rough because he offended the Duke's pride and vanity.

The Duke, who should be responsible for justice in Vienna, so fails in his responsibility that the state becomes "all licens'd", then he lays the burden on Angelo, whom he knows to be unfit, to save his own popularity.

Angelo is corrupt, in his mercenary rejection of Marianna, his lust after Isabella and his intended execution of Claudio despite what he thinks is Isabella's climb down.

Escalus is inefficacious - a non justice. He sees that Angelo is going to extremes but does not intervene.

Elbow, the constable, is a fool.

So where is justice in the play? Is a play which ends like this really a comedy in anything but form? It's quite a late play - 1604 - so Shakespeare had learnt his craft and was able to use it subversively.

What do you think?