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Measure for Measure (1604)

Measure for Measure (1604)

Hundred Word Summary

Vincentio tells his deputy Angelo he’s going abroad, so he’s transferring his duties as Duke of Vienna. But in fact he’s going undercover, to reflect on how Vienna’s governed.

Vincentio believes the state has tough laws but doesn’t use them enough. Angelo agrees – and arrests Claudio for sex outside marriage: a capital offence.

Claudio’s sister Isabella begs Angelo to release her brother, and he agrees – if she will sleep with him. Vincentio suggests Mariana take her place.

When Vincentio reveals his disguise, Angelo accepts whatever punishment is coming. But he is forgiven and marries Mariana, while Vincentio proposes to Isabella.


Table of Contents


At the heart of this play is a dilemma about how society should be governed: the play asks whether every marginal infringement of the law should be punished to the maximum severity – or should we rather temper justice with mercy? 

The governing establishment in Vienna thinks justice should be severe.  It’s been a problem for years, says Vincentio as he prepares to temporarily hand over the reins of power to his deputy.  We’ve had the laws in place – we just haven’t enforced them. The puritanical Angelo takes a similar view.

Vincentio says he’s going abroad for a while, but in fact he’s adopting the disguise of a friar to take a look at his city-state from a new angle: to visit, as he puts it, “both prince and people”.  But he’s quite clear what he thinks about the state: “We have strict statutes and most biting laws”, he says, “Which for this nineteen years we have let slip”.

Angelo, meanwhile, is looking to make an example of somebody, and into his field of vision comes Claudio, who has got his fiancée pregnant in a city-state where sex outside marriage is a capital offence.  Angelo is as good as his word, and the date is set for his execution.

Can Shakespeare really be suggesting that laws like these should be implemented to the letter?  It would seem not.  True, Vincentio retains his hard-line rhetoric to the end of the play, still praising in Act Five Vienna’s “strong statutes” while lamenting that they’re observed “As much in mock as mark”.

But Shakespeare’s presentation of the city’s policing as comically unfit for purpose suggests that no respectable justice system can be built on such fragile foundations.  Moreover, his picture of Angelo’s private morality – he’ll save Claudio from the executioner if his sister Isabella will sleep with him – undermines any claim he might have to credibility.

In the end, Shakespeare does what he often does: he opens up a question, then leaves it to his audience to puzzle out the nuances.  The play was written in 1604, a year after the arrival of a new monarch and a year before the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered.  It was a highly political time – a new king, a new century – and the dilemma Shakespeare uncovers here remains open to debate four centuries later.


Scene by Scene

Act One Scene One

Vincentio praises Escalus’s knowledge of the city-state, its people, institutions and system of justice.

He appoints Angelo to run the city – its “Mortality and mercy” – in his absence, assisted by Escalus.

He dismisses Angelo’s reservations, telling him that his “haste from hence” is of a “quick condition”.

Act One Scene Two

Lucio and his friends welcome the fact that war between Vienna and Hungary may be imminent.

As they joke about venereal disease, the proprietor of the brothel Mistress Overdone appears.

She reveals Claudio’s arrest for impregnating his girlfriend Juliet, to be beheaded in three days.

Pompey, a pimp, informs Mistress Overdone that all the brothels in Vienna are to be pulled down.

Claudio, being shown in public by order of “Lord Angelo”, explains his situation to Lucio.

He was to marry Juliet but got her pregnant – and the old law is being revived by the new governor.

He tells Lucio to get his sister to engage with Angelo since she would prove a persuasive advocate.

Act One Scene Three

Vincentio explains to Friar Thomas at his monastery how he has always “loved the life removed”.

He has handed his power to Angelo, a man of discipline, while he pretends to be in Poland.

He claims the Vienna state has draconian powers – a “lion in a cave” – which it does not use.

As a result, the justice system is “more mock’d than fear’d” and society’s discipline is breaking down.

Vincentio will disguise himself as a Friar “of your order”, and monitor how Angelo performs.

Vincentio suspects that Angelo, though “precise”, may have looser appetites than he concedes.

Act One Scene Four

At the convent, Isabella’s visitor Lucio tells her about her brother’s arrest and the reasons for it.

Isabella knows Juliet and suggests marriage, but Lucio says Claudio is being made an example of.

In the past, he says, everyday life has ignored the law like “mice by lions”, but Angelo is different.

Isabella must make haste to Lord Angelo to “weep and kneel” to obtain her brother’s pardon.

Act Two Scene One

Escalus gently suggests that Angelo may himself have been tempted in the past to break this law.

Angelo says you have to resist temptation, and he settles the execution for the following morning.

Having arrested Pompey and Froth, Elbow tries ineptly to explain how they have broken the law.

Angelo despairs of understanding Elbow’s explanation, and leaves the interrogation to Escalus.

Escalus advises Elbow to carry on investigating until he knows whether a crime has been committed.

He tells Froth to stay away from pimps and brothels, and threatens Pompey with whipping.

Escalus heads home for dinner regretting the forthcoming death of “poor Claudio”.

Act Two Scene Two

The Provost confirms with Angelo that Claudio dies tomorrow though Juliet is about to give birth.

Dismissing Juliet as “the fornicatress”, Angelo agrees to meet Isabella and Lucio.

But he refuses to bend, leading Lucio to encourage Isabella to “Kneel down before him”.

Isabella tells Angelo that if the positions were reversed, Claudio would commute the sentence.

But Angelo insists that Claudio “dies tomorrow” and encourages her to “be content”.

Isabella asks Angelo if he has not felt what her brother felt, and he invites her back tomorrow.

Alone with his thoughts, Angelo reflects that he desires “to hear her speak again” tomorrow.

Act Two Scene Three

Vincentio visits the prison where Claudio is being held, disguised as a Friar on pastoral duties.

He meets Juliet and learns that the child she is about to deliver was “mutually” conceived.

He takes his leave of her after revealing that the execution is to be carried out tomorrow.

Act Two Scene Four

Angelo reveals that with his religious misgivings he is confused about his feelings for Isabella.

Initially Angelo and Isabella talk at cross-purposes about the execution of Claudio.

Then Angelo makes it plain that he is calling on her to “lay down the treasures of your body”.

Isabella says she would prefer death.  In that case, replies Angelo, “must your brother die”.

Angelo puts it plainly to Isabella: Claudio will not die “if you give me love”.

Isabella is appalled and threatens to “tell the world aloud / What man thou art”.

But Angelo is confident that no one will believe her, given his reputation and status.

Isabella is determined to reject Angelo’s offer, and is sure Claudio will support her decision.

Act Three Scene One

Vincentio, still disguised as the Friar, encourages Claudio to come to terms with death as welcome.

When Isabella arrives, Vincentio asks the Provost for a place to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Isabella tells Claudio that the only possible release from his sentence will imprison him “till death”.

She denounces Angelo as a “pond as deep as hell” for proposing her virginity for Claudio’s freedom.

Disputing Vincentio’s earlier homily on death, Claudio hates that he must “go we know not where”.

He begs Isabella to accept the proposal, and is rebuked: “O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!”

Vincentio intervenes, and explains to Claudio that Angelo was only testing his sister’s resolve.

Next he tells Isabella about Mariana who would have married Angelo but her dowry was lost at sea.

Isabella must agree to sleep with Angelo, he suggests, but allow Marianna to take her place secretly.

Then Claudio will be freed, and Mariana will be able to claim her right to marry Angelo.

Act Three Scene Two

Vincentio encounters Elbow outside the prison, and tells him to take Pompey to jail for theft.

Lucio appears and, though a friend of Pompey, he refuses to bail him, so Elbow leads him off to jail.

Lucio and the Friar discuss the political situation: Lucio would like to see “more lenity to lechery”.

The subject of Angelo comes up: however he was conceived, says Lucio, his urine is “congealed ice”.

Lucio says the Duke would not have allowed Claudio’s execution since he was of a similar mind set.

He was also “superficial, ignorant [and] unweighing” says Lucio – an analysis the Duke disputes.

Lucio repeats his desire for Claudio to be freed and for the Duke to return before he takes his leave.

Escalus appears with Mistress Overdone and orders her to jail for being “A bawd of eleven years”.

Escalus is introduced to the Friar, and when asked about the Duke gives a positive report of him.

The Friar reports that Claudio is ready to die, and Escalus says he has failed to influence Angelo.

Alone, Vincentio emphasises the need for governors not to punish offences of which they are guilty.

Act Four Scene One

Isabella explains to Vincentio, then to Mariana, the plan for sleeping with Angelo this evening.

Mariana agrees to the project, and Vincentio reassures her that the deceit is justified: “’Tis no sin”.

Act Four Scene Three

The Provost agrees with Pompey that he will help with the execution and then be released from jail.

Claudio is summoned by the executioner, to be told that his punishment falls “by eight tomorrow”.

Barnardine is also called but he is absent, “lock’d up in sleep” as Claudio reports: “He will not wake”.

The Provost condemns Angelo as “bitter” but Vincentio defends him, praising his “holy abstinence”.

Vincentio says Claudio will be freed tomorrow, but instructions come from Angelo to execute him.

Furthermore Angelo instructs that Claudio’s head is sent to him as proof that he has been beheaded.

Vincentio asks about Barnardine, and learns he is due to be beheaded and is indifferent to his fate.

Vincentio asks the Provost to delay executing Claudio, but instead send Barnardine’s head to Angelo.

Act Four Scene Three

Pompey knows many of the inmates of the prison having met them at Mistress Overdone’s brothel.

Barnardine is to be executed, but he refuses because he has been drinking all night and is not ready.

The Provost notes that the pirate Ragozine died that morning – they could send his head instead.

The Provost agrees to conceal Claudio for two days, so long as Vincentio can guarantee his safety.

Vincentio then reveals plans for the Duke’s return, and the pirate’s head is despatched to Angelo.

Isabella arrives at the prison, to be informed by Vincentio that her brother has been executed.

She reacts angrily but is told to keep calm and meet the Duke when he returns to Vienna tomorrow.

Lucio appears and offers to tell the Friar private tales about the Duke, but his offer is refused.

Act Four Scene Four

Escalus and Angelo are reluctant to follow instructions and meet the Duke at the gate tomorrow.

Angelo reveals his sense of confusion at having deflowered Isabella and executed Claudio.

Act Four Scene Five

The Duke arrives back in Vienna “in his own habit” and distributes instructions to various allies.

Act Four Scene Six

At the city gate, Isabella tells Mariana that she is reluctant to “accuse him so” – meaning Angelo.

But Isabella advises her to follow the Duke’s instructions, and Friar Peter guides them to their place.

Act Five Scene One

The Duke congratulates Escalus and Angelo for the “goodness of your justice” in his absence.

But Isabella emerges to accuse Angelo of being a murderer, a “hypocrite” and a “virgin-violator”.

She implores the Duke to hear how she was forced to make a “gift of my chaste body” to Angelo.

She claims she “did yield to him” but that the next day Angelo ordered the execution to proceed.

The Duke dismisses her accusations against Angelo, and orders for her to be taken to the prison.

Friar Peter confirms Isabella knew Lodowick, a man “divine and holy” – but now apparently unwell.

Isabella is removed to prison, but Mariana now asserts her claim to be regarded as Angelo’s wife.

Angelo agrees he knew her before, but she counters that Angelo “know me as a wife” more recently.

The Duke leaves temporarily while Angelo and Escalus investigate the accusations against Angelo.

When the Duke returns he is disguised as the Friar, and is forced to deny that he set the women up.

Escalus orders the Friar to be taken and tortured on the rack, but he accuses Vienna of “corruption”.

Lucio accuses the Friar of slandering the Duke, but he says it was Lucio who “spoke so” of the Duke.

As Lucio calls for the Friar to be hanged the Duke “pulls off the Friar’s hood and discovers Vincentio”.

Seeing the Duke, Angelo confesses and requests “immediate sentence then and sequent death”.

But the Duke instructs Angelo to go with Mariana and Friar Peter to be married to her “instantly”.

The Duke tells Isabella that he failed to save her brother because of the “swift celerity of his death”.

Angelo returns, now married to Mariana, but the Duke instantly condemns him to be beheaded.

Mariana begs first the Duke, then Isabella, to intercede for Angelo’s life, but the Duke is unmoved.

Next he rounds on the Provost, who is despatched to bring Claudio, Juliet and Barnardine to him.

Barnardine is pardoned, Claudio revealed, and the Duke proposes marriage to a silent Isabella.

Angelo is pardoned, but Lucio is punished by being married to a “punk” though otherwise pardoned.

The play ends with Isabella invited to share the Duke’s life and possessions with him at the palace.


Thinking Aloud

As we saw, a prominent theme throughout the play is the question of how a country should be governed – whether laws should always be firmly applied or whether there is room for flexibility, even mercy.  Angelo belongs to the “firm application” school – reinforcing Lucio’s suspicion that Angelo is deliberately making an example of Claudio, in order to “give fear to use [i.e., custom, habit] and liberty”.  Moreover, he believes that this programme reflects Angelo’s personality, “a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth”.   In this respect, he inadvertently echoes Vincentio’s own view of Angelo – a man who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows”.  Later in the play, the question arises how cold his blood may be when temptation arises.

The opening act proposes a number of binary oppositions, alongside Vincentio and Angelo, with their apparently contrasting approaches to government.  For example, the brothel is contrasted with the convent – and so, by extension, Mistress Overdone with Isabella.  Juliet is perhaps also a point of contrast with Isabella, and Lucio with Claudio.  The main theme of these contrasts is freedom or licence versus restraint – or in Freudian terms, id (or desire) versus superego (or conscience).

Twice in Act One the state and its laws are compared to a lion.  In 1.3, Vincentio describes the state’s laws as resembling “an o’ergrown lion in a cave”, potentially powerful but ineffectual; in 1.4, Lucio compares “the hideous law” to “lions”, admitting it has been ignored by the “mice”, or ordinary citizens.  In the English self-image, the lion has a long history as an image of power, going back to Richard the Lionheart (1089 – 99) and beyond – an imagery that continues to this day, though it may now be more naturally associated with sports teams than politicians.

The comedy of 2.1, supplied chiefly by the inept official Elbow, arises from the losing battle he fights with the English language.  But there is a deeper implication: the scene has opened with a somewhat detached discussion about government, and whether those in power should temper justice with mercy.  The appearance and performance of Elbow suggests that justice may sometimes be built on the shakiest of foundations, and should be flexible enough to recognise it.  In the circumstances, mercy may sometimes be tantamount to justice.

Tempted by the virtuous Isabella, Angelo reveals in the soliloquy that closes 2.2 a side of his character that he would prefer to keep hidden: a weakness for “this virtuous maid” that he cannot quite control. He evidently thinks of himself in equally virtuous terms as being saintly – hence the graphic metaphor he uses for the temptation he feels for Isabella: “O cunning enemy,” he says, addressing the devil himself, “that, to catch a saint, / With saints dost bait thy hook!”  The temporary governor of Vienna seems to think of himself as the prey rather than the hunter, and powerless with it.

It is striking how often Shakespeare allows his villains the luxury of delivering a soliloquy to the audience: Iago is one example, Richard III another.  In neither case would the audience really want to give them a fair hearing, and the same must be true in this play, where Angelo is clearly cast in the villain’s role.  Nonetheless his soliloquy in 2.2 is a thoughtful endeavour to make sense of his own feelings rather than a brazen attempt to provoke the audience (as is perhaps the case with Iago and indeed Richard).

When Claudio begs Isabella in 3.1 to go through with the sexual encounter Angelo has proposed, her reaction is one of horror and revulsion: “O you beast!” she exclaims, “O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!”  Clearly her choices at this stage are unenviable, but her reaction is perhaps also reminiscent of Angelo’s style in its adherence to principle, or lack of flexibility.  The reader may wonder at this stage why she told Claudio about Angelo’s proposal if she is so closed to persuasion. 

Angelo must rank among the most villainous characters in Shakespeare (though, admittedly, there is quite a lot of competition).  But each scene appears to reveal fresh evidence of his odious personality.  His treatment of Mariana – she lost her brother and her dowry, and then (as a direct result) her fiancé and her marriage – is quite damning.  And was he sympathetic to his former fiancée? Not really.  He “Left her in tears and dried not one of them with his comfort”.  Hard, perhaps, to know why Vincentio should have seen this narrow, corrupt character as a suitable substitute for himself in governing the city-state.

Vincentio drums up a somewhat labyrinthine plot in 3.1 to solve the problem Angelo has created, involving all kinds of deception and subterfuge.  One wonders why he doesn’t simply return to office and put Angelo in jail.  Nonetheless in the process of concocting his plans he reminds the reader of another Shakespearean Friar – Lawrence in “Romeo and Juliet”, who, like Vincentio, comes up with an impossibly complicated trick to solve a fairly simple problem: in that case, to get Juliet away from Verona.  Friar Lawrence’s plotting famously brings disaster.  At this stage of “Measure for Measure”, it seems Vincentio may be no more successful.  Either way, Vincentio’s plan reveals an ingrained bias towards deception that will revive in Act Five.

When Lucio falls into discussion with the Friar on the subject of the Duke and his governance in 3.2, things are not of course quite as he believes.  The scene is reminiscent of a similar scene in “Henry V”, in which the young King wraps himself in a borrowed cloak and goes among his men, to discuss among other things their attitudes to their King.  Happily Henry hears positive responses to his questions.  Vincentio not so much, though one clear conclusion he might like to draw is that he is more popular than his successor.

Vincentio delivers a thoughtful homily on kingship at the end of Act Three, suggesting that integrity and balance might be good principles for a monarch to embody.  For example, Vincentio believes that in administering justice, authority should be “holy” as well as “severe”, and he questions whether those in authority should punish faults of which they too are guilty.  It’s interesting that Shakespeare should have strong views on this subject, given that the new King James I has held power for around a year at the time of writing.  Shakespeare will have further thoughts on monarchy to impart when he writes “Macbeth” and “King Lear” over the next twelve or eighteen months.

From Claudio’s perspective, Angelo’s message to the Provost in 4.2 is depressingly specific: Angelo wants him executed and he wants his head as evidence. But Vincentio proves once again to be resourceful in saving Claudio (and Angelo) from the consequences of the new crack-down in Vienna: Barnardine will have to be beheaded in his place.  This plan of action, based on the problematic premise that one life is more worthwhile than another, may be difficult for the audience to accept, but Shakespeare piles on the justification: he is always drunk, he is past reforming, he is indifferent to his own fate.  Even so, the plan seems somewhat half-baked.

In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, beheading was a punishment reserved specifically for traitors.  Other executions were more of an ordeal, which is why in certain circumstances beheading seemed like the best option: at least it was quick.  It was the fate that befell Mary Queen of Scots (1587) and the Earl of Essex (1601), both of whom plotted against the Queen.  Worse ways to go would include being burned at the stake and being hanged, drawn and quartered.  In the case of the latter punishment, the head would be cut off and put on show: a warning to others.

When Vincentio decides to deceive his people into believing that he has left the city, the play is plunged into a lengthy exercise in dramatic irony, since every time Vincentio appears on stage, the audience must necessarily know better what is happening than the characters with whom he is interacting.  This effect extends even to the scenes from which Vincentio is absent.  Act Four Scene Four is a case in point.  Here Angelo’s soliloquy reveals his confusion at having slept with the saintly Isabella while executing her brother Claudio.  The audience may not sympathise with Angelo’s anxiety, but they can at least draw comfort from the fact that neither of Angelo’s concerns is actually true.  Isabella has not been touched, and Claudio is still very much alive.

Dramatic irony is particularly pervasive in the lengthy last act, since only the audience (and Vincentio) have an accurate picture of what is really happening here.  So to take a trivial example, when Lucio criticises the Duke in his absence (as he supposes), we recognise that he would be better off keeping his counsel.  But there are other games played here too – for example, when Isabella claims to have made “a gift of my chaste body” to Angelo, or when the Friar points out that he is not a subject of the Duke.  Indeed he is not, though not perhaps as those words are interpreted by the other characters.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays revolve around ideas of disguise and mistaken identity, and “Measure for Measure” explores this theme in some detail.  First we are presented with the Duke, disguised as a Friar, exploring his own city from a new perspective and encountering characters like Lucio, who seem too free with their opinions for their own good.  But two further disguises emerge: Mariana takes the place of Isabella in sleeping with Angelo and – still more macabre – the head of the pirate Ragozine (“A man of Claudio’s years, his beard and head / Just of his colour”) is sent to Angelo as Claudio.  Needless to say, Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony ensures that the audience is fully informed the characters themselves less so.

The motives of the Duke in this play in general are not always clear but it is fair to say that he acts as he does in order to get a clear picture of the city-state from a more revealing angle.  What he discovers is striking: the state is corrupt, he believes (“here in Vienna / I have seen corruption boil and bubble”), because though there are “laws for all faults”, the laws are not applied.  The same conclusion had been reached already by Angelo, of course, and the punishment he proposed for Claudio was specifically designed to act as a warning to others.  How far this strategy delivers justice is another matter.

The first half of the play is dominated by the figure of Isabella as she battles to free her brother from the attention of the executioner.  But in the last act, her role is marginal, because events are now under the control of the Duke.  In some ways this is a departure for a Shakespearean comedy since in many of these plays, events are controlled by female characters: Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” for example, or Rosalind in “As You Like It”.  But the Duke warms to his role as he manipulates events in this act – the longest single act in Shakespeare’s plays – where keen eyes will have noticed that the name he gives the Friar he plays – Lodowick – means literally “the winner of the game”.  Vincentio, meanwhile, means “conqueror”.  How far the name of Angelo is appropriate may be a matter for discussion.

The play closes on an ambiguous note: the Duke settles a number of marriages – Juliet to Claudio, Angelo to Mariana, Lucio to Kate Keepdown – as is the usual pattern at the end of many of Shakespeare’s comedies.  Finally comes the proposal of the Duke himself to Isabella.  Her response to this proposal, however, is telling: she is silent.  In law, this is tantamount to consent (Quis tacire consentire – Whoever is silent consents) but in a romance, the audience might have expected a more emphatic and whole-hearted response.


Who’s Who / Characters


Confusing: in what he says he seems to share the hard-line instincts of his deputy Angelo.  At the start of the play he believes the state has severe laws and ought to use them; at the end he believes the state is corrupt because too often it tempers justice with mercy. Yet he spends most of the play extricating Claudio (by the most labyrinthine methods) from the consequences of the legal clamp-down he seems to advocate. 

Self-deception perhaps?  Certainly the duke is a practised deceiver, going undercover to find out about his own state – a laudable objective – and concocting deceptions (for example involving Mariana and Angelo) that frankly strain credulity.  One senses that Vincentio was originally intended to play the benign patriarch, dispensing justice and mercy – a younger Prospero, perhaps – but statecraft rarely turns out to be quite that simple in Shakespeare’s plays.


Shakespeare brings any number of villains to the stage, some of whom are well-known to the public – Iago, Richard III – while others have kept a lower profile.  Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing” is one such, Angelo another.  Yet his crimes are quite venal, his hypocrisy breath-taking.  Advocating a hard line on crime, determined to leave criminals in fear of the law, his behaviour in office is an offence against decency, a revolting abuse of power.  Yet he does have some redeeming features: his soliloquy in 2.2 (“What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?”) opens a window onto a soul with some integrity left, and his immediate confession in the last act (“death / Is all the grace I beg”) reinforces the impression that he is not quite in Iago’s class as a villain.


Shakespeare’s comedies are notable for their can-do heroines – Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”, Rosalind in “As You Like It”, Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” – but none has to resolve anything like the moral dilemma that faces Isabella in “Measure for Measure”.   Committed to her religion, and so to a life of celibacy, she is presented with a choice she can’t make. 

Temperamentally the decision she favours, to let her brother die, is probably the right one for her, given her bias towards self-denial.  Who can say?  Meanwhile, if silence is the right response to the challenges she faces, she is responsible for the loudest silence in Shakespeare when the Duke favours her with a marriage proposal, and she keeps her own counsel.

Quick Quiz

  1. Who is Angelo’s deputy in the absence of Vincentio?
  2. Vienna is about to go to war – with which country?
  3. Give the name of the brothel’s proprietor.
  4. Where does Vincentio pretend to be while absent from Vienna?
  5. Who tells Isabella about Claudio’s predicament?
  6. What prevented Mariana marrying Angelo?
  7. How does Lucio describe Angelo’s urine?
  8. Which other prisoner is to help with Claudio’s execution?
  9. Give the name of the pirate whose head is sent to Angelo.
  10. Give the name of the Friar played by Vincentio
  1. Escalus
  2. Hungary
  3. Mistress Overdone
  4. Poland
  5. Lucio
  6. Her dowry was lost at sea
  7. “Congealed ice”.
  8. Pompey
  9. Ragozine
  10. Lodowick

Last Word

“Measure for Measure” might be described as a play of two halves.  In the first half, Duke Vincentio goes undercover to establish how well his state applies its own laws.  In the second half, one potential victim of the resulting clamp down emerges happily unscathed, enabling matters to proceed to a conclusion featuring four weddings and, happily, no funeral.

Many of Shakespeare’s comedies share something of this structure.  Two apparently incompatible narratives are yoked together in a plot that doesn’t seem big enough for both of them – and forced to co-exist.  “The Merchant of Venice” is a case in point, with its parallel plots featuring Portia’s lottery-based marriage prospects and Shylock’s original approach to debt collecting.

One of the striking features of “The Merchant of Venice”, however, is the prominence of the leading female character.  At first she has a passive role as she waits for one of her suitors to guess right. Later she emerges as the dominant agent, forcing events to a favourable conclusion.  Similar female agency occurs in “As You Like It”, where Rosalind manages the complications of her relationship with Orlando while bringing other relationships (Phoebe and Silvius for example) safely to harbour.

“Measure for Measure” doesn’t offer this role to Isabella.  Rather, she symbolises self-denial and chastity for much of the play, before emerging as a Jacobean version of the trophy wife.  In this context her silence when Vincentio proposes to her is eloquent, an appropriate symbol of her increasing passivity in Act Five.

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