Go to your bosom; knock there, and ask your heart, what it doth know that's like my brother's fault.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
A tragicomedy by William Shakespeare
. It is one of Shakespeare's problem plays, because although it is technically a comedy, its dark storyline and ambiguous ending are not the typical comic fare. If written in today's time, the play would probably be considered a dramedy. The play is famous for its frankness regarding sex: One of the secondary characters is a pimp, Claudio's problems start with premarital sex, and the main plot involves a corrupt official trying to get a religious novice to sleep with him.
Vincentio, the duke of Vienna, is concerned that laws forbidding fornication are not being observed in the city. He resolves to set out on a journey, leaving Vienna in the hands of his adviser, Angelo. This is, in fact, a ploy: the Duke actually plans to disguise himself as a friar and live among the commoners, so he can figure out how to better serve them. It also gives him an opportunity to see how Angelo would rule Vienna if the Duke really did go away.
Angelo is a much stricter ruler than the Duke, and enforces the laws on fornication ruthlessly. He quickly allows power to go to his head, as demonstrated by his treatment of Claudio, a young man who got his fiancée Juliet pregnant. Although Claudio is more than willing to marry Juliet, Angelo sentences him to death, so he may serve as an example to other lustful men. Claudio's sister Isabella, a nun in training, visits him in jail and says she will plead his case with Angelo.
Angelo meets with Isabella. It becomes clear he is a hypocrite when he offers to spare Claudio's life if she agrees to sleep with him. She refuses to sacrifice her virginity for her brother's life; Claudio begs her to reconsider, and she coolly suggests Claudio get his affairs in order. She won't sleep with Angelo, and no one will believe her if she accuses him of coercion.
Fortunately for Claudio, the Duke has been watching carefully from the sidelines. He has a scheme that will set all to right: Angelo had previously agreed to marry a woman named Marianna, but reneged on his promise when her dowry was lost at sea. The Duke proposes that Marianna disguise herself as Isabella, and sleep with Angelo instead. This is referred to as "the bed trick
However, after the sex, Angelo fears his hypocrisy might be discovered. He (surprise surprise) goes back on his word and orders that Claudio be executed. The Duke then proposes a new scheme, called "the head trick
": Instead of Claudio's head, they will send the head of another, actually guilty prisoner. Unfortunately, the only criminal up for execution is too drunk to be killed. Just in the nick of time, a random pirate dies of fever, and so his head is removed and sent to Angelo.
The Duke decides he has played dress-up long enough and resumes his role as ruler of Vienna. Isabella and Marianna petition him, claiming Angelo wronged them, but the Duke feigns ignorance. Angelo blames everything on the mysterious friar who's been hanging about, and he's backed up by a local pimp, Lucio; the Duke leaves and returns disguised as the friar, whereupon Lucio accuses him of various crimes. The Duke finally reveals himself, and sets everything in order. He forces Angelo to marry Marianna. He then condemns Angelo to death, but pardons him when Marianna is joined by Isabella, who still believes that Angelo is responsible for her brother's death, in pleading for mercy. He then brings out Claudio, alive and well, and reunites him with Juliet; he condemns Lucio to marrying the whore who bore his child but pardons his life; and finally, he makes Isabella an offer of marriage. Her reply is never given, and the play ends with everyone going to the Duke's palace.
As noted above, Isabella's reply to the proposal is not given
. Though general consensus is she marries the Duke, it's up to the director to decide whether or not she accepts his offer.
Measure for Measure provides examples of:
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Well, the Duke's certainly not evil, but he does enjoy manipulating his advisers.
- Bad Habits: The Duke
- Bed Trick: Trope Namer.
- Cassandra Truth: What awaits Isabelle if she tries to accuse Angelo.
- The Chessmaster: The Duke, who deftly arranges and resolves the entire plot.
- Clark Kenting: The Duke's disguise fools everyone, even his closest and most trusted adviser. The commoners have an excuse for not knowing who he is, but Angelo?
- Cruel Mercy:
- Angelo has lost his post, been forced to marry a former fiance, and had his reputation ruined as a hypocrite, but is allowed to live.
- Lucio objects that being foced to marry a prostitute that he got with child is worse than being hanged.
Lucio: Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging.
Duke: Slandering a prince deserves it.
- Drunk with Power: Angelo. Interestingly, he seems to recognize this fact.
- Eccentric Mentor
- Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The Duke is always only called The Duke.
- According to the Dramatis Personae, The Duke's real name is Vincentio, but he is never referred to as such in the play.
- The Provost also doesn't have a name.
- Hot And Cold: Isabella, according to some.
- It Amused Me: Not explicitly stated, but the Duke seems to do what he does just to see what will happen if he does it.
- A frequently cited interpretation is that he uses Angelo to do his dirty work and clean up the lawlessness in the city (which he doesn't want to do himself because it would risk his popularity with the common folk). Although the way he executes his plan may still qualify as this trope.
Duke: Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope,
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do; for we bid this be done,
When evil deeds have their permissive pass
And not the punishment. Therefore, indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo impos'd the office;
Who may, in th' ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander.
- King Incognito: The Duke spends most of the play running around as a friar.
- Lampshaded Double Entendre: Shakespeare is a man of a thousand dirty jokes, and, given that this is a play about sex, this one rises to the chall—er, it's got a lot of them too.
- Malaproper: Elbow, the constable. Shakespeare's constables seem prone to this.
- Manipulative Bastard: Angelo.
"Who will believe thee, Isabelle?
My unsoiled name, the austereness of my life... will so your accusation overweigh, that you shall stifle in your own report and smell of calumny."
- Mistaken Identity
- Naughty Nuns: Being in a habit does not reduce Isabelle's Hello, Nurse! effect on men—especially not Angelo...
- No Romantic Resolution: As noted in the description, we never learn whether Isabella accepts the duke's proposal. Some directors have the actress give a hint that she does accept, so you may see a Maybe Ever After ending in performance.
- Rags to Royalty: Isabella, assuming she accepts the Duke's proposal.
- Rash Equilibrium: Isabella never actually intends to sleep with Angelo, and he decides not to spare her brother after all.
- Right in Front of Me: Lucio insults the Duke to the friar's face and the friar to the Duke's face.
- Scarpia Ultimatum: Angelo's demand of Isabella.
- Secret Identity: The Duke. Lucio runs into considerable trouble telling some random friar about how he and the Duke are buddies.
- Secret Test of Character: Several.
- The entire play is basically a Secret Test of Character for Angelo while the Duke observes. Once some of his failures are revealed he gives Angelo several opportunities to come clean as well, while appearing to be entirely on his side. Angelo fails but is spared anyway.
- The Duke tests the Provost's loyalty. Will he spare Claudio despite strict orders from Angelo to have him executed? When the Provost proves he will honor his orders the Duke gives him an escape hatch in the form of a letter from the Duke. At the end of the play the Duke comends the Provost's integrity and promises him he will be promoted.
- While disguised as the friar the Duke asks his chief advisor, Escalus, what sort of man the Duke was. Escalus praises him and wishes he were there to resolve the case with Claudio.
- The Duke sets things up to see if Isabella will plead for Angelo's life even while still believing that her brother has been executed, therefore showing true Christian charity.
- Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Angelo.
- Straw Hypocrite: Several characters may qualify:
- Angelo wishes to execute Claudio for sex out of wedlock and then attempts a Scarpia Ultimatum with his sister. He does get a scene where he calls What the Hell, Hero? on himself, but still tries to cover it up when Isabella reveals the scheme to the Duke.
- Isabella, a would-be nun, gets very upset at her brother when he suggests that maybe his life and soul, as he is spiritually unprepared to be executed, is worth more than her chastity after all. Her response to him is very un-Christian, basically telling him he deserves to be executed and condemned to hell, and that she questions whether they aren't really half-siblings.
Isabella: O fie, fie, fie!
Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd;
'Tis best that thou diest quickly.
- One of the reasons the Duke gives for leaving is that he wants to see the morality laws enforced better than he has done it, but then he pardons everybody at the end of the play. He also gives religious direction and absolution to several characters when he isn't really a friar, and there's no sign he corrects this later.
- Sugar And Ice Girl: A way to read Isabella.
- The Thing That Would Not Leave: Barnadine's refusal to be executed plays out like this.
- Title Drop:
Duke: Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.
- Tyrant Takes the Helm: Angelo, who goes a little Drunk with Power.
- Vetinari Job Security: Nobody is happy with how Angelo is handling Claudio's case, and several characters lament that the Duke is apparently unreachable.
- Villainous Crush: Angelo for Isabella. But then everybody Isabella comes into contact seems to quickly develop feelings for her.