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Theatre / Measure for Measure

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As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
"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, is convinced by the libertine Lucio, a friend of Claudio's, to 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 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:

  • Armor-Piercing Response: When Angelo insists that Isabella must sleep with him to save Claudio, she threatens to publicize this threat and destroy his reputation. The first line of his response consists of five words that stop her in her tracks.
    "Who will believe thee, Isabelle?"
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Well, the Duke's certainly not evil, but he does enjoy manipulating his advisers.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: A particularly odd example; Shakespeare ostensibly sets the play in Vienna but gives all the characters Italian names just... because.
  • Bad Habits: The Duke. He poses as a friar, up to and including granting absolution to men condemned to death.
  • Bed Trick: Angelo attempts to use the Scarpia Ultimatum on Isabella; she convinces Angelo's rejected fiancée Mariana, who still loves him, to go in her place.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: The Duke a bit in his friar guise, though it's mostly in response to Lucio obliviously slandering him to his face.
  • 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 forced to marry a prostitute that he got pregnant is worse than being hanged.
    Lucio: Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging.
    Duke: Slandering a prince deserves it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Escalus drops into this while dealing with Pompey and Elbow.
    Elbow: Prove this, thou wicked Hannibal, or I'll have mine action of battery on thee.
    Escalus: If he took you a box o' the ear, you might have your action of slander too.
  • Drunk with Power: Angelo. Interestingly, he seems to recognize this fact.
  • Eccentric Mentor: The Duke... or maybe he just likes to think so.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep":
    • The Duke is always only called The Duke. According to the Dramatis Personae, his real name is Vincentio, but he is never referred to as Vincentio in the play.
    • The Provost doesn't have a name.
  • Exact Words: One can't help but feel like the Duke is thoroughly enjoying himself while his friar persona is being cross-examined.
    Duke (in disguise): I protest I love the duke as I love myself.
  • A Friend in Need: When Claudio and Juliet are led in a procession towards the jail, Lucio is shocked to see them, and resolves to do anything to help Claudio out. Lucio is as good as his word: he brings word to Isabella, Claudio's only family, and encourages her when she goes to talk to Angelo for the first time.
  • Geeky Turn-On: Angelo isn't charmed in the least by the professional hookers that he indicts and condemns — but when he listens to Isabella's passionate and eloquent reasoning, he's smitten.
  • Hot And Cold: Isabella, according to some.
  • Hyperlink Story: One of the few Shakespeare plays that can be called this. The Duke Vincentio is arguably the protagonist but he is often more a plot device than a character. Angelo is the play's antagonist but at the start of the play, he could be considered a protagonist, and Isabella has the most lines in the play and character development but she often works with others. Then there are the supporting characters like Claudio, Juliet, Lucio, the Bawd, Barnardine who have their own differentiated space.
  • In the Hood: A common interpretation of the Duke's disguise, given that he's disguised as a monk. The usual version of the text has a stage direction explicitly referring to his hood being pulled back when he reveals himself at the end.
  • 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.
  • Karmic Rape: By modern sexual morality, Angelo gets raped by deception while trying to rape Isabella by extortion.
  • 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. Act I Scene II in particular is a veritable Hurricane of Puns about hemorrhoids and syphilis, though unfortunately most of the puns haven't aged well.
  • 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."
  • Minion with an F in Evil: The Provost, certainly from Claudio's point of view. When Isabella comes to plead with Angelo to spare her brother's life, the Provost is cheering her on. Later he actively works to try and find a way to save Claudio's life, even when it means breaking the law. At the end of the play the Duke commends him for this and promises to promote him as a reward.
  • 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. Others have her looked shocked and horrified.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Isabella begs Angelo to spare Claudio's life.
  • 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, made all the worse because Isabella is planning on entering a convent and forswearing the company of men.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Much like Dogberry, Elbow proves to be fairly tedious. This prompts Angelo to leave, entrusting the rest of the trial (and hopefully punishment) to Escalus.
  • 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 commends 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.
    • The Duke, as the friar, comforts Claudio by claiming that Angelo's Scarpia Ultimatum was just a secret test of Isabella's character.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Angelo. He has an entire soliloquy about it.
  • Straight Edge Evil: Angelo again. His personal reputation hasn't got a stain on it; he's never visited a whorehouse and even Isabella admits he does his job well. This makes him all the more frightening when he does succumb to temptation.
  • 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 his life and soul, as he is spiritually unprepared to be executed, is worth more than her chastity. Her response to him is still 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.
  • Taking the Veil: Isabella is entering a particularly severe and isolated convent, that appears to be modeled on the Poor Clares. One of the aspects of her life is a permanent dissociation from the society of men. Isabella takes her faith and its theology very seriously, and appears to really have a calling. But the Duke has other ideas...
  • 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.
  • Wedding Finale: In theory, the long final scene has Angelo and Mariana get married, but in most productions, they exit for the ceremony. (It also ends with the Duke proposing marriage to Isabella, and it's possible to stage the marriage in Isabella's silence, but this is by no means clear.)
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Initially, Claudio agrees that Isabella should not take Angelo's deal, but the prospect of death changes his mind and he begs her to do it. Isabella is understandably not pleased that he's asking her to go and get raped to save him.
  • Zany Scheme: Trying to get another prisoner's head sent to Angelo as "Claudio" ends up being much more complicated than intended.