The Measure for Measure play is set in Vienna whose streets and taverns are teeming with criminals, prostitutes and pimps. Most of the action takes place in the Duke’s palace. Some scenes are set in the city prison and others in the streets of Vienna. The final, large, scene resolves all the strands at the city gates.
Date written: 1603
Genre classification: Measure for Measure has traditionally been classified as a Comedy but because of the difficulties of placing it into one of the more clear-cut categories it’s considered to be one of the Problem Plays.
Main characters in Measure for Measure: Duke Vincentio wishes to clean up the city, which has become infested with vice. He appoints Angelo to do that while he pretends to leave Vienna temporarily, but remains, walking about in disguise, observing the process.
Isabella, the sister of the inoffensive young Claudio, is a virtuous young woman around whom the action revolves. She is about to dedicate her life to God, as a nun. Claudio has been imprisoned and sentenced to death under the new laws, for fornication, because he has made his beloved Juliet, a sweet young woman, pregnant. Lucio, a laddish friend of Isabella, persuades her to approach Angelo and plead for her brother’s release. Angelo agrees to do so but only if Isabella will sleep with him.
Escalus is the Duke’s trusted advisor. Mariana, a sad young woman, was once engaged to Angelo but he abandoned her because her dowry had been lost in a shipwreck.
The Provost is the officer in charge of the prison. He is a good, compassionate man, reluctant to carry out the death sentence on Claudio. Elbow is an honest but hopeless police constable. Barnadine is the drunken cellmate of Claudio. Abhorson is the official executioner.
Mistress Overdone is the madame of a brothel and Pompey is her pimp.
Francisca is a nun, and Thomas and Peter are friars. Ragozine is a pirate who is executed and his head substituted for Claudio’s. Frost is one of the city fools. See a full character list for Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure themes: One of the main themes in this play is the position of women in society and their exploitation. This play is a favourite among feminist enthusiasts and provides an answer to the charge that Shakespeare is sexist. Another major theme is the corruptive nature of power. Another is hypocrisy.
An important consideration in Measure for Measure is the nature of civil authority where strong leadership is required but should be tempered by compassion, mercy and common sense.
As usual in Shakespeare the play is deeply concerned with the way things seem to be versus how they really are – appearance and reality. People are not what they seem to be, from the disguised Duke to the hypocritical Angelo.