A Tale of Two Genres: Measure for Measure

(Continued from “A Tale of Two Genres: All’s Well that Ends Well”)

Kenneth Coley as Duke Vincentio, BBC Time-Life, 1979

In Measure for Measure, written earlier, Shakespeare presents us with the exact opposite. He arrests the control of the quasi-comedy from women entirely and places it in the hands of the Duke, who becomes the dramaturgical puppet master. In this simple maneuver, Measure becomes a paternalistic play that has no real room for female agency. Like the female protagonists of the earlier comedies, the Duke shows a sensibility to the audience and a constant desire to bring about sexual union (marriage): Mariana and Angelo, Lucio and Kate Keep-down, and, finally, himself and Isabella. Noticeably, however, he is a less skilled dramaturge than either the female protagonists or Shakespeare himself. His desire to unite Lucio and Kate Keepdown and himself and Isabella seem unprecedented and sudden at the end of the play, though they are necessary to resolve the tensions revolving around extramarital sex.[1] Furthermore, the success of his puppet mastery hinges upon the accidental discovery of Kate Keep-Down and the convenient and last-minute death of the pirate Ragusine, who is “a man of Claudio’s years, his beard and head/ Of just his color” in order for the Duke to save Claudio by presenting another head as proof of his execution (4.3.63-64).


Additionally, though the audience generally has access to the inner thoughts of the comic

Ben Miles and Anna Maxwell Martin, Almeida Theatre, 2010. Photo by Donald Cooper

protagonists, usually through frank discussions with confidantes (servants, friends, travelling companions), Duke Vincentio remains incredibly distant, which undermines the degree to which we can empathize with him. We receive conflicting accounts of the Duke’s character. First, comes from the Duke himself when he admits to the Friar that he is responsible for the licentiousness in Vienna: “Sith ‘twas my fault to give the people scope,/ ‘Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them/ For what I bid them do” (1.4.35-37). By his own admission, he has been too lenient, which would point to his being a merciful, if overly so, ruler. His reluctance, however, to accept responsibility by resolving the problem he has caused reduces his sympathy as a character. Second, Lucio provides a scathing report of the Duke’s activities. Notably, however, Lucio is not only not a morally upstanding character, but also an unforgiving social climber. He is known to be honest, however, as he frankly informs Pompey that he will not bail him out of jail just before he encounters the disguised duke (3.1.322-334). Thus, his account of the Duke is no more convincing that the Duke’s own assessment of himself, which could be motivated by his own pride. Lucio describes the Duke as “a very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow….[who] would eat mutton on Fridays” (3.1.379-412).

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio as a friar and Brendan O’Hea as Lucio, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2015

Despite Lucio’s unreliability as a narrator, his statement that the Duke was “unweighing”—injudicious—at least, is true. We have seen that the Duke was rather careless in the execution of the laws governing licentiousness. Finally, the Duke is described by Escalus, a trustworthy and noble advisor—in fact, one of the only characters not taken to sexual or judicial extremes. He lauds the Duke as “a gentleman of all temperance” (3.1. 461). Though we are inclined to trust Escalus, his description of the Duke contradicts the Duke’s admission that his own leniency contributed to the dissoluteness in Vienna. Thus, we are ultimately left with an ambiguous description of the Duke and must evaluate his actions for a definite understanding. This shift from objective to subjective characterization is a crucial development of Shakespeare’s later writing. Many of the comic characters, and some of the early tragic characters, are clearly described by other characters and, to a great degree, fit those descriptions.[2] The later tragedies, however, are notable for how characters grown and change through the course of the action and who fight back against outside characterizations.[3] Measure for Measure presents a clear transition between the two schema: a protagonist who is described by others, but who cannot adhere to those descriptions.


Furthermore, Duke Vincentio also represents a break from the traditional role of the comic protagonist in that Measure for Measure is guided to its comic conclusion by a character whose essence is to deny family ties and sexuality, “the denial, that is to say, of the essence of comedy” (Riefer 160). His actions are generally indicative of the antagonist of a comedy: he is a blocking agent.

Pete Postlewaite as Friar Lawrence in Romeo + Juliet, 1996

If we consider the role Friar Lawrence plays in Romeo and Juliet, we are given a clear example of what the role of the Duke should be in Measure. Although Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, we can generally think of it as a comedy with an unfortunate part two. Friar Lawrence serves as a pivotal go-between for Romeo and Juliet, a romantic confidant for Romeo, and, most obviously, officiates their marriage. In Measure, the Duke serves as a confessor to Claudio—which raises the question about the ethics of his impersonation, seeing as, in the Catholic Vienna, the Final Rites are key to entering Heaven, and they do not count unless given by an ordained religious official—who tells him to prepare for death because “in this life/ Lie hid ore thousand deaths; yet death we fear/ That makes these odds all even” (3.1. 38-41). Though his instructions could be viewed as an attempt to quell the fears of a man condemned to die, he ultimately fails in his quest because Claudio attempts to convince Isabella to let herself be seduced by Angelo in order to secure his freedom.

Jefferson Mays as Duke Vincentio, in disguise as a friar after leaving another in power. Credit Ari Mintz for The New York Times

Furthermore, the Duke tells Juliet that her “sin [is] of heavier kind” because they both sinned mutually. He provides no logical justification for this reasoning, as one would expect in this moment of religious pontification, but rather begins to ramble endlessly and nonsensically about contrition without coming to a conclusion until Juliet cuts him off with “I do repent me as it is an evil” (2.3.37). Thus, instead of serving as messenger for the two lovers and attempting to orchestrate their escape or release (he could simply reveal himself as the Duke and prevent the debacle), he blocks their romantic relationship and poorly imitates a friar. Thus, he fails in two duties that other comic protagonists complete quite easily: being in disguise and fostering sometimes forbidden romance.


Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in Measure For Measure at the Globe. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Moreover, the Duke’s roleplaying and puppet-mastery are innately connected to his role as the chief statesman. Most often women, other comic protagonists are relatively unimportant for the functioning of government. They are free to pursue their costumed orchestrations in the green space because the state, household, or society will run without them. The Duke, however, does not have such a luxury. His role as the master of state elides with his role as the dramaturge, and his successes and failures in that arena are translated to the government of Vienna. As Paul Yachnin illustrates, Measure for Measure can be considered on of the “plays of ascension” during the early Jacobean period that reflected the new king’s exercise of political power (Yachnin 64–65). Famously, James I represented the early stages of absolute monarchy, which demanded a single and all-powerful ruler in charge of the state. Although the Duke is able to successfully transfer the administration of the state to Angelo without a threat to his personal authority[4] (i.e. Angelo does not try to usurp his position), which implies that the state bureaucracy is sufficiently stable, the government does not perform well in its capacity to administer justice. Angelo ultimately fails in the proper administration of his “precise”—puritanical—justice when he demands Isabella’s sexual submission; the one inquiry we see in court deteriorates into Escalus’ desperate attempts to maintain order; and, the Duke must ultimately return to ensure that justice and mercy are served properly. Thus, the play argues for the necessity of a single, authoritative ruler in ensuring that only the Duke can dole out the proper punishments and mercy, although he is not exactly a morally upright character himself.


Advertisement for Shakespeare’s Globe’s 2015 production starring Mariah Gale as Isabella and Rosie Hilal as Mariana

Finally, echoing the new political changes that shut women out of government with the death of Elizabeth and the resurrection of the patriarchal English state, Measure for Measure highlights contingencies that make female assertion difficult, which relies on the Duke’s role as the protagonist and dramatist (Riefer 161). In his search to control the plot, the Duke as no qualms about “[draining] the life out of previously vital characters such as Isabella,” which further undercuts his credibility as a dramaturge. Isabella is transformed from the compassionate and articulate women who pleads for her brother’s life in II.2 to stunned, angry, and defensive as she must ward off Angelo’s advances in II.4 and convince her brother of the sanctity of her virginity in III.2 to the shadow of her former self, kneeling in front of male authority, pleading for mercy in Act V—an anomaly in Shakespeare’s comedies (Riefer 161). As Marcia Riefer argues, the minute Isabella agrees to serve the Duke’s plan she loses center stage (Riefer 165). Most significantly, Isabella’s second rhetorical triumph, convincing Mariana to join in the Duke’s plan, is hidden offstage as we hear the Duke lament how Angelo has defiled his position. Thus, though the two women are the most important participants in the bed-trick, the Duke has all the theatrical power.

Ian Merrill Peakes (Angelo), Karen Peakes (Isabella), and Michele Osherow (Mariana). Measure for Measure, directed by Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre, 2006. Photo by Carol Pratt .

Finally, Isabella loses her rhetorical prowess almost entirely in the final act. Her pleas for the Duke to show mercy to Angelo illustrate a strained morality and logical fallability. She argues, “for Angelo [six beats],/ His act did not o’ertake his bad intent,/And must be buried but as an intent/ That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects/ Intents but merely thoughts” (5.1.442-446). It is clear from the action of the play that Angelo was acting on his intent. He did not know that Mariana had replaced Isabella in the garden. Therefore, Angelo’s act did overtake his bad intent. We can see that Isabella has lost her great power to reason and now serves as a puppet for the Duke to ensure the proper coupling and administration of justice, though this justice and mercy are strained. At the end of the play, Isabella is presented with her still-living brother, the Duke proposes, and he pardons Angelo. Thus, Isabella’s worldview is negated in five lines and she is left as the speechless “baffled actress who has run out of lines” (Riefer 167). Famously, Measure for Measure ends without Isabella’s answer to the Duke’s proposal, the complete domination of the paternalistic dramaturge and the nullification of female agency.


Judi Dench as Isabella, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1962

Furthermore, there is a special, nuanced relationship between the Virgin Mary, Isabella, and Mariana that reduces their importance as characters to their biological state as virgins. As scholar Robert Watson argues, when Lucio calls for Isabella with “Hail, virgin,” he invokes the Ave Virginia, or the Catholic Angelus prayer sequence. The Angelus prayer sequence, invoked in Measure for Measure with this ave and Angelo’s name, recounts the summoning of the Virgin Mary to bear the Son of the Lord in order to redeem humans. Thus, especially when Angelo demands that she give up her virginity to him in order to free Claudio, Isabella is summoned by Lucio to present herself as the vessel for the savior of man, or at least one man. This Ave Virginia, however, is a bastardization of the original because Angelo demands that Isabella give herself up to the state, not to God. Furthermore, eventually Mariana—whose name invokes a stronger connection to the Virgin Mary—replaces her in the bed-trick. Mariana’s moated grange is also an allusion to the hortus conclusus, or the iconographic home of the Virgin (Watson 25). The bed-trick, however, undermines what could have been a powerful connection to the Virgin Mary. The trick is predicated on the fact that Angelo—the stand-in for God—cannot tell the difference between Mary, who is his intended, and Isabella, whose name literally means “pledged to God.” Though Mary is pledged to God, the elision between the two women undermines the individual importance of the figure of the Virgin Mary as born without sin for the specific conception of the Son of God, as professed by Catholic doctrine. Therefore, in a perversion of the founding moment of Christianity, Mary, Isabella, and Mariana are converted into the one thing that they have in common: virginity, and the female figure is reduced, essentially, to her hymen.[5]


Image #3: Act IV, Scene iii, with Tom Fleming as the Duke and Judi Dench as Isabella. Royal Shakespeare Company, 1962. Copyright Gordon Goode.

The presentation of female power in Measure for Measure stands in clear contrast with female power in All’s Well that Ends Well. Not only does Helen actively pursue sex—she asks Parolles in Act I, “how might one do, sir, to lose [her virginity] to her own liking”—but she is comfortable framing her medical power in sexual terms (1.1.140). Where Isabella is stripped of her power, Helen is the only heroine in Shakespeare’s comedies who actively pursues her beloved even when he does not return her affection. Helen is Shakespeare’s most powerful heroine, a notable physician who skillfully usurps both the practical and linguistic realms of men, while women in Measure for Measure are puppets of the only male protagonist of any Shakespearean comedy.[6] Thus, in unique ways, Shakespeare invents new techniques for dealing with protagonists in these two ‘problem plays.’ These plays clearly sit as transition pieces between the happy comedies and the dark tragedies. Shakespeare began to explore the implications of aristocratic and non-aristocratic interiority in All’s Well that Ends Well. In Measure for Measure, he designed new approaches to characterization that rely on subjectivity and relegated the women to a lesser role, which he would maintain in Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and Timon of Athens. Even the more famous women in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Cordelia, Regan, Goneril, Cleopatra, and Volumnia are relegated to lesser roles, though they have shining moments of agency. Lady Macbeth stands out as the sole truly powerful female character in the tragic period. Finally, in Measure for Measure, he replaces his female comic mastermind with his significantly more flawed tragic male leader. Each of these changes represent a growing understanding of the general discontent with the sunniness of comedy and a demand for more critical work that increased during the early years of James’ I reign as the king increasingly lost popularity.

King James I of England, portrait attributed to John de Critz the Elder – Prado



Works Cited

Doran, Alban H. G. “Medicine.” Shakespeare’s England, An Account of the Life and Manners of His Age. I. England: Oxford University Press, 1917. Print. II.

Howard Traister, Barbara. “‘Doctor She’: Healing and Sex in All’s Well That Ends Well.” A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works. Ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. Vol. 4. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 333–347. Print. 4 vols.

Paul Yachnin. “Shakespeare’s Problem Plays and the Drama of His Time: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure.” A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works. Ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. Vol. 4. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 46–68. Print. 4 vols.

Riefer, Marcia. “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35.2 (1984): 157–169. JSTOR. Web.

Shakespeare, William. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” The Norton  Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Second. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. 2193–2261. Print.

—. As You Like It. Folger. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1997. Print. Folger Shakespeare Library.

—. “Measure for Measure.” The Norton  Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Second. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. 2039–2108. Print.

Watson, Robert N. “False Immortality in ‘Measure for Measure’: Comic Means, Tragic Ends.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (1990): 411–432. JSTOR. Web.

[1] Though the suddenness of marriages are not unprecedented in Shakespeare’s comedies. In As You Like It, Rosalind herself remarks on the suddenness of the match between Celia and Oliver in Act IV, though Shakespeare draws attention to it through her admission, which somewhat excuses the dramaturgical clumsiness.

[2] Generally, the lies or untrustworthy descriptions come from villains, who we know are trying to deceive other characters.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra provides an excellent example of this trend. At the end of the play, Cleopatra refuses to adhere to the Roman version of herself. She declares, “The quick comedians/ Extemporally will stage us, and present our Alexandrian revels. Antony/ Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see/ Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greateness/ I’th’ posture of a whore….Show me, my women, like a queen” (5.2.212-223). Thus, she rewrites her own narrative and dies on her own terms.

[4] Scholars have noted how this dynamic within the play point to Shakespeare’s inventiveness to think beyond Jacobean rule.

[5] A similar argument is advanced by Theodora Jankowski in A Companion to Shakespeare vol IV

[6] Women will not regain their unique and powerful voice until the later romances.


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