Measure for Measure

“Measure for Measure is a comedy of human frailty.” Discuss.

Critics continue to debate the precise genre of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, because even at closer inspection it refuses to be neatly classified. To brand it a simple “comedy” would be to overlook the unnerving sense of disquiet at the end of Act V when the Duke proposes to Isabella. Thus, the term “problem play” has become a widely accepted description of the three plays Shakespeare wrote during 1601-1604: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure . Unlike a comedy, problem plays tend to pose numerous questions but leave us with very few satisfactory answers. Recently, however, commentators have resolved to call the play a “tragi-comedy” because of the sinister way in which its “happy ending” is achieved. The Italian Renaissance writer Giraldo Cinthio explained that a tragicomedy may have a resolution, but it will not forsake “the terrible and the compassionable” . Indeed, the theme of “human frailty” is one that Shakespeare explores considerably and honestly.

The most prominent example of individual weakness in Measure for Measure has to be Lord Angelo. But to describe his subsequent downfall as “comic” would be to greatly diminish the dramatic impact of Shakespeare’s play. We know from...

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