Measure for Measure

What themes and issues are introduced in Act I of “Measure for Measure?”

In the words of nineteenth-century critic F. S. Boas, “Measure for Measure” is undeniably a “problem play”, meaning that it is a play that centres around certain moral or philosophical issues. However, as well as simply being a play about problems, “Measure for Measure” is a problem in itself – it is neither a fully-fledged tragedy nor a comedy, and one cannot isolate a single “problem”, or issue, that the play seeks to solve. Rather, the play contains a host of contrasting moral and philosophical themes, many of which Shakespeare introduces us to in the first act of the play.

The most obvious theme is that of symmetry and antithesis; the idea of balance and counter-balance. The name “Measure for Measure” alludes to this in no uncertain terms, hinting of the overtones of balance and equivalence that feature heavily in the play, and conjuring the image of the ‘scales of justice’, a common image of the law. These scales represent a balance between mercy and punishment, a balance between crime and the response that it elicits. It is often suggested that the name Escalus – that of the aged, wise character of the play – intends to imply this image of the ‘scales of justice’. This title is an apt summary of the main theme and ethic...

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