Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure Study Guide

The first performance of Measure for Measure is believed to have taken place in 1604, during the reign of King James I. By this time, Shakespeare is believed to have begun writing his plays for performance at the Blackfriars theatre, a small, indoor theater mostly frequented by the wealthy. Most modern editions of the play are based upon the edition of Measure for Measure that appeared in the First Folio of 1623.

Although the Vienna that Shakespeare portrays is Catholic and not a kingdom, little within the play besides the mention of the setting and the 'friars' sets is apart from Protestant England. Although the Duke is not a monarch per se, he wields complete power in a way similar to James I, who reclaimed his right to absolute rule.

However, there are certain key differences between the world portrayed in Measure for Measure, and the post- Elizabethan England that Shakespeare lived in. A ruler would not be able to arbitrarily give up power, and then reclaim it; the theory of "divine right of kings," which was also made popular by James I, would hold this to be a breach of God's law, as the ruler was put in place and sanctioned by God, not by the acts of men. Also, a woman like Isabella who came forth and accused a man of high position of sexual impropriety would face harsh punishment if the charges could not be proven, usually through the testimony of other men of high status. The fact that Shakespeare's play also favors the woman in this dispute, over the man of position, would not have been a common stance during his own time.

Is the play still relevant? Its discussions of abuse of power, sexual morality, and mortality certainly are. But, the fact that the play adhered to the convention of Elizabethan comedies, of ending the play on a perhaps artificial note, and with a marriage, is frustrating to modern readers. The end seems to ignore many of the important issues in the play, and does not resolve the questions of morality and power that remain. The Duke's behavior is unsatisfying on many levels, as he is abusing his power and manipulating people shamelessly, while trying to appear as a benevolent ruler. Also, the play's use of marriage as punishment seems rather vulgar and crude, and like a punishment is improper in every possible way.

There are a few elements of the play that betray the author's Protestant influence, and some prevalent beliefs of English Protestantism of the time. One is the treatment of Isabella's wish to enter a convent, and remain chaste and pure for the duration of her life. English Protestants openly attacked Catholic ideals of chastity and separation from the world; both were thought to be unnatural, and neither became part of the English Protestant system. Having Isabella wed and leave the convent means that English Protestant values win out over Catholic ones. However, becoming a nun was a haven for women, apart from the patriarchal and oppressive institution of marriage; women in England were supposed to marry and have children with their husbands, but for some a life of chastity and religion might have been preferable.