As equivocal and all-encompassing as its title suggests, Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s first forays out of Renaissance pomp and convention into the more complicated sensibilities of the Jacobean era. Probably written while the playhouses were closed between March 1603 and April 1604, Shakespeare takes his audience to a Vienna which seems much like London: the brothels are being closed and the new ruler is deeply worried about how a king should conduct himself. The play’s main sources are a short story from Cinthio’s Hecatomitthi and its English dramatisation by George Whetstone as Promos and Cassandra, but Shakespeare has higher ambitions for his plot. Instead of having a novice nun agree to sleep with a corrupt tyrannical magistrate, in exchange for the release of her brother, what would happen if the nun’s righteous devotion prevented her from agreeing? What would be the effect of replacing the benign emperor Maximilian, who arrives at the end to resolve the action, with an “old fantastical duke of dark corners”, who manipulates characters throughout the play and whose motives are far from clear?
Of the three so-called ‘problem plays’, Measure for Measure is perhaps the least classifiable: while Troilus and Cressida leans towards unfulfilled tragedy and All’s Well That Ends Well towards bitter comedy, this play is more concerned with offering its audience a literally open-ended debate about the role of the law than conforming to any genre. Ostensibly a comedy, Shakespeare now refuses to take for granted the genre conventions kept to in his earlier works: disguise, obsessive love, the working-class fool and the happy ending signalled by marriages all become problematic and artificial. Conversely, he seems at first to be creating a tragic villain in the character of Angelo – the ruthless self-examination in his soliloquies of Acts II and IV betray the fact that this play was written alongside the great tragedies.
Decried by both Johnson and Coleridge, and almost ignored for much of the nineteenth century, the play has since been rehabilitated by both directors and critics. Whatever it occasionally lacks in coherence of tone and plot, it compensates in its thoughtful and still-relevant exploration of the division between justice and mercy, the spirit and the letter, piety and pragmatism.
Contributed by Jack Belloli