Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
Don’t be overwhelmed by the fact that Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ – those which are not easily classifiable by classical generic conventions of comedy or tragedy. Rather than being a ‘problem’, this can be seen as an ‘opportunity’, since it frees analysis from constraints of genre, instead opening up possibilities of discussion and investigation that enter the text from various other points and pathways, such as the themes, ideas and characters (all better suited to VCAA curriculum study than approaches limited by formal or structural elements).
One example of an approach you might take to exploring this text is to focus the analysis through characters and relationships. This offers a framework within which to address the other important aspects of the text, from underlying values and ideas, through the generic conventions and features of stage writing, to the central themes.
In Measure for Measure, most of the themes can be explored through key relationships or aspects of these relationships. The central characters of Duke Vincentio and Isabella are obviously prime sources for this. Consider the Duke’s preoccupation with Vienna’s moral wellbeing, which prompts his inciting departure from his position, leaving Angelo in power (and thus affecting many of the subsequent events). This is an example of how a character provides evidence of a central theme, in this case the complex issue of morality. The Duke’s own morality, too – not just his concern with the behaviour and culture of his citizens – comes into question. His double role, in disguise as the Friar, is presented as a way of being able to observe and subtly influence the interests of moral benefit, and yet his actions are duplicitous and manipulative by their very nature, so he becomes a morally ambiguous character, highlighting the play’s concern with the notions of extremes, rationality, and balance.
Isabella’s journey, similarly, illustrates Shakespeare’s interest in the idea that extremes are not ideal. Her chastity is portrayed as almost reaching beyond admirable piousness towards an unhealthy rigidity, much like Angelo’s inflexibility. Her transition to a mode of forgiveness or mercy towards Angelo is a suggestion that compromise (another representation of the play’s titular idea of ‘measure’) is a central tenet of morality. Her character also provides support for arguments about the representations of power within the play. While there are other forms of power – and, notably, its abuse – portrayed, hers is a power of intellect and rhetoric, showing the value and persuasive power of argument, speech and articulation. This aspect of her character can lead students into an analysis of some of the specific features of stage writing, such as the implications and staging challenges of Isabella’s uncharacteristic silence late in the final scene.
Central characters can be an obvious source of textual evidence regarding themes and ideas, but so are many of the secondary characters. For example, the relationship between Angelo and Mariana would make an excellent starting point for a discussion about the roles of gender, sexuality, manipulation, desire, discipline, puritanism, deception and power in the play. This is a useful approach for students who may find it easy to see how themes are embodied and developed in central characters and relationships or in key events in texts, but not necessarily in more peripheral events or interactions. Exploring more peripheral elements of texts can help students identify particularly prominent themes and ideas (i.e. those that are represented in both central and secondary characters and storylines), and also enable more sophisticated analysis by identifying how secondary elements in texts may sometimes complicate central themes and ideas.
For example, while the notion of moral integrity is central in this play – and primarily the play suggests that morality is grounded in balance and rational moderation – Claudio’s experience shows how human fears and desires can blur the lines between balanced idealism and actions. Initially he accepts his punishment, within the context of Vienna’s strict moral code. However, when faced with death, he experiences the influence of extreme fear and we see how this changes his behaviour, such as when he begs his sister to sleep with Angelo in order to save his life. This secondary character and storyline can be read as a complication of the central notion that balance or ‘measure’ in all things is desirable. While Claudio’s experiences and actions do not oppose this central theme, they do show that human needs and desires are powerful influences, and that there can be a great difference between moral idealism and practical reality. (This is, of course, reflected in the larger events of the play too, as we see how human desires and faults can override measure and result in less-than-ideal decisions, such as Angelo’s abuse of his power.)
Working with characters as an entry point or stimulus is just one possible approach, but might be a useful one in reminding students that Shakespeare can be accessed through many of the means that are already familiar to them from studying other texts. While the theatrical elements and features are a significant factor, as are the heightened language (with features, such as rhythm, that are less significant in prose and nonfiction) and the sociohistorical context, students should still be able to feel confident with, and excited by, their academic encounters with the great bard.
Discussion questions and essay prompts:
- Imagine you work for Angelo and have the responsibility of documenting the laws the Duke has left him to enforce. List as many of the moral codes (and consequences of their transgression) as you can extract from the play. (Don’t forget to think about the expectations and strictures characters like Pompey and Mistress Overdone demonstrate.)
- How does Measure for Measure explore the role of gender in power? To what extent is this representation mediated by historical context – for example, how do you think your interpretation differs from the interpretations of Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences?
- Do you think the Duke is a good leader? Why or why not?
- The notion of punishment is central in the play. Does Shakespeare endorse or critique the idea of punishment in terms of shaping behaviour?
- With which character are you most inclined to empathise? Identify textual evidence illustrating how Shakespeare has shaped your response to this character. (Such evidence might include quotations by and about the character; key scenes or events; outcomes; and relationships.)
Need help getting to grips with Measure for Measure? Purchase our Insight Text Guide for Measure for Measure by Victoria Bladen. With scene-by-scene analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, and much more, the Insight Text Guide for Measure for Measure provides a clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.