In William Shakespeare's dark comedy, an aspiring nun, Isabella, is faced with an impossible choice after her brother is sentenced to death for the crime of "fornication." When a corrupt deputy propositions her and says she can trade her virginity for her brother's life, Isabella refuses and her brother seems headed for the chopping block.
Famous for its dark tone and obsession with death and judgment, Measure for Measure (first performed at the court of the newly crowned King James I in 1604) marks a major shift in Shakespeare's career as a playwright. As the last play in a string of comedies that Shakespeare began writing in the early 1590s, the play seems to anticipate the tragedies that would follow – Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, to name a few.
Shakespeare's main source for Measure is George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra (1578), a play in which Cassandra sleeps with a corrupt judge in order to save her brother's life (unlike Shakespeare's corresponding figure, Isabella, who would rather die than compromise herself).
Because it explores a set of important moral and social issues without ever quite resolving anything (the play leaves us with an artificial "happy ending"), literary critics often refer to Measure as a "problem play." We talk about this more in "Genre" and "What's Up With the Ending?", which is where you should head now if you want more juicy details....
Ever felt like you were stuck between a rock and a hard place? Ever felt torn between helping out a loved one and compromising your own values? Maybe a friend has asked you to do something sketchy, like help him/her cheat on a test or steal something. If so, you will totally get what Shakespeare has to say in this play.
In Measure for Measure, Isabella is faced with an impossible choice. When her brother is sentenced to death for committing a capital crime, Isabella is propositioned by a corrupt deputy who gives her two options. If she sleeps with him (the deputy), her brother will go free. If she doesn't, her brother will die. (Did we mention that Isabella's lifelong dream is to be a nun and remain a virgin forever?)
Isabella lucks out when the Duke hatches a plan to preserve her virginity and save her brother's neck. Still, in real life, things don't always work out this way. Shakespeare acknowledges that navigating the world can be dangerous and he points out that, at some time or another, we are all faced with tough decisions and impossible questions that don't necessarily have a right or wrong answer.