They don't call Measure for Measure a "problem play" for nothing. While the play seems to fit in the category of Shakespearean comedy (we'll explain how in a moment), it also contains some dark elements that we often associate with Shakespearean tragedy, which can make the play hard to categorize.
So, let's take a look at our comedy checklist to see how Measure for Measure fits (or doesn't fit) into the genre.
- Light, humorous tone: Hmm. For the most part, the tone of Measure for Measure is dark and cynical, which is why the play is often referred to as a "dark comedy" or a "problem play." To be fair, Shakespeare weaves into the story a rather amusing sub-plot to lighten the mood and offer up a little comic relief. At the same time, the humorous moments are also a bit morbid. As an example, Pompey declares that the best cure for a night of excessive drinking is a good hanging because it allows a guy to sleep off his hangover... permanently (4.3).
- Clever Dialogue and Witty Banter: Check. This is especially true when Pompey and Lucio are on the scene.
- Deception and Disguise: Check. You have noticed that Duke Vincentio is parading around as a Friar, haven't you? We could take our analysis further by saying that the big hypocrite Angelo "disguises" his true nature when he pretends to be virtuous on the outside but goes around propositioning young, would-be nuns on the sly. Plus, there's the infamous "bed trick." Keep reading….
- Mistaken Identity: Check. Shakespeare is notorious for inserting a "bed trick" into his comedies. In Measure for Measure, Angelo is duped into sleeping with Mariana when he thinks he's with Isabella. There's also that dead pirate in the play who is decapitated and passed off as Claudio.
- Love Overcomes Obstacles: Check. Sort of. By today's standards, Mariana's desire to be with Angelo may not be considered true love, but Mariana does overcome a few obstacles to be with her ex-fiancé Angelo, who jilted her when she lost her dowry. Plus, Claudio gets to be with his baby mama Juliet after nearly losing his life.
- Family Drama: Well, let's see. The play is about a sister who tries to save her brother's life, but gets mad at him when he asks her to sleep with a corrupt deputy in order to save his neck. Oh yeah, there's definitely some family drama in this play so, check.
- Multiple Plots with Twists and Turns: Have you been paying attention so far? Check.
- (Re) unification of Families: Check. At the end, Claudio (who turns out to be NOT dead) is trotted out and reunited with his sis, Isabella. Oh happy day!
- Marriage: Check. Check. Check. Check. One of the biggest clues that you're reading a Shakespearean comedy is that the play ends in marriage (or the promise of one). In Measure for Measure, four couples either get hitched or engaged. Read more about this in "Themes: Marriage."