Study Guide

Measure for Measure Analysis

  • Tone

    Dark, Cynical

    Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's darkest "comedies." The play is obsessed with death and corruption (in society and the legal system) and offers up one of the most artificial "happy endings" in the history of Western literature.

    Was Shakespeare growing tired of writing comedies? Go to "What's Up With the Ending?" if you want to know more about this.

  • Genre

    Comedy, Tragi-Comedy

    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.

    Comedy Checklist

    • 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."
  • What's Up With the Title?

    The play's title comes from a biblical passage that resonates throughout the play:

    Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with that judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure you meet, it shall be measured unto you again. (Matthew 7:1-2)

    In other words, don't be so quick to judge other people because nobody is perfect and everyone is subject to God's judgment.

    We can see how this applies to Angelo, who condemns a man to death for "fornicating" and then, like a hypocrite, turns around and propositions Isabella.

    The term "measure for measure" also refers to a legal concept that is central to the play. That is, when a person commits a crime (or sins), he or she should be made to pay – either by making some sort of restitution or by suffering an amount that's equal to the suffering he or she has caused. (This is similar to "eye for an eye" justice.)

    You want an example? Of course you do. When Angelo sentences Claudio to death for having sex outside of marriage, the penalty definitely doesn't measure up to the crime.

    Later, when the Duke sentences Angelo to death for what he's done to Claudio and Isabella, he declares "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death / [...] measure still for / measure" (5.1.465; 467-468). Even though he pardons Angelo in the end, the Duke's point is pretty clear – Angelo's punishment should be equal to the suffering he's caused.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Spoiler Alert! Close your eyes if you don't want us to ruin the ending for you...

    Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's comedies knows what to expect at the end of the play – wedding bells. In the case of Measure for Measure, we get a quadruple dose: Angelo is forced to marry the girl he once jilted, Claudio is pardoned and free to marry his baby mama (Juliet), Lucio is ordered to marry the mother of his illegitimate child, and the Duke proposes to Isabella.

    Does this mean everyone lives happily ever after? Not so much. Even though the Duke makes a big show out of how "joy[ful]" it is that so many couples are pairing up, Measure for Measure offers one of the most artificial (and controversial) "happily ever after" conclusions in Western literature.

    Although Claudio is happy to escape execution and be reunited with Juliet, for Lucio, marriage seems worse than the death penalty. When the Duke orders him to marry the mother of his child, he declares "Marrying a punk [prostitute], my lord, is pressing to death, / whipping, and hanging" (5.1.596-597). Angelo's response to his forced marriage is just as poignant. When he is ordered to marry Mariana, Angelo obeys the Duke but says absolutely nothing.

    What's even more astonishing is the way the Duke proposes (or propositions) Isabella immediately after revealing that her brother is alive and well:

    If he be like your brother, for his sake
    Is he pardoned; and, for your lovely sake,
    Give me your hand and say you will be mine

    The Duke obviously feels that he's doing Isabella a huge favor by 1) pardoning her fornicating brother and 2) offering to marry her. Still, Isabella is completely silent.

    Is she speechless because she's overjoyed at the proposal? Or, is she silent because she's been propositioned (for the second time) by yet another powerful man?

    At the play's beginning, Isabella was about to take a final vow that would make her a nun. Has she changed her mind, or not? Shakespeare wants you to decide. If she is happy about the Duke's offer, then she's undergone one heck of a transformation. If she hasn't changed her mind about being a nun, then Isabella is being victimized here.

    Just imagine if you were a director or the actor/actress playing the role of Isabella. How would you stage these final moments?

  • Setting


    Welcome to the Catholic city of Vienna, which is under the fictional reign of Duke Vincentio. In the play, Vienna is a place of sexual depravity, where brothels are a dime a dozen and citizens run amok, thumbing their noses at Vienna's laws.

    In Measure for Measure, all the brothels in Vienna's suburbs are scheduled to be torn down because prostitution is illegal and the spread of venereal disease is out of control. When we read this, we can't help but think of the suburbs outside of Shakespeare's London, where the sex industry thrived because it was hard for officials to regulate brothels outside the city limits. In fact, in April of 1604 (the same year Shakespeare wrote Measure), King James I ordered all the tenements and houses in the suburbs be torn down to prevent the spread of the plague, which killed about 36,000 people in 1603 alone!

    In contrast to the suburbs are the more religious settings, such as monasteries and nunneries. Interestingly, in 1538, Henry VIII (the English king who broke with the Catholic Church) began the dissolution of all the monasteries and convents in England. This eliminated an important option for women who would seek life as nuns. By the time Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure around 1604, there weren't any left. There were, however, plenty of them in Vienna (the seat of the Holy Roman Empire). Maybe that's part of why Shakespeare decided to set his play in Vienna.

    On a more general level, literary critic Marjorie Garber points out that the world of the play is chock full of cramped and claustrophobic spaces: a nunnery, a monastery, a dungeon, a farmhouse surrounded by a moat, and so on. Garber goes on to argue that each of these confining spaces "is imaginatively a sign of a set of other enclosures: virginity and chastity; brotherhood and obedience; even death" (Shakespeare After All, 568).

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Let's face it. The ornate and formal language in Measure for Measure makes this one of Shakespeare's tougher reads. The Duke's opening speech alone is enough to give us a headache:

    Of government the properties to unfold
    Would seem in me t' affect speech and discourse,
    Since I am put to know that your own science
    Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
    My strength can give you. Then no more remains
    But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
    And let them work. The nature of our people,
    Our city's institutions, and the terms
    For common justice, you're as pregnant in
    As art and practice hath enrichèd any
    That we remember.

    In case you haven't noticed, the Duke really likes to make speeches more complicated than they have to be. Once we take a closer look at the passage we can see that the Duke is basically saying this: "If I were going to talk about the qualities a person needs to be a good governor, I would sound like I enjoy talking for its own sake. [He's got that right!] I can't help but recognize that you [Escalus] know a lot more than I do about governance, our people, and our laws and institutions."

    Before you go into panic mode, we should point out that not everyone talks like this and the Duke's style of speech is something that we can and do get used to as we read the play. Check out "Writing Style" for more on this.

  • Writing Style

    Formal, Verse, Prose

    About 65% of Measure for Measure is written in verse (poetry) and the rest in prose (how we talk every day).

    We break all of this down in the paragraphs that follow, but here's what you should remember about Shakespeare's plays: generally speaking, the nobility (Angelo, the Duke, Isabella, and Claudio) tend to speak in "blank verse," which is a pretty formal way to talk. The commoners, or "Everyday Joes" (like Elbow, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone), tend to speak just like we do, in regular old prose.

    (Note: The play Richard II is the one exception to this rule – it's the only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse – even the gardeners speak poetry.)

    Here are some specific examples from Measure for Measure:

    Blank Verse, or Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (The Nobles)

    In Measure for Measure, the noble characters mostly speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter (also called "blank verse"). Don't let the fancy names intimidate you – it's really pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Let's start with a definition of iambic pentameter:

    An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:

    da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.

    Here's an example, where Isabella says she won't compromise her virtue to save Claudio:

    we CANnot WEIGH our BROther WITH ourSELF.
    great MEN may JEST with SAINTS; 'tis WIT in THEM. (2.2.156-157)

    Every second syllable is accented (stressed) so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme we call it "unrhymed iambic pentameter," a.k.a. "blank verse."

    Isabella's impassioned speeches are delivered in verse, which is befitting her social status and also her integrity.

    Prose (Commoners)

    Not everyone in the play speaks in verse. Ordinary folks, as we've said, don't talk in a special rhythm – they just talk. Check out the way Mistress Overdone communicates:

    Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat,
    what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am
    custom-shrunk. (1.2.79-81)

    Mistress Overdone is a bawdy and unruly figure, so it's fitting that she talks in plain old prose (especially given that she always seems to be going on about the sex industry).

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Horsey Stuff

    We bet you're wondering about all the references to horses, reigns, and bits. You're probably also wondering what the heck horse-related metaphors and imagery are doing in a play about whether or not sexuality can be policed by the government. Let's discuss.

    When Duke Vincentio talks about his tendency to be a lax ruler, he speaks about his subjects as though they're a bunch of "headstrong" horses that need to be reined in by Vienna's laws:

    We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
    The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
    Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;

    The Duke admits that, for the past several years, he's allowed his unruly subjects to flout the laws of Vienna. Specifically, the Duke's allowed his subjects to thumb their noses at the city's sex laws, which is why prostitution and fornication have become uncontrollable.

    As it turns out, this passage sounds a lot like what the sixteenth-century English Puritan Phillip Stubbes famously writes in The Anatomy of Abuses (1587). Check out the metaphor Stubbes uses when he complains that parents who don't punish their children are responsible for all of society's problems:

    Give a wild horse the liberty of the head never so little and he will run headlong to thine and his own destruction also. [...] So correct Children in their tender years.

    In Measure for Measure, this unruly human being = wild horse concept turns up repeatedly. When Angelo propositions Isabella, he says "I have begun / And now I give my sensual race the rein" (2.4.24). In other words, Angelo sees his pursuit of Isabella as a "sensual race" and says he can't control himself, which is why he gives in to unbridled desire.

    This seems like a pretty fitting metaphor for the way human desires can either be put in check or given free reign, don't you think? For centuries, sex, lust, and passion have been associated with wild horses, which is why we so often see scantily clad men and women riding bareback in steamy music videos and perfume ads.

    P.S. There's a similar metaphor at work in The Taming of the Shrew, where Petruchio's "taming" of "wild Kate" is often compared to a horse being broken in.


    There sure are a lot of coin references circulating around Measure for Measure, wouldn't you say? Throughout the play, coining and minting become metaphors for everything from biological reproduction to Angelo's corruption as the Duke's deputy. Let's take a look at some specific examples so we can see what all this coin business is about.

    In the following passage, Angelo compares the making of illegitimate babies to the minting of counterfeit coins ("stamps"):

    Ha! fie, these filthy vices! It were as good
    To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
    A man already made, as to remit
    Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
    In stamps that are forbid:

    Today this seems like a strange metaphor, but it was pretty common in Shakespeare's day when children were often described as being stamped or impressed by their fathers' images, much like metal coins were imprinted by images (often of the king) before being put into circulation.

    Angelo's weird metaphor makes even more sense when we consider that, in the play, sexual reproduction is a crime punishable by death, just like counterfeiting coins was a capital crime in Shakespeare's England.

    The funny thing is, Angelo, whose name is associated with the "angel" or "nobel-angel" (a type of gold coin bearing the image of the archangel Michael) is associated with coins throughout the play.

    When the Duke announces that Angelo will be his deputy, Angelo likens himself to a metal coin that should be tested for its value and worth:

    Now, good my lord,
    Let there be some more test made of my metal,
    Before so noble and so great a figure
    Be stamp'd upon it.

    In a display of false modesty, Angelo suggests that he has yet to prove that he has the substance or worth (mettle) to be the Duke's deputy. (In sixteenth-century England, "metal" and "mettle" were used interchangeably.) Of course, Angelo's use of the word "metal" conjures up the imagery of coining. When he says there should be some test of his metal, he's making a reference to how, in the sixteenth century, a coin's value was based upon the value of the metal from which it was made.

    The idea is that, as the Duke's new deputy, Angelo is like a coin that has been stamped with the Duke's "nobel" image upon it. A few lines earlier, when the Duke wonders how Angelo will represent him, he asks "What figure of us think you he will bear?" (1.1.2). This reaffirms the sense that Angelo is like a coin that bears his image.

    We all know what a lousy deputy or representative Angelo turns out to be. When he sentences Claudio to death for the crime of fornication and then, like a hypocrite, turns around and propositions Isabella, it's clear that Angelo is corrupt and doesn't have the kind of substance or "mettle" that a deputy of the Duke should have.

    This is why we're not surprised when Escalus accuses Angelo of being like a counterfeit coin:

    I am sorry, one so learned and so wise
    As you, Lord Angelo, have still appear'd,
    Should slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood.
    And lack of temper'd judgment afterward.

    When Escalus lights into Angelo for being corrupt on the inside while appearing to be so "learned and wise" on the outside, he uses the language of coinage to describe Angelo's fall from grace. Escalus plays on the word "slip," which literally means "to make a mistake," but it also the name for a counterfeit coin. In other words, Angelo is a complete phony.


    Measure for Measure is a play that's full of substitutions. Duke Vincentio appoints Angelo as his deputy substitute at the play's very beginning, Mariana is substituted for Isabella during the infamous bed trick, and Angelo asks Isabella to substitute her maidenhead (chastity) for her brother's literal head. Ragusine's head is supposed to be substituted for Claudio's but, when he refuses to be executed, a dead pirate becomes the substitute's substitute instead.

    What the heck's going on here?

    Well, as literary critic Jonathan Crewe points out, "substitution is the general rule of the theater." In other words, on stage, actors are always substitutes for characters. So, every time a substitution takes place in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare makes us aware of the conventions of his profession as a playwright and as an actor on the Elizabethan stage. (This is something Shakespeare likes to do. A lot. If you don't believe us, check out what we have to say in "Themes: Art and Culture" in, say, Hamlet.)

    Measure for Measure

    We thought you might come sniffing around here for clues about the phrase "measure for measure." We talk about this in "What's Up with the Title?" so go there if you want to know more.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Shadow of Darkness

      The people of Vienna are running wild.

      According to Booker, in this stage, "we see a little world in which people have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty, and frustration, and are cut off from one another." Vienna is a world in which the people have thumbed their noses at the law – the (illegal) sex industry is out of control, STDs are rampant, and the numbers of illegitimate children are on the rise.

      Pressure of Darkness

      Angelo's "vengeful hypocrisy" makes everyone miserable.

      Booker says that in this phase, the "pressure of darkness" puts everyone in a "nightmarish tangle." Angelo has sentenced Claudio to death for the crime of "fornication" and places Isabella in the worst possible position – she can have sex with Angelo to save her brother's life or, she can refuse and watch her brother die.

      Everything Comes to Light

      Angelo is forced to recognize his own darkness.

      When the Duke shows up and confronts Angelo, this "dark figure" is forced to recognize that he is a "monster of vengeful hypocrisy." Angelo is contrite so the Duke can offer him a pardon. This, according to Booker, is what paves the way for every other character's "happiness" (i.e., marriage). We'd like to point out, however, that, even though four couples are set to get married at the play's end, not everyone is "happy." Check out "What's Up With the Ending?" for more on this.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Vienna's Looking a lot like Sin City.

      For the past fourteen years, the people of Vienna have been running amok – disobeying laws, fornicating, and visiting the city's brothels. STDs and illegitimate children are rampant. Duke Vincentio thinks enough is enough and puts a strict deputy in charge of enforcing Vienna's laws while the Duke is "away" on business.


      Claudio is busted for "fornicating."

      With Angelo in charge, Claudio is sentenced to death for "fornicating" with his girlfriend and getting her pregnant. He's headed for the chopping block if someone doesn't intervene on his behalf...


      Isabella leaves the convent to save her brother.

      Claudio's sis, Isabella, is about to become a nun, but when she hears her brother is in the slammer, she pleads with Angelo to have mercy.


      Angelo propositions Isabella.

      Angelo gets all hot and bothered by Isabella's virtue and says he'll set Claudio free if Isabella sleeps with him. Isabella immediately refuses (saying she'd rather die) and Angelo gives her a day to think about it.


      The Duke hatches a plan.

      Meanwhile, the Duke hasn't left Vienna – he's been running around Vienna disguised as a friar. When he finds out about Angelo's hypocritical behavior, he comes up with a plan. Isabella should agree to hook up with Angelo but she will send Angelo's jilted, ex-fiancé (Mariana) to sleep with Angelo in her place. (It's going to be dark so Angelo will never know the difference.) Angelo will be forced to marry Mariana, Isabella will get to remain a virgin, and Claudio will be set free.


      Bed trick!

      Angelo thinks he's steamed up the windows with Isabella but has, in fact, slept with Mariana (the girl he dumped when he found out she didn't have a dowry). But, Angelo reneges on the deal and orders Claudio to be put to death anyway.


      Everybody's getting hitched.

      The Duke finally reveals his identity and patches things up. Claudio is set free (which means he can now marry his girl, Juliet), Angelo is forced to marry Marianna, and the Duke himself proposes to Isabella (who may or may not be excited about the prospect of marriage).

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Duke Vincentio is frustrated that his people don't obey the law. Instead of cracking down on crime himself, he appoints a strict deputy, Angelo, to clean up Vienna.

      Act II

      Angelo doesn't waste any time. He busts Angelo for "fornicating" (having sex outside of marriage) and sentences him to death. When Claudio's sister, Isabella, tries to intervene, Angelo propositions her, offering to let Claudio off the hook if she agrees to hook up with Angelo.

      Act III

      The Duke steps in and confronts Angelo, who repents. Claudio is saved, and the Duke orders three couples to get married (solving the whole "sex outside of marriage" problem).

    • Allusions

      Main Literary Source

      • George Whetstone, Promos and Cassandra Parts 1 and 2 (1578)

      Biblical Allusions

      Historical Figures

      • St. Clare, the 13th century founder of the Franciscan "poor Clares" (1.4)