Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Measure for Measure

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



Asimov points out that later in the same sermon in which Jesus repudiates the Old Testament “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” doctrine (Mt. 5:38-39), he also states, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Mt. 7:1-2) (Asimov 647).

The undisguised Duke warmly greets Escalus and Angelo before Friar Peter escorts in Isabella, who makes public her general accusations of Angelo. Angelo suggests that she’s deranged for grief over her brother and the Duke pretends to be inclined to believe this. Lucio pipes in a bit on behalf of Isabella too. She renders her story in more detail, eventually mentioning the Friar, of whom Lucio expresses disapprobation and claims has been slandering the Duke.

Mariana emerges and in presenting herself suffers the wise-ass comments of Lucio. But she brings forth the truth about that night.

As this is true,
Let me in safety raise me from my knees,
Or else for ever be confixed here,
A marble monument! (V.i.230-233)

Angelo claims some conspiracy against him is afoot and these women are mere pawns. The Duke feigns outrage and blames the Friar (himself). The women, Friar Peter, and the other Friar are to be charged for their crimes. The Duke exits. That Angelo refers to the five years since he spoke with the woman makes more sense of a 1581 origin for the play, since similarly Oxford ignored his wife ever since his return from the continent in 1576 (Clark 459; Ogburn and Ogburn 335).

After an exchange between Escalus and Lucio, the Duke re-enters, disguised as the Friar. Escalus may be a depiction of Burghley in a “softer light” than usual, though still associated with the words “fox” and “rack” (V.i.292, 306) (Ogburn and Ogburn 332). Questioned by Escalus, the Friar claims to have witnessed all manner of corruption in Vienna. A reference to sheep-biting (V.i.348f) must be a dig at Hatton (Ogburn and Ogburn 340). The Friar also contradicts Lucio’s accusations. The Howard/Arundel accusations may again be at the root of this (Ogburn and Ogburn 341). Lucio becomes enraged and yanks off his friar’s hood, revealing the Duke. “Thou art the first knave that e’er mad’st a duke” (V.i.356). Lucio’s attempt to skulk off fails. The Duke commands that Angelo marry Mariana immediately. He swears his service to Isabella, but still pretends that her brother is dead. The “new-married” Angelo and party return, and the Duke, meting out letter-of-the-law justice, puts forth the order that Angelo be sent to the block:

The very mercy of the law cries out
. . .
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure

Shakespeare “shows familiarity with obscure legislation, such as Mariana’s right to dower upon the death of her newlywed husband Angelo for treason (V.i.422-425)” (Farina 37).

Mariana objects, but the Duke will grant her all his state-confiscated possessions “To buy you a better husband” (V.i.425). Mariana appeals to Isabella to plead for mercy in Angelo’s case, and Isabella, after a long silence and still believing her brother dead, nevertheless does so. “That is why it was necessary for the Duke not to reveal to Isabella that her brother lived. She had to forgive Angelo at the worst” (Asimov 648). The Duke is suddenly reminded of something else: why was Claudio executed at the odd hour? The Provost brings forth Barnardine and Claudio, the latter with his face concealed. The Duke tells Barnardine,

Thou’rt condemn’d,
But for those earthly faults, I quit them all,
And pray thee take this mercy to provide
For better times to come. (V.i.482-485)


Then Claudio’s identity and head are revealed and in the same breath the Duke proposes to Isabella. “Isabella’s reunion with the brother she had believed dead is a curiously underwritten episode…. Here, neither brother nor sister speaks either now or for what remains of the play as the Duke apportions rewards and punishments” (Wells 233). The Duke pardons both Claudio and Angelo, but not Lucio, who says, “If you will hang me for it, you may; but I had rather it would please you I might be whipt” (V.i.505-506).

Whipt first, sir, and hang’d after.
Proclaim it, Provost, round about the city,
If any woman wrong’d by this lewd fellow
As I have heard him swear himself there’s one
Whom he begot with child), let her appear,
And he shall marry her. The nuptial finish’d,
Let him be whipt and hang’d. (V.i.507-513)

Lucio despairs that he must marry a pregnant prostitute, but the Duke insists that “Slandering a prince deserves it” (V.i.524). Off goes Lucio to jail. “Measure for measure is reduced to like for like, Claudio’s head for Juliet’s maidenhead, Vincentio’s bed trick for Angelo’s attempt upon Isabella’s impregnable chastity, Lucio’s enforced marriage to the whore Kate Keepdown for Lucio’s mockeries of the Duke-turned-false-friar” (Bloom 363).

The Duke blesses Claudio and Juliet, Mariana and Angelo. He thanks Escalus and promotes the Provost. And lastly he expresses hope that Isabella will marry him. So perhaps the play ends with anticipation of four marriages; “Or does Isabella’s silence destabilize this neat equation” (Garber 566)? The play ends before any response from her is indicated, and the Duke’s lines are enigmatic anyway:

I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.
So bring us to our palace, where we’ll show
What’s yet behind, that’s meet you all should know.

“His flight from the city’s stew of sexual corruption is manifestly a flight from himself, and his cure, as he sees it, is the innocent temptress Isabella, whose passion for chastity is perhaps reversible, or so he hopes” (Bloom 370). Although it has been recognized that the traditional assumption that Isabella will accept the Duke’s proposal is patriarchal (Wells 234), we do seem to end with Isabella’s “apparent abandonment of getting herself to a nunnery in favor of getting a husband to herself — or at least taking one when offered. Her religious fervor at the outset … was ‘overdone'” (Goddard, II 57).


“A considerable despair richly informs the play, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the despair was Shakespeare’s, at least imaginatively. I myself, rereading the play, hear in it an experiential exhaustion, a sense that desire has failed” (Bloom 361). “In Vincentio’s Vienna, as in Freud’s, reality comes down to sex and death” (Bloom 374).

E.T. Clark makes a solid central case about the relevance of Oxford being sent to the Tower when Elizabeth discovered Anne Vavasour had given birth to his illegitimate son. “Measure for Measure was written, then, in 1581, as a protest against the unusually severe punishments being meted out to individuals for committing offences which in the past years had been winked at as of a minor order” (Clark 447-448). The play rebukes Elizabeth, then, “for shameless tyranny” (Ogburn and Ogburn 1179, cf. 388, 329). “She vindictively misused her power in punishing him for a sin she herself secretly committed” (Ogburn and Ogburn 327, cf. 331). The elder Ogburns suspect a 1588 revision after the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, and one additional revision in 1603, at which time the Duke comes to resemble James I (Ogburn and Ogburn 328).

Ogburn makes biographical sense of this “problem play” in the context of the other plays by suggesting that, like Valentine and Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Duke and Angelo “represent the two sides of the dramatist’s character, the noble-benevolent and the false-malignant” (Ogburn 566). Mariana = Married Anne of the moated grange of Theobalds — that is, the wife de Vere estranged himself from for the same five years since Angelo spurned Mariana. It’s “a damning self-indictment” on de Vere’s part (566). Both Julia in Two Gentlemen and Mariana here

take back treacherous libertines who have forsaken them…. If in most cases Oxford lets his worser self off lightly at the end it is only after stripping that worser self naked in terrible wrongdoing. He does it in play after play. Proteus’ callous and cruel treatment of Julia and Angelo’s of Mariana is matched by Bertram’s of Helena and Claudio’s of Hero in Much Ado, while in three plays the male protagonist conceives a murderous animosity toward a loving wife by imagining her unfaithful to him on the flimsiest grounds, only to be later overwhelmed by remorse; and these three brutally condemned wives — Imogen in Cymbeline, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Desdemona in Othello — are generally adjudged the most saintly and faultless of Shakespeare’s heroines. (Ogburn 567-568)

Another intriguing matter is that Isabella is a form of the name Elizabeth, and critics note that “Isabella harps too much on her virginity” (qtd. in Ogburn 580), “as many at her Court must have felt Elizabeth did” (Ogburn 580). His parents referred to Elizabeth and Isabella as “two professional virgins” (Ogburn and Ogburn 331).

The Duke works as an Elizabeth character, and so the criticism about questionable authority and justice in matters of trying to legislate morality is diplomatic. I suspect Escalus of containing some Burghley — particularly his ineffectuality during the Tower affair. Ogburn notwithstanding, one senses a more piercing critique of an Angelo character, and maybe a Lucio (although there may be some de Vere in this guy) whom Elizabeth needs to be better aware of. The Duke also works partly as Oxford too though, detached in perspective, a kind of tongue-tied authority, in a position to save a young man from execution (Anderson 341). As a kind of playwright, the Duke is responsible for “ordering his cast and bringing about his plot devices, dramatic surprises, and denouements” (Garber 564), “ordering the lives of all the other characters, making sure that things come out right in the end” (Garber 565). On the other hand, Isabella is the Spanish equivalent of Elizabeth (Garber 586)….

As always, Goddard waxes eloquent:

Why does Authority always lie? Because it perpetuates itself by lies and thereby saves itself from the trouble of crude force: costumes and parades for the childish, decorations and degrees for the vain and envious, positions for the ambitious, propaganda for the docile anf gullible, orders for the goosesteppers, fine words (like “loyalty” and “co-operation”) for the foolishly unselfish — to distract, to extort awe, to flatter and gratify inferiority, as the case may be….
If we do not want a world presided over by a thundering Jove — this play seems to say — and under him a million pelting petty officers and their understudies, and under them millions of their victims, we must renounce Power as our god — Power and all his ways. And not just in the political and military worlds, where the evils of autocracy with its inevitable bureaucracy of fawning yes-men, while obvious to all but autocratic or servile eyes, may be more or less “necessary.” It is the more insidiously personal bondages to power that should concern us first.
. . .
Approximately three hundred years before the twentieth century, Measure for Measure made clear the truths that it has taken two world wars to burn into the consciousness of our own generation: that Power lives by Authority and that Authority is always backed by two things, the physical force that tears bodies and the mental violence that mutilates brains…. (Goddard, II 66-67)