There are Shakespearian scholars who feel that “Measure for Measure” is Shakespeare’s greatest play. This is very possible. It certainly is one of his best. It is very thoughtful. It addresses ancient unresolved problems of human nature that still exist today, and it prompts us to think: the good versus the evil inclination, male dominance over females and the frequent male harassments, the power of the sex drive over the intellect, morality and the inability to control it, hypocrisy, irony, religion, and other human conflicts that invade all humans at times and are often unresolvable. The title is based on the Hebrew Bible’s “an eye for an eye” and for its wording of “measure for measure” on Matthew 7:1 and 2, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
In the play, the Duke of Vienna, the country’s ruler, negligently allowed Christian standards of morality to lapse. He decides to change his country and make its citizens moral. Realizing that he does not know how to do it, he selects an honest and pious man, Angelo, to lead the country while he takes leave of it for a short time and roams the country as a friar. (Ironically, by acting as a friar and hearing confessions and absolving people of their sins, the Duke who wants his people to be moral is acting immorally.)
The Duke’s replacement Angelo announces a new law. Men who make a woman to whom he is not married pregnant will be killed. Isabella who is a very righteous nun, goes to Angelo to beseech him not to execute her brother Claudio who made a woman pregnant outside of marriage. Angelo is attracted to Isabella and proposes that if she has sex with him, he will pardon Claudio. She refuses. She prefers to remain a virgin even if this results in her brother’s death. (Is this sensible? Isn’t life more important than being a virgin?)
The Duke appears in his disguise as a friar and suggests that she accept Angelo’s proposal, but at the last moment have Mariana enter the bed with Angelo. (Similar to what Laban did to the patriarch Jacob in the Torah. We should note that the Duke who is interested in having his citizens be moral is making an immoral suggestion and is telling Isabella to take part in an immoral and, under the new law, an illegal act.)
The play is called a comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies are those plays where no one dies and people get married at the end. There are scenes in the play that are funny, but most of the play is quite serious as can be seen in the list in my introductory paragraph. Additionally, the Duke in the play while addressing the issue of male dominance over females, such as Angelo’s proposal that Isabella have sex with him, ironically exerts his regal power and twice tells Isabella that she should marry him. She does not respond either time, and we recall that she even preferred her brother to die than give up her virginity, leaving us in doubt whether she would agree. So, despite no one being killed and others getting married and making the play a comedy (Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, the woman who replaced Isabella), her failure to respond and the Dukes exerting his authority cast doubt on whether this is indeed a comedy. But what is certain is that the play prompts us the think. Can people be taught or forced to be moral?