Measuring “Measure for Measure” Again

Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”—ostensibly a comedy—“obsesses over death,” “plays like a funeral march,” “exposes the emptiness of the romantic genre,” “leaves the audience wondering if they just watched a comedy or a tragedy.”

A comedy about death and judgment. You know I am into it.

As you may recall, we covered “Measure for Measure” in some detail in the fall of 2008. But time passes, and a man matures. Back then I called the conclusion a “deus ex machina mess.” What a fool. (Me.)

One theory proposes that Shakespeare wrote “Measure for Measure”—and made it so dark and uncomical—to show the world that he had gotten sick of writing plays in which everyone marries each other in the end. After “Measure for Measure,” the Bard never wrote another comedy.

Meryl Streep as Isabella in Shakespeare in the Park 1976
According to this theory: Earlier comedies have more-satisfying conclusions. When “Much Ado About Nothing”’s Beatrice and Benedict get together, the world shines forth with new luster. When “The Taming of the Shrew’s” Petruchio kisses Kate, birds sing with more perfect harmony than they did before. When Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermia get everything sorted out in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the fairy kingdom rejoices with the human kingdom. We definitely like it when Orlando and Rosalind marry. But when everyone pairs off at the end of “Measure for Measure,” it makes no sense. No subsequent picnic under an arbor fills the imagination. So goes the theory of Shakespeare’s ultimate dissatisfaction with the genre.

Perhaps there is something to this theory. After all, Shakespeare wrote one other non-comedy comedy that involves: 1) an almost unbelievably obtuse husband-to-be, 2) a duke seeking justice, and 3) a cover-of-darkness tryst-bed switcheroo, in which a man intending to fornicate unknowingly sleeps with his own wife. “All’s Well that Ends Well” has all these elements, too. And he wrote that play immediately before he wrote “Measure for Measure.”

But, IMHO, “Measure for Measure” does not crash and burn, like the critics say it does. It crashes and burns in a much more Biblical way.

Two other contending theories about the play, theories that have vied with each other over the ages: 1) In “Measure for Measure,” the Duke represents Christ. 2) The idea that the Duke represents Christ cannot withstand even the most cursory scrutiny. The people who say he represents Christ are idiots.

The fundamental question of “Measure for Measure:” Who has the authority to enforce justice? In Vienna, the law has gone un-enforced, to notorious effect. Brothels dot the streets.

Then the regent “begot between two stock-fishes–when he makes water his urine is congealed ice”—the regent Angelo takes the reins of power, the Duke mysteriously vanishing.

Good young Viennan Claudio has a child. He got the getting-married-and-having-a-child thing backwards. Does Angelo’s own austere style of life justify him in having Claudio executed?

Turns out it doesn’t. Angelo’s personal austerity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. No one’s veins actually run with ice. Especially not when Claudio’s sister Isabella walks in. She may be a novice in a convent, but…

I think the key to resolving the “problem” with “Measure for Measure” is: Isabella’s stunning beauty. She possesses a beauty genuine enough not just to make Angelo fall in lust with her, but to make the Duke fall in love with her, too.

The Duke certainly makes an unlikely Christ figure. He bumbles every bit as much as the feckless friar in “Romeo and Juliet.”


1. Men in love tend to bumble. And the bumbling of men in love takes its quality from the eye of the beloved beholder. What an uninterested woman sees as ridiculous, an interested one sees as brilliantly cute.

2. At the end of the play, the scales of justice balance perfectly. This comedy may be dark, but everyone does marry each other in a satisfying manner—satisfying in that all is made right. And something deeply romantic does open up in front of us: not an arbored picnic à la “Much Ado About Nothing,” but an image of the divine romance.

All the jailhouse scenes notwithstanding, “Measure for Measure” actually does less to illuminate the distinction between justice and injustice and more to show us wisdom vs. folly. What is just? is not the real question. The real question is: Who is wise?

Lucio? Is he wise? He often speaks wisely: The law cannot successfully prohibit fornication and vice. Angelo errs with his inhuman strictness. Better to make friends with a light-hearted tale than to stand fast to rights and principles.

But Lucio is actually the play’s fool. He has such comfort in this compromised world that he gives up on discipline. God forbid that Judgment Day find any of us laughing in an alehouse about untrue tales told at someone else’s expense. When, at play’s end, the Duke forces Lucio to marry the mother of his child, not only is justice served, but Lucio gets saved from himself, saved from certain moral ruin.

Isabella? Wise? She will not give in to Angelo, even to save Claudio’s life. Claudio appears to be icily wise when he reconciles himself to imminent death at the disguised Duke’s prompting. The “Friar” gives a speech to convince Angelo to go to the gallows willingly. –Unforgettable; just about the most awesome thing I have ever read:

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death’s fool;
For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn’st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
For all the accommodations that thou bear’st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou’rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
And what thou hast, forget’st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.

Is Claudio a fool when, five minutes after hearing this consummately wise exhortation, he begs Isabella to do whatever needs to be done to save his life? Is Isabella wise to refuse as adamantly as she does?

Wisdom does not dispense with truth. Wisdom does not decide that justice cannot be measured, that no sword falls. No: wisdom knows that, in the end, justice will be meted out by an almighty Hand. And neither jot nor tittle will be neglected.

The Duke, wise? He schemes with what appears to be reckless abandon, bumbling his way through events:

‘My people do not abide by the city’s laws, which I am bound to enforce. But the laws bind so strictly… Okay, I will mysteriously depart, leaving holy young Angelo in charge. Then I will return, disguised as a Franciscan…’

Make sense so far? It does, if we but give him these unspoken reflections: ‘I believe in governing. But I believe more in loving God by quiet contemplation. I just might enter a monastery and never come back. But the problem is that I really love this frustratingly imperfect world. Well, let’s see what happens.’

Then he discovers Claudio condemned and Isabella wracked between loving her miscreant brother and holding fast to her (almost) consecrated chastity.

The Duke, to himself: “Bless my soul, that Isabella is beautiful. Ahh… Oh, was there some other problem here? Oh, yes. Claudio’s on death row. And the poor man does not stand heroically ready for death.”

The Duke knows things we don’t know about greater Vienna and the skeletons in the various suburban closets. In a quiet, shaded farmhouse outside the city, a chaste maiden sings heartbreaking songs to the evening twilight, because Angelo spurned her when she became poor. He broke their betrothal when her dowry was lost at sea. Wicked avaricious cruelty? Maybe. But married men can’t live without money.

The Duke understands:

1. Claudio has virtue, but not enough to die tomorrow. 2. Angelo’s chastity cracked under the pressure of Isabella’s beauty—but can we really blame him for that?

So the Duke shows the greatest wisdom: He improvises, with daring, and succeeds.

At one point, he desperately needs a dead man’s head to send to Angelo—to convince the perfidious deputy that Claudio has been hanged, when in fact he hasn’t. Deliciously maudlin comic relief ensues when another condemned man, who should ascend the gallows that day, refuses to leave his cell on the grounds that he is too drunk to die. The Duke has to admit that, yes, he is. But a pirate who looks like Claudio has just succumbed to a fever in the next cell. The needed head of a dead man has presented itself.

The Duke: “O, ’tis an accident that heaven provides!”

Here, friends, is wisdom. Here is the key to the Duke’s practically inscrutable character. The just man sees the gift for what it is. He accepts it.

In the last scene, the Duke reveals himself, casting aside his disguise, and proceeds to execute justice. He makes as if he will marry Angelo to Marianna (to make an honest woman of her), and then condemn him to death for his crimes.

Marianna gets down on her knees to beg for mercy for the villain, whom she loves. Then Isabella kneels down, too. She kneels to beg for mercy for the man who: 1) forced her to choose between her chastity and her brother’s life, 2) violated her maidenhood (or so Angelo thought he was doing, when in fact he was consummating his betrothal to Marianna), 3) but then betrayed his promise and executed Claudio anyway (or so everyone thinks at this moment). Could Angelo be more damnable in Isabella’s eyes? Hardly. Yet she kneels to beg for his life. Life is a sacred gift. It is not for us to hasten death and judgment.

Impossible wisdom on Isabella’s part? Yes, except: She is genuinely beautiful, full of the beauty of God. She earlier lashed out at her brother with self-righteous fury when he so much as suggested that she should give in to Angelo to save him. But now she hears the entreaties of another woman (albeit one she hardly knows), and the true measure of the situation shines in her mind: life is a sacred gift; that’s always the bottom line. (Isabella also still actually has her chastity, thanks to the Duke’s unlikely stratagems.)

Have mercy! O law-giver, have mercy! O judge of our doom, have mercy! Isabella cries.

Mercy? thinks the Duke to himself. Oh, yes. Right. Mercy is what you call it, when love moves you, and you forget all about the bad stuff.

And everyone gets a fresh start.

5 thoughts on “Measuring “Measure for Measure” Again

  1. Baer, you amaze. Fredo and Meryl Streep met at Shakespeare-in-the-Park “Measure for Measure.” They also appeared together in “Deer Hunter.” They got engaged. Then he died of bone cancer.

  2. Fredo is quite the trivia question answer. He was only in five movies before he died, but what a filmography: Godfather 1&2, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and the Deer Hunter.

    While we’re on the subject of Shakespeare:

    If Shakespeare had written the Hokey Pokey:

    O proud left foot, that ventures quick within Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
    Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
    Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
    Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke.
    A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
    To spin! A wilde release from heaven’s yoke.
    Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
    The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt.
    Verily, I say, ‘ tis what it’s all about.

  3. “The fundamental question of “Measure for Measure:” Who has the authority to enforce justice?” The Lord God enforces justice. At times, when a woman stands up for the practice of reading the Holy Bible, the Lord will absolutely stand up for her in a surprising way. In fact, there are times when a Shakespearean plot, acted out in real life, has a happy ending. That is what its all about; justice tempered with mercy.

  4. Fr. Baer, I see your sense of humor has not suffered from the passing of time. That was hilarious!

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