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Summary Article: Measure for Measure
from Dictionary of Shakespeare, Peter Collin Publishing

One of Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure was written around 1603-04 and first published in the First Folio edition of 1623. It was first performed on Boxing Day of 1604 by the King's Men. The primary source for the play was an earlier play, Promos and Cassandra (1578) by the English writer George Whetstone (c. 1555-c. 1587). Set in Vienna, Measure for Measure explores themes of justice and mercy, chastity and permissiveness.


The Duke of Vienna is concerned that his rule has been too permissive and that as a result Vienna has become an immoral place. He decides to disappear for a while and to hand over power to a deputy, Angelo, whom he believes will restore discipline. Disguised as a friar, he watches what happens under Angelo's sterner regime. Angelo loses no time in enforcing the letter of law. He revives ancient legislation and sentences Claudio to death for making his fiancee Juliet pregnant. Claudio asks his sister, Isabella, to plead with Angelo for his life. Isabella is about to enter a convent and when Angelo agrees to free Claudio only if she will sleep with him, she is appalled and refuses to do so, adamant that she cannot break her vow of chastity even if it means her brother's death. The Duke, who as the Friar has been observing events, suggests a plan to substitute Angelo's ex-fiancee Mariana (whom Angelo abandoned because of problems over her dowry) for Isabella in Angelo's bed. Angelo is fooled and sends instructions to the prison to pardon Claudio, but secretly he orders Claudio's execution to go ahead and demands his head be brought to him. The Duke foils Angelo by arranging for the head of another prisoner who has just died to be taken to Angelo instead and Claudio is saved. The Duke returns to Vienna as himself and, pretending to be ignorant of everything that has happened, listens to the cases that Isabella and Juliet have brought against Angelo. In the end he admits to having been disguised as the Friar, and to knowing the whole truth. Angelo is sentenced to death, but the Duke orders him to marry Mariana before being executed. Isabella and Mariana plead for Angelo's life to be spared, and in the final reconciliation Angelo makes a full repentance, Claudio and Juliet are reunited, and the Duke asks Isabella to be his wife.

See alsoAbhorson, Angelo, Barnadine, Boy, Bum, Claudio, Duke, Elbow, Escalus, Francisca, Friar Peter, Froth, Gentleman, Isabella, Juliet, Justice, Lodowick, Friar, Lucio, Mariana, Nun, Overdone, Mistress, Pompey, problem play, Provost, Ragozine, Shakespeare's Plays, Thomas, (Peter) Friar, tragi-comedy, Varrius, Vincentio, the Duke

Dictionary of Shakespeare, Peter Collin Publishing, © Louise McConnell 2000

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