Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

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Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

<p>We will move through the play exploring its wonderful verse and absorbing action. Its central figure is both a realistic Duke managing his realm and a God-like figure occupied with a world that


We will move through the play exploring its wonderful verse and absorbing action. Its central figure is both a realistic Duke managing his realm and a God-like figure occupied with a world that his mildness has let slide into immorality. His Deputy is a ‘blameless’ man who would solve all problems harshly. We watch his approach fail as his lusting for the innocent Isabella surprises and corrupts him. The Duke exposes him and saves (and marries) Isabella, but can even God manage our comic and tragic weakness? Its happy resolution foreshadows Shakespeare’s final romances.


  • Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC 2003
  • John Bell, On Shakespeare, Allen and Unwin 2011
  • Peter Levi, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Papermac, 1998
  • Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare, Picador, 1997
  • Derek Traversi, An approach to Shakespeare vol 2, Chapter 1, No. 3, Hollis and Carter, 1969
  • Introduction to Measure for Measure in The RSC William Shakespeare, Complete Works, Bate and Rasmussen, RSC 2007

Session 1

  • Act 1 – Scene 1: The Duke announces his withdrawal for a time and his intention to leave all his powers to Angelo.
  • Act 1 – Scene 2: A group of men of the world discuss his having gone and learn from a prostitute of the arrest of Claudio, condemned by Angelo for sex before marriage, and of Angelo’s instruction to tear down all the brothels. Mistress Overdone bewails the effect on her livelihood.
  • Act 1 – Scene 3: Claudio reflects on his misfortune with the likeable rogue, Lucio, questioning Angelo’s motives. Claudio asks Lucio to get his sister Isabella, shortly to become a nun, to intercede for him.
  • Act 1 – Scene 4: The Duke asks a friar to disguise him as a member of his Order and explains his double plan – he wants Angelo to mend the public morals that he has allowed to degenerate, and in the process he wants to discover whether Angelo is all that he seems.

Session 2

  • Act 1 – Scene 5: Lucio tells Isabella of Claudio’s arrest and asks her to try for his release
  • Act 2 – Scene 1: Angelo attempts to justify his harshness to the more experienced and more humane judge, Escalus. A group of pimps and bawds are brought in and Angelo leaves Escalus to deal with them. In the brilliant comic development of the scene Escalus finds it hard not to laugh at them and treats them with understanding and leniency.
  • Act 2 – Scene 2: Isabella goes to see Angelo and her passionate advocacy excites a perverse response in him. He tells her to return next morning.

Session 3

  • Act 2 – Scene 3: The Duke, disguised as a friar, and wanting to get to know his realm better, visits the prison. Accompanied by the humane Provost, he is introduced to Claudio’s betrothed and is shocked by Angelo’s sentence on them.
  • Act 2 – Scene 4: Isabella returns to Angelo who, though wracked by his conscience, at first discretely, then blatantly, attempts to seduce her. When he reveals his intention she thinks she has him in her power but cynically he corrects her – he has the power to turn her accusations back on her. He ends with a monstrous abuse of power threatening to torture her brother if she doesn’t yield to him. She leaves, naively confident that her brother will understand her decision not to yield her chastity. The attitude to sexuality of Shakespeare’s 16th Century Christian world, and especially her notorious assertion that ‘More than our brother is our chastity’ is hard for a modern audience to understand and accept.

Session 4

  • Act 3 – Scene 1 up to line 245: The Duke/friar engages in a parody of spiritual direction with the condemned Claudio. In a string of sophistries he argues that, given all life’s deceits, death is the better alternative. For now, poor Claudio allows himself to be convinced. Then Isabella enters and the friar asks to be hidden where he can overhear them speak – perhaps the first of the many morally questionable things he does as a religious figure. Isabella tells her brother of Angelo’s demands then tries to persuade him to die rather than force her to give herself to him. At first he agrees he should save her honour but finally, powerfully evoking to himself the horrors of death, he is compelled to ask her to yield her chastity to save him. She is appalled, denounces his betrayal of their family honour and leaves him in fury, fairly cursing him. The Duke now reveals himself and concocts the extraordinary story that Angelo was only testing his ability to judge people and has not really made the offer Isabella said he had. Claudio gives in – but we know the Duke will be looking for a way to resolve the issue. With delicacy he asks the Provost to trust him alone with Isabella and then reveals a plan involving a certain Mariana whom Angelo, some years before, had left at the altar. Isabella is to make an assignment with Angelo and the Duke will arrange for Mariana to take her place in his bed.

Session 5

  • Act 3 – Scene 1, line 246: Pompey from the brothel has been arrested and is brought in by the clown constable Elbow to where the Duke can learn of him first hand.. He has fallen under Angelo’s sentence. Lucio appears, and Pompey hopes he will bail him. Heartlessly Lucio rejects him. Lucio is left alone with the Friar and slanders the Duke to him. There is splendid, drawn out comedy as Lucio’s slanders get under the Duke’s skin. The Duke will not forget this moment. Then Escalus and Officers enter with Mistress Overdone in their custody. She blames Lucio for informing on her. Escalus’s patience is by now exhausted and his attitude to human sinfulness has hardened. Mistress Overdone has supplied the Duke with information that he will later call Lucio to account for. The act ends with the Friar, obviously hurt by Lucio’s slander, wondering what others think of him. He asks Escalus what he thinks of him. Escalus of course is loyal and pays tribute to his integrity, but in a dramatic soliloquy the Duke is left to reflect on what he has learned on his excursion into the world of his people. He finishes by grimly committing himself to righting the wrongs Mariana has suffered at Angelo’s hands.
  • Act 4 – Scene 1: Mariana enters singing a poignant song of betrayed love. The Duke enters and at once Isabella arrives. The Duke leaves the two women to discuss his plan and again justifies it with more of the clever casuistry that the audience enjoys and accepts from a clergyman. His reassurances are part of his God-like role.

Session 6

  • Act 4 – Scene 2: This is the first of several scenes of brilliant gothic comedy set in the gaol. The Provost offers the gaoled Pompey the job of executioner. He tells Claudio to prepare for death. The Friar/Duke appears and as part of his long plan defends the guilty Angelo to the Provost. A letter arrives from Angelo – it is not Claudio’s pardon as the Duke had expected but an urgent command that the Provost execute Claudio at once and send his head to Angelo by 5 o’clock that morning. Angelo here is evil covering its tracks but the Duke is goodness at hand to forestall him. Grim comedy sees the Duke arrange for Barnadine, an unrepentant murderer, to be executed in Claudio’s place. He reassures the Provost of the safety of his disobeying Angelo and ends with a speech that is full of the sense of goodness working itself out. He shows the Provost, who won’t accept his authority as a Friar, letters from the Duke announcing his imminent return. He tells the Provost of letters that Angelo is soon to receive – they will confuse and unsettle him.
  • Act 4 – Scene 3: Continuing the play’s presentation of a world full of sinfulness Pompey talks of how at home he feels in this gaol where he finds all the sorts of people that he dealt with in the brothel. In a scene of amazingly original gothic comedy Barnadine refuses to be put to death and when the Duke can’t bear to order the execution of the unrepentant man, the Provost tells him of a prisoner who has just died and whose head could be sent to Angelo instead. Isabella arrives, but furthering the theme of God working in mysterious ways, the Friar decides not to tell her that Claudio is to be saved. He even tells her that his head is already off. Morally questionable though this decision is, the Duke wants the triumph of goodness to appear the more striking the longer its announcement is delayed. The Duke continues his mysterious preparations for the denouement he expects. Lucio enters and again slanders the Duke. He increases the risk he runs by refusing to leave the Duke.

Session 7

  • Act 4 – Scene 4: Angelo and Escalus discuss strange, contradictory letters they have received from the Duke. Angelo is disconcerted by the arrangements the Duke has made for the handing back of his powers and he ends in a turmoil of guilt and fear.
  • Act 4 – Scene 5: The Duke arranges to give the occasion the utmost solemnity.
  • Act 4 – Scene 6: Isabella is afraid of what the Duke has ordered her to do, i.e. to accuse Angelo in public on such a solemn occasion. Mariana, full of confidence in the duke who has already helped her, reassures her.
  • Act 5 – Up to line 283: The Duke, returning, praises Angelo for the reports he claims to have received of his splendid stewardship and lifts his self confidence to a height from which the fall will be all the more spectacular.. Isabella, as commanded by the Duke, denounces Angelo but bewilderingly he rejects the claims she makes as madness and orders her arrest. Her strength appears as she insists, however, and he gradually leans towards believing her. On stage Angelo would appear more and more disconcerted throughout this episode. Lucio intervenes on Isabella’s behalf and the Duke warns him, in grim comedy, not only not to interfere but to look to his own situation. Isabella insists on the truth of her story but the Duke, finally appearing to reject it, orders her to prison. Not budging even then, however, she calls for the Friar to be summoned to validate her claims. Friar Peter explains that the Friar cannot come just at the moment but he seems to support Angelo, claiming that although he thinks he has slept with Isabella, he has not done so. Friar Peter says he will produce a witness to prove this. Isabella is led out as Mariana is brought in. The Duke appoints Angelo to assess her evidence and a wonderfully complicated to and fro has her finally declare that Angelo has slept with her in her garden house only days ago. Angelo insists that someone has put her up to this and the Duke appoints him and Escalus to summon the mysterious Friar and get to the bottom of it all. Lucio has been interjecting all the while, comically getting himself deeper into trouble. The Duke leaves them to it, as of course he must if the Friar is to appear, insisting on Angelo’s innocence, however, as he goes. He gives instructs that the mysterious Friar Lodowick be called!

Session 8

  • Act 5 – Line 284: Escalus interrogates Lucio about the Friar who returns (hooded, of course) with Isabella and the Provost. Lucio resumes his innuendo against the Duke. Escalus begins to interrogate the Friar who shocks everybody by berating Angelo for his guilt. Escalus orders that the Friar be interrogated under torture but the strong Friar outfaces him. Escalus again orders the Friar to prison and Angelo calls on Lucio to denounce him. The Friar resists, and Lucio’s zeal makes him pull his monk’s hood from his face only to reveal the Duke and expose his own guilt completely. The Duke takes back his seat from Angelo who crumbles pitifully, asking for death. The Duke still conceals her brother’s safety from Isabella and blames himself for not having saved him. He condemns Angelo to the beheading that Claudio suffered – there should be ‘measure for measure’. Mariana, however, demands that the Duke spare his life and begs Isabella to intercede for him. The Duke appears to reject their appeals and in another twist appears to punish the Provost for his having beheaded Claudio early in the morning without a special warrant. In what seems to have been a prearranged move however, the Provost brings in another prisoner whom he has saved. There is general shock when it turns out to be Claudio and the Duke takes advantage of the moment to propose marriage to the would-be nun, Isabella. Lucio’s punishment, being sentenced to marry the woman he has wronged, horrifies him and the Duke ordering him then to be whipped and hanged conveys the intensity of the Duke’s just anger at him. The Duke’s remission of his whipping and hanging is a fittingly mild and just move. A beautiful final speech by the Duke restores everything to rights.