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Measure for Measure: The Undiscovered Genre

For centuries scholars have regarded William Shakespeare as undoubtedly one of the English language's greatest writers ever if not the greatest. Ironically, among Shakespeare's work is a group of plays that people often refer to as his "problem" plays. Rosalind Miles suggests which of these so called plays is the most "problematic":

Measure for Measure holds today an unassailable position as chief "problem" among the various plays of Shakespeare which have from time to time earned that title. This may not be the happiest of distinctions; but it is one to which Measure for Measure will not readily relinquish its claim. (13)

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare employs both devices of comedy and devices of dramatic tragedy. This is not because the playwright starts out writing one type of play and changes his mind halfway through. William B. Bache points out that "the play was deliberately written" (vii). Shakespeare knows exactly what he is doing in the writing of the play. Darryl J. Gless supports this, stating, "Shakespeare reveals quickly and forcefully that he is writing neither a tragedy nor a satiric comedy" (15). Shakespeare is not concerned with the genre of the play as much as he is with writing a masterpiece.

As Bache and Gless touch on Shakespeare's deliberateness in writing Measure for Measure, J. W. Lever points out the faultiness of those who criticize the play by calling it "problematic." "Critics are always liable to mirror their own dispositions, and the temper of the age, in their assessments of Shakespeare" (lv). Daniel Colvin picks up where Lever leaves off by listing a number of attitudes common among modern critics that in essence disqualify them from being objective critics of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Among these attitudes is the tendency to over emphasize the comic element in the play, as well as tendencies to follow the popular critical trends of the day.

Not only a study of the comments of scholars such as these, but also an analysis of the play's text suggests that this play is much more than a comedy that isn't always comical. Much of the subject matter of the play deals with serious matters such as Angelo's inner conflict between objectivity and desire. David Bevington points out that Shakespeare fills Angelo's soliloquies with this burning conflict (406). These passages are far more towards tragedy than comedy.

Before Angelo's soliloquy in the play, another point that is anything but comical is the encounter of Angelo and Isabella. Instead, the viewer or reader sees a masterfully constructed debate of point and counterpoint between justice and mercy. The dialogue between Isabella and her brother, Claudio, with the Duke secretly looking on is another instance which shows comedy is not paramount in Shakespeare's writing of this play. Even Lucio, the "fantastic," must take a break from his duty to comedy to deliver the most serious and tragic news of her brother's imprisonment to Isabella. Often the viewer or reader can even see such characters as Lucio and Elbow as the comic relief of a play that is not a comedy.

Lever argues that because of such scenes as these critics who regard the play merely as a "problem" comedy overlook many of the deep themes which the play presents (lviii). He observes:

In the broadest sense of the phrase, Measure for Measure deserves to be considered a drama of ideas. While the formal classifications 'problem play', 'allegory', 'morality', or 'satire' are misleading, there can be no doubt that the play is profoundly concerned with major intellectual issues. (lxiii)

Lever goes on to discuss the specific themes of Justice and Mercy, Grace and Nature, and Creation and Death. One could add to that list the issue of marriage. As Michael D. Friedman discusses in his Shakespeare Quarterly article concerning matrimony and recompense in the play, the matter of Duke's proposal to Isabella and its ambiguity is a serious, not comic, issue (Friedman 454-464). Surely a play which deals with such weighty subject matter and themes in such a grave manner cannot be dismissed merely as a simple comedy, for Shakespeare goes beyond the confines of the comic genre to present the viewer with such issues. Miles goes as far as saying, "Measure for Measure is a play of emotional collapses, of the unpredictability of human nature under stress, and of the disintegration of the carefully-erected self-image" (125).

Along the same lines as Miles’ comments of the play, David McCandless emphasizes in his online essay the importance of the theme of power and punishment in Measure for Measure. McCandless argues that the scene of Claudio being paraded off to prison must be given special emphasis to show how humiliating Angelo's punishment is to Claudio (McCandless). Again, Miles, McCandless, and many others hardly seem to be speaking of a comedy when they bring up such important points.

Looking beyond just the single play, one can see Measure for Measure in context with Shakespeare's other works. People have called a number of other plays by Shakespeare "problem" plays. As in the case of Measure for Measure, many wonder about Romeo and Juliet; is Shakespeare writing what modern viewers would call a romantic comedy before changing it halfway through to a tragedy? Such fellow works of Romeo and Juliet as Measure for Measure suggest otherwise. They suggest instead the deliberateness with which Shakespeare writes with the duality of comedy and tragedy. The contrasting extremes provide immediate entertainment as well as deep philosophic concepts like classic poetry which yield more meaning upon additional readings and reflection.

The Merchant of Venice is another play in the category of "comedies" which, like Measure for Measure, deals with serious topics. The persecution of Jews, the revenge of Shylock by Old Testament law, the equality of all humans including non-Christians, and the hypocrisy of Christians concerning mercy all come forth from the "comedy" of a play. The same as with Measure for Measure, one cannot dismiss this play simply as a comedy or even a "problem" play. The viewer must recognize the important issues which Shakespeare brings forward.

Jeanne Addison Roberts approaches her analysis of The Merry Wives of Windsor by pointing out that a number of Shakespeare's other plays also deal with the conflict between strict justice and mercy. Roberts mentions The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, and of course, Measure for Measure in her comparison (82).

Cymbeline is another chief example of a seemingly "problematic" play. Bevington admits, "The genre of Cymbeline can be suggested by such critical terms as romance, tragicomedy, and the comedy of forgiveness" (1434).

The Tempest is yet another play which combines much comedy through the characters of Trinculo and Stephano with the more serious devices of Prospero. In his textual analysis of Measure for Measure, Brian Gibbons brings up the point that in the First Folio published in 1623, Measure for Measure and The Tempest appear together "in the Comedies section" (193). This is of course before scholars come up with the term "romances" in an attempt to resolve difficulties in labeling work which Shakespeare obviously isn't deeply concerned with categorizing.

Yet another way to look at Measure for Measure is through the biographical information known about Shakespeare. One of the most influential and relevant facts is that the Elizabethan society of Shakespeare's day was a Christian society. Measure for Measure is very much a Christian play, showing the playwright's attitude towards justice and mercy.

There are many parallels between the play and Christian theology. The Duke's absence, for example, creates (for lack of a better term) a probationary state in which his subjects can be tested. Bevington states, "As [the Duke] says to Friar Thomas, explaining why he has delegated his power to Angelo: 'Hence shall we see, /If power change purpose, what our seemers be' (1.3.53-54)" (405). Bevington suggests that the Duke expects the possible fall of Angelo (405).

Gless brings up another parallel between Christian theology and the play, mentioning how the Duke's disguise grants him a degree of omniscience and omnipotence (15). Bevington supports this when he says, "Like an all-seeing deity who keeps a reckoning of humanity's good and evil deeds, the Duke has found out Angelo's great weakness. As Angelo confesses, 'I perceive Your Grace, like power divine, /Hath looked upon my passes' (5.1.377-378)" (405).

Still in reference to the Duke's disguise; just as the New Testament contests that the Lord was among the Jews and they knew him not, the Duke also goes undetected among his subjects. This aspect of lacking recognition is not dissimilar to the previous parallel of omniscience. Then in relation to the parallel of the Duke and Christ, Isabella who almost becomes a "Bride of Christ," becomes instead a bride to the Duke (or so the text supports).

In their first encounter, Angelo demands justice while Isabella pleads for mercy, both infinitely important aspects in Christian theology. Ironically, in the end Isabella receives mercy while Angelo receives justice by being obligated to marry his betrothed and mercy also by having his life spared thanks to the pleading for mercy by Mariana and Isabella.

Towards the play's beginning, Angelo represents one with all power demanding absolute justice, and Isabella begs for mercy for the guilty. In this instance the phantom Duke acts as an unknown mediator attempting to satisfy both. Then in the play's final act, the roles are reversed, and Isabella and Mariana act as intercessors on behalf of the guilty Angelo before the seemingly merciless Duke. Shakespeare's attitude towards the dilemma of justice verses mercy seems to be a "happy" medium where Angelo gets his just desserts for his hypocrisy in betraying justice and yet is spared from the fate he would have co-signed Claudio to.

Even the title of the play is of Christian origin as Lever points out:

For the Elizabethan age, the polarity of justice and mercy was not only a matter for theologic speculation, but a crucial issue to society. The title Measure for Measure recalls a verse in the Sermon on the Mount which had become proverbial: 'With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.' Closely linked to it in context was the command: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' (lxiii)

This Christian motif points to thematic concepts that are also anything but comical. Shakespeare is weighing justice and mercy through his characters. The theme of the play is not in the antics of Lucio or Elbow but in the conflict between Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke.

In the end one can see quite clearly not only that Measure for Measure goes far beyond the confines of a "problem" comedy, but also that Shakespeare intentionally writes it so, including extensive non-comical elements rich in philosophical value. Thus, obviously Shakespeare cares less about writing the funniest comedy than creating a literary masterpiece.

Looking more closely at genres of plays in Shakespeare's day, basically, there was the comedy, the tragedy, and the history. If one were to limit all the literary and other fictional works such as television series and movies of the past century into those three categories, a good portion if not a majority of modern works would have to be considered "problem" works. The fact is that Shakespeare is ahead of his time in writing his "problem" plays. The modern day viewer or reader is accustomed to fiction that deals with serious issues, includes some comic relief, and has a happy ending in which the protagonists emerge triumphant. Does this not describe Measure for Measure? Such fictional works are not comedies, tragedies, or histories. They are the modern adventure or what many would call "romance," though clearly this genre reaches far beyond just the traditional "romances." Although Shakespeare may or may not have seen this gigantic move in the worlds of literature and fiction, he certainly captures the undiscovered genre in his so called "problem" plays, the least of which is not Measure for Measure. Indeed, if Measure for Measure is supposedly chief among Shakespeare's "problem" plays, then by that same token it is conversely his greatest "adventure" drama.

Sources Cited

Bache, William B. Measure for Measure: A Dialectical Art Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue UP, 1969.

Bevington, David. The Complete Works of Shakespeare New York: Longman, 1997.

Colvin, Daniel. "Shakespeare's Problem Plays." 22 Nov. 1999.      <

Friedman, Michael D. "'O, Let Him Marry Her!': Matrimony and Recompense in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (Winter 1995): 454-464.

Gibbons, Brian. Measure for Measure Port Chester, New York: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Gless, Darryl J. Measure for Measure: The Law, and the Convent Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1979.

Lever, J. W. Measure for Measure London: Harvard UP, 1965.

McCandless, David. "'I'll Pray to Increase Your Bondage': Power and Punishment in Measure for Measure." 29 Nov. 1999. <

Miles, Rosalind. The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Investigation New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison. Shakespeare's English Comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor in Context Lincoln, Nebraska: Univ. of Nebraska UP, 1979

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