As with all of Shakespeare’s plays, there are lots of themes that appear in Measure for Measure. It’s a great idea to keep a list of key quotes and themes in each act.
Here are three themes that can be seen in Measure for Measure and are useful to look out for:
- The theme of power is central to Measure for Measure. The plays explores all different types of power, how it can change people and how it can be abused. Some of the most striking examples of power come from the way women are physically controlled by their surroundings. The ‘dejected Mariana’ has shut herself away in a ‘moated grange’ (Duke, 3:1), a secluded retreat, showing her as a prisoner of Angelo’s cruelty. In Act 4 Scene 1, Isabella’s description of the place where Angelo wants to sleep with her, the ‘garden circummured with brick’ with its maze of locked spaces, reflects how he wants total power over her and how restricted her choices are as a woman. Even Juliet, heavily pregnant, spends the play in a jail cell.
- The abuse of power is a theme explored by the duke, who has made Vienna suffer by neglecting to use his own power correctly. He passes responsibility to Angelo to see ‘If power changes purpose’ (Duke, 1:4). Angelo spectacularly fails this test and his taste of power quickly reveals him as a ‘murderer’, ‘an adulterous thief’ and a ‘virgin-violator’ (Isabella, 5:1).
- The different powers of men and women are examined in the play. Angelo lets the people of Vienna ‘straight feel the spur’ (1:3), a cruel and violent way of taking control compared to the more subtle actions of ‘maidens’ who ‘weep and kneel’ and make ‘men give like gods’ (Lucio, 1:4).
- See how many references you can find in the play to power and control. Can these be split into categories of positive and negative power? In which situations is power used in a positive way and by whom? When is it negative?
- The entire plot of Measure for Measure relies on substitution and things or people swapping places. At the start of the play, the duke replaces himself with his deputy, Angelo - ‘In our remove be thou at full ourself’ - and swaps the restraints of public office for the freedom of a friar. Mariana’s virginity is substituted for Isabella’s in Angelo’s bed in the hope that ‘the doubleness of the benefit defends the deed’ (3:1), making the point that one woman is as good as another to men like Angelo, who doesn’t even notice.
- The double substitution of Claudio’s head adds some comedy to the play when Barnadine refuses to be executed, meaning another head needs to be found to replace it. On a more serious note, the duke orders in Act 5 Scene 1 that Angelo’s life be exchanged for Claudio’s ‘death for death’ and ‘measure still for measure.’
- Shakespeare uses the city of Vienna to stand in for Elizabethan London. At this time in history, Vienna was full of prostitutes and pimps and disease was common. In the London of Shakespeare’s time, buildings were being demolished to try and control the plague. This is echoed by Angelo’s ruling that ‘All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down’ (Pompey, 1:2) as the ‘suburbs’ were the places where the brothels were.
- What other examples of substitution or things being swapped or exchanged can you find? What do these particular themes add to the play?
- The nature of justice is very important in Measure for Measure and the connection between God and justice is mentioned often. In Act 1 Scene 3, Claudio describes Angelo’s justice as a ‘demigod Authority’ which, like God, can decide to punish ‘whom it will’ and ‘whom it will not’. Isabella asks Angelo in Act 2 Scene 2 how he’d feel if God, ‘which is the top of judgement’, judged him like he is judging Claudio.
- The fairness of justice is questioned a lot in the play. Escalus comments in Act 2 Scene 1 that ’Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall’ and even Angelo admits that justice is only as good as the men who use it when he asks Escalus ‘what knows the laws / That thieves do pass on thieves?’ (2:1). Justice can be used as a weapon but men can also use it to hide behind, like Angelo does in Act 2 Scene 2: ‘It is the law, not I, condemn your bother.’
- Shakespeare makes us question the authority of the law by introducing Elbow, an overworked constable, who speaks in malapropisms (mistakenly using one word in place of another similar sounding word, often with comic effects). In Act 2 Scene 1, Elbow calls his prisoners ‘two notorious benefactors’ instead of ‘malefactors’ (criminals) and calls Mistress Overdone’s brothel a ‘respected’ house instead of a ‘suspected’ one. Why do you think this is important to the play? What does it make us think about the law in Vienna and the duke’s role as governor?