Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's most provocative and unclassifiable dramas touching on themes of religion and government, injustice and mercy. A young man, whose fiancé is pregnant, is sentenced to death for sexual relations outside of marriage. His pious sister pleads for his life with the all-powerful regent who offers her a ghastly deal: will she sacrifice her virginity to save her brother? Wickedly stimulating, Measure for Measure is full of surprises, gasps and guffaws to delight.Read more
The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, reveals his plan to leave the city and entrust the power of his position to his deputy, Angelo. Known for his moral rectitude, Angelo cracks down on sexual improprieties. Mistress Overdone tells the licentious Lucio that young Claudio has been arrested and will be executed for impregnating his fiancée, Juliet, and then learns from Pompey that the city’s brothels have been closed, leaving her without an income. In a desperate attempt to save his life, Claudio sends his friend Lucio to the convent where his sister Isabella is preparing to become a nun, in hopes that she can persuade Angelo to be merciful. In the interim, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and returns to Vienna in order to see “If power change purpose, what our seemers be.” Prompted by Lucio, Isabella leaves her cloister to save her brother.
Despite his counselor Escalus’s plea for leniency, Angelo resolves to execute Claudio. The comic Elbow arrests Pompey and Froth; however, Angelo cannot determine the validity of the charges, and Escalus dismisses the pair with a warning. The Provost, in charge of the prison, appeals for Claudio but Angelo dismisses him and receives Isabella. Rallied by Lucio, she argues persuasively for her brother’s release. Angelo’s libido is strangely stirred and he agrees again to meet her. The disguised Vincentio learns of Claudio’s fate from Juliet. Angelo makes Isabella an indecent proposal: her chastity for her brother’s life.
In prison, the Duke steels Claudio for death. Isabella reveals to her brother Angelo’s dastardly plot. Although Claudio initially rejects the idea, he succumbs to his fear of death and asks her to compromise. Isabella refuses. The Duke overhears the siblings, sends Claudio back to his cell, and submits his own plan to Isabella. He tells her to agree to sleep with Angelo under cover of darkness and then Mariana, Angelo’s discarded fiancée, will take her rightful place in Angelo’s bed. Again Elbow arrests Pompey, and then Lucio unknowingly libels the Duke to his face. The disguised Duke challenges Lucio to make these claims before the Duke when he returns. Escalus locks up Mistress Overdone for prostitution and unknowingly demonstrates his loyalty to the Duke.
Isabella and the disguised Duke persuade Mariana to participate in the bed trick. Back in prison, the Provost offers Pompey a position as executioner’s assistant and Pompey meets his new boss, Abhorson. Everything goes according to plan. However, after considering that Claudio may seek revenge, Angelo not only decides to proceed with the execution, but he requests Claudio’s head be sent to him by 5 o’clock that day. Initially, the Duke intended to have the head of the forsaken prisoner, Barnardine, disguised as Claudio’s head, but the prisoner was too drunk and the Duke too virtuous to proceed. As fortune would have it, a pirate resembling Claudio died that morning providing a convenient substitute. In order to preserve Isabella’s righteous wrath for the final confrontation with Angelo, the Duke deceives her into thinking the execution occurred.
Having temporarily discarded his disguise, the Duke returns to the court. Isabella pleads before the Duke for justice. Feigning outrage, the Duke extols Angelo’s integrity and orders Isabella tried for slander. Mariana then pleads her grievance against Angelo. The Duke exits and returns disguised as the friar to defend the claims of the two women. Lucio insults the Duke again. When accused of lying, the Duke reveals his true identity and Angelo instantly recognizes the futility of the situation. He pleads for death in order to be spared the shame of a trial. Mariana begs for leniency and the pious Isabella advocates for forgiveness despite the fact she believes Claudio to be executed. Angelo is spared and marries Mariana. The Duke dramatically reveals Claudio on stage and pardons him, which allows him to marry Juliet. The Duke condemns Lucio for his slander. The play concludes with the Duke’s proposal to Isabella.
By John-David Johnson
Throughout its history Measure for Measure has been one of the most divisive of Shakespeare’s plays, eliciting a range of audience responses from enthusiasm to condemnation. Historically, Shakespeare intended the play to coincide with the 1603 coronation of James I and the subsequent celebrations commemorating his ascension to the throne. (James I’s treatise on the ethics of government, Basilikon Doron, was reprinted just before his ascension.) However, as the immediacy of James I’s presence faded, Measure for Measure became a source of greater controversy. Its sporadic production history is a testament to its mixed reception; it has fallen in and out of fashion depending on the contemporary cultural environment. The case for classifying Measure as a “problem play” tends to focus upon the following three issues: form and content, language, and characterization.
Critics often attribute the difficulties and contradictions within the text to Shakespeare’s experimentation with the form of tragicomedy, noting how Othello, King Lear and Macbeth were written immediately after Measure for Measure. The ambiguity of the form echoes the play’s moral ambiguity. Its title refers to Matthew 7:1-2: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.” The title line, which appears twice during the course of the play, seemingly embraces the Old Testament concept of Hammurabi’s Code, and yet the actual conclusion of the play endorses a New Testament attitude of mercy and forgiveness. Without a clearly defined morality, many critics feel that Measure for Measure dissolves into a dramatic contrivance and both the plot and the characters lose any resemblance to reality.
While some object to the play’s form, others simply cannot rectify its bawdy language and frank sexuality with their perception of “the delightfulness of Shakespeare’s plays.” In fact, the version created by the 18th-century brother-sister acting duo of J.P. Kemble and Sarah Siddons removed nearly all of the references to sexuality and much of the low humor in order to focus on the moral and political issues. However, stripping the play of these elements avoids the real challenge of the play: creating a dialogue between its contrasting worlds. Although the Duke and Angelo possess their own ambiguities, most debate centers upon Isabella. On one hand, she embodies moral grandeur, piety, dignity and honor, and on the other she can appear cold, hypocritical and selfish. While willingly acquiescing to Mariana’s sexual submission to Angelo, Isabella balks at having to make her own sacrifice to save Claudio. How an actor addresses this incongruency can often determine the success of a production.
Plan your visit
Most CU Presents performances take place on the beautiful University of Colorado Boulder campus. Take some time to explore our venues, find out how to get here and get more tips on what to do while you’re in town.Plan Your Visit - Plan your visit
The University of Colorado is committed to providing equal access to individuals with disabilities. If you are planning to attend an event take some time to review our accessibility services.Accessibility - Accessibility Services