Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare was written in 1603 or 1604.

The duke of Vienna leaves the city for a short while and puts Angelo in charge in his absence. Isabella, a novice nun, goes to plead with Angelo for the life of her brother, Claudio, who is accused of ‘fornication’. Angelo, taking advantage of the situation tries to blackmail Isabella into sleeping with him. But the Duke, who is observing everything in disguise, comes to the rescue. With his help the virtuous Isabella saves the life of her brother and keeps her honour intact.

Measure for Measure reads like a comedy but many think of it as a ‘problem’ play. I guess it may be classified as a problem play as it shows the rampant licentiousness and the appalling corruption of the rich.

The central theme of ‘illicit’ sex (even though by law at least both Claudio & Juliet and Angelo & Mariana are considered to be married) was unique for me. I have read many Classic plays where only ‘villains’ engage in ‘illicit’ sex. But in Measure for Measure Claudio & Juliet are not portrayed as immoral people or as villains. In fact a lot of later productions of Measure for Measure toned down these elements by showing everyone to be either secretly married or by showing Angelo as a good person who was only testing Isabella’s virtue.

This was one of my more unsettling reads by Shakespeare. Themes of debauchery, prostitution and corruption are not really fodder for comedy. Angelo’s abuse of power and the apparent helplessness of the common people when faced with this kind of corruption rings really true even today.

Overall, Measure for Measure is a good read but I will not call it light entertainment.

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