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Measure for Measure by Shakespeare: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Edward Zipperer

Eddie has an MFA in English from Georgia College where he has taught scriptwriting, English 101, English 102, and World Literature since 2007.

This lesson provides a plot summary of Shakespeare's ''Measure for Measure'', a lesson on its use of the deus ex machina plot device, and an explanation of two of its major themes.

What Happens in Measure for Measure?

William Shakespeare's comedy Measure for Measure doesn't fit as nicely into the comedy pigeonhole as Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream. After reading Measure for Measure, the audience is not left with a happily-ever-after feeling. Though the plot is resolved with marriages-a-plenty, like in most of Shakespeare's comedies, they are not exactly marriages that have anything to do with love. In fact, several of the characters are basically sentenced to marriage as a punishment. Therefore, most scholars lump Measure for Measure as one of Shakespeare's problem plays, containing a mixture of tragic and comic elements, making them more difficult to classify.

Measure for Measure begins with the Duke of Vienna putting a man named Angelo in charge in his place. Angelo has an unmerciful, puritanical attitude toward crime and punishment. The Duke believes that Angelo will rule with a much heavier hand than himself and that will be good for the people of Vienna, who have become unafraid of the law due to the Duke's overabundance of mercy.

The Duke, having put Angelo in charge, is not actually leaving Vienna. Instead, he has Friar Thomas instruct him in how to pass as a friar so he can observe what happens. Then, he dons a robe and inserts himself into the drama that is about to ensue in Vienna.

The puritanical Angelo wastes no time having all the whore houses in the suburbs and outside of town shut down. And the first person to become ensnared in Angelo's dragnet is a young soldier named Claudio. Claudio has impregnated his unofficial wife, a young lady named Juliet, and he has been arrested for lechery. This is a surprise to everyone because the law against such action has gone unenforced for so long. Claudio comments on this saying:

…This new governor

Awakes me all the enrolled penalties

Which have, like unscour'd armour, hung by the wall

So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round…

As if being arrested for this behavior isn't extreme enough, Claudio is sentenced to death by beheading! Claudio asks Lucio to find his sister Isabella at the convent and tell her what has happened.

After finding out about her brother's impending execution, Isabella goes to Angelo to beg him to have mercy on Claudio. At first, Angelo is unmoved by Isabella's pleadings, but when he realizes that she excites him sexually, he invites her to come back tomorrow. When she's gone, Angelo curses himself. He is, quite paradoxically, not tempted by her feminine wiles but by her virtue:

Most dangerous

Is that temptation that doth goad us on

To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,

With all her double vigour, art and nature,

Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid

Subdues me quite.

When Isabella returns to Angelo the next day, he tells her indirectly that Claudio's life will be spared if she is willing to have sex with him.

Which had you rather, that the most just law

Now took your brother's life; or, to redeem him,

Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness

As she that he hath stain'd?

Isabella rejects his request, and he speaks it more plainly:

ANGELO

Plainly conceive, I love you.

ISABELLA

My brother did love Juliet,

And you tell me that he shall die for it.

ANGELO

He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.

Isabella rebuffs his advances again. Then, she goes to the prison and shares the good news and the bad news with Claudio. The bad news being that he's going to be executed tomorrow. The good news is that his sister will retain her honor.

Claudio, treasuring virtue slightly less than his sister does, attempts to talk her into giving up her virtue to save his life.

Sweet sister, let me live:

What sin you do to save a brother's life,

Nature dispenses with the deed so far

That it becomes a virtue.

Now, Duke Vincentio, having asked Friar Thomas to instruct him in the ways of being a friar, shows up at the prison disguised as a man called Friar Lodowick. He instructs Claudio how to die bravely. Then, he tells Isabella that she needn't choose between her brother's life and her own honor. There is a third option. Angelo was supposed to marry a woman named Mariana, but when her marriage dowry sank in the ocean, Angelo left her. The Duke concocts the idea that Isabella should agree to a sexual rendezvous with the Duke but then send Mariana to the appointment in her place. That way, if the sexual encounter between Angelo and Mariana becomes known, ''it may compel him to her recompense.''

The plan is carried out, but Isabella is told that Claudio has been executed already. In reality, Claudio is not actually dead at all. As luck would have it, a notorious pirate named Ragizone died in prison the night before Claudio was to be executed. As more luck would have it, Ragizone looks remarkably like Claudio. The Duke declares it a heavenly provision and Ragizone's head is sent to Angelo in place of Claudio's.

In the final scene, the Duke finally unfrocks his alter ego, Friar Lodowick. He insists that Angelo must marry Mariana, and Claudio (who wasn't dead after all!) must marry Juliet. In the final lines of the play, the Duke tells Isabella that - if she's willing - he would like to marry her. Isabella's answer to his proposal is never given.

Deus Ex Machina in Measure for Measure

In Greek theatre, the characters would create messes that were so huge and horrible that it seemed there was no way out and there was no hope for a happy resolution. But then Zeus or another god would descend onto the stage and use godly magic to fix all the problems. This sort of contrived resolution leaves the audience dissatisfied because it makes the action of the play moot. This plot device is called a deus ex machina (god from the machine).

There are several reasons that Measure for Measure does not measure up to Shakespeare's other plays, and many of those reasons involve the use of the deus ex machina plot device. The first is the Duke Vincentio problem. The Duke, disguised as a friar, is constantly hatching plans to save Claudio. It is his idea to blackmail Angelo with Mariana. It's his idea to cut off Barnadine's head (and then when that doesn't work out, Ragizone's) and send it to Angelo with the claim that it is Claudio's. Unfortunately, none of this rings true to the audience because the Duke has no clear motivation for subterfuge. It is clear that, at any moment in the play, the Duke could reveal his true identity and fix everything. It's not at all clear what his motivation for not doing this is. In fact, his only motivation seems to be continuing the action of the play until it gets to act five. How can the audience ever feel that Claudio is truly in danger when the Duke desires for him to live and has at his disposal the power to easily save him? The disguised Duke is simply a cloaked deus ex machina waiting to untangle whatever mess the playwright creates for the characters. When Barnadine can't be executed, the provost tells the Duke that a pirate (who as luck would have it looks like Claudio) died in prison the night before. The Duke answers, ''O, tis an accident that heaven provides!'' Indeed, many of the play's problems are resolved by accidents that heaven provides.

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