“I do not know any other eminent work of Western literature that is nearly as nihilistic as ‘Measure for Measure’, a comedy that destroys comedy.”

Measure for Measure

Act Five

By Dennis Abrams


Meryl Measure for MeasureAct Five:  At the city gates, the Duke (no longer in his Friar disguise) meets Escalus and Angelo.  Isabella is brought before him – unaware that he and the friar are one and the same – and denounces Angelo for his corruption. The Duke demands evidence and Mariana enters, claiming that she and Angelo are now betrothed and have consummated their marriage.  The confusion deepens when the Duke re-enters in disguise and backs up her story. But when he is accidentally unmasked, Angelo realizes that the jig is up and begs to be executed. Mariana then pleads for him (not unlike Isabella?) and, as Claudio is (finally) revealed to be alive, Angelo is pardoned on the condition that he marry Mariana. The play closes with one final twist:  seemingly out of the blue, the Duke asks Isabella whether she will marry him

By the time we get to the play’s final two acts, the play’s ethical dilemmas have been spelled out, but what are the possible solutions? Disguised as a friar, the Duke has observed Isabella’s predicament. Revealing the fact that Angelo has all this time been ‘affianced” to another woman (and thus all too uncomfortably resembling Claudio) Vincentio improvise a plan – Mariana will sleep with Angelo instead of Isabella – that will “solve” everything in one simple stroke.  The so-called “bed trick” is Shakespeare’s own addition to the story, as theatrically elegant as it is morally suspect. “Th’offence pardons itself,” the Duke breezily observes later in Act Five, opting to evade the full implication of his words.

And although deceit and disguise are common enough in Shakespearean comedy, the Duke’s actions as Measure for Measure heads for its dénouement put comic ideals under almost impossible stress.  As in All’s Well That Ends Well (as we will see), the play’s climax is extended over a breathtakingly tense final scene.  Here, Vincentio virtuosically moves between his multiple personae, staging a grand return to Vienna as the Duke while at the same time maintaining his friar’s disguise. First Isabella arrives, unaware that Claudio has been spared and hysterically demanding “justice, justice, justice, justice,” then Mariana appears, claiming to have slept with Angelo as vehemently as Isabella claims that he raped her.  The mystery deepens:

Duke:  What, are you married?

Mariana: No, my lord.

Duke:  Are you a maid?

Marian:  No, my lord.

Duke:  A widow then?

Mariana: Neither, my lord.

Duke:  Why, you are nothing then; n either maid, widow, nor wife!

The Duke puts himself in a position where only he can solve the conundrums Mariana speaks of, and, after much delay, he does so, theatrically emerging from disguised to the not unreasonable disbelief of everyone present.

The punishments and rewards he then produces, however dazzling to the audience, leave many of the play’s characters in stunned silence. Angelo is married to Mariana, but is promptly sentenced to death – until that is, Claudio is magically produced, apparently back from the dead.  For his impertinence to the Duke, Lucio is initially threatened with the hangman’s noose, then told to marry a prostitute (whom he got pregnant) instead. Though it is impossible to take it entirely seriously, the ferocity of Lucio’s response to his apparently lucky escape nevertheless remains hanging in the air:

Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging.

And the Duke’s insistence that HIS comedy must end in marriages goes even further. “Dear Isabel,” he calls,

I have a motion much imports your good,

Whereto, if you’ll a willing ear incline,

What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

These words all but complete the play, and Isabella is given no opportunity to respond.  Unlike Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, where marriage seems the natural result of the play’s goings on, and of the characters themselves, Shakespeare in Measure for Measure makes it seem as if happiness has never seemed further away.


From Tanner:

Barrie Ingham, Francesca Annis, RSC

Barrie Ingham, Francesca Annis, RSC

“One thing is certainly true and is often remarked on – while attempting to minister to all his subjects in both worldly and spiritual matters, the duke does not learn anything about himself. Indeed, he is in danger of becoming something of a cipher – the type of good governor. It is possible that this might be related to the recent accession of James I. It has loon been suggested that the Duke was intentionally modeled on the King, who was also the patron of Shakespeare and his company. If he was meant to be so viewed, then the Duke could hardly have been given the sort of turbulent and developing inwardness we associate with Shakespeare’s main characters – that would have been lese majeste. James I’s Basilicon Doron had been published in 1603, and was, we may say, required reading. Shakespeare certainly knew it, and, as has bee noted by scholars, many of the concerns and exhortations articulated in that book could equally well have come from the Duke. I give two examples:

Even in your most vertuous actions, make ever moderation to be the chief ruler. For although holinesse be the first and most requisite qualitie of a Christian, yet…moderate all your outwarde actions flowing  there-fra. The like say I nowe of Justice…For lawes are ordained as rules of vertuous and sociall living, and not to be snares to trap your good subjectes: and therefore all the lawe must be interpreted according to the maning, and not to the literall sense…And as I have said of Justice, so I say of ClemencieNam in medio stat virtus.

And (this for Angelo, say):

he cannot be thought worthie to rule and command others, that cannot rule and dantone his own proper affections and unreasonable appetites…be precise in effect, but sociall in shew…

It is perhaps relevant that James issued a proclamation ‘for the reformation of great abuses in Measures’ (again, 1603). The King also insisted that certain laws that had fallen into disuse or abeyance should be tightened up. He showed irritation if his proclamations were not obeyed (the Duke and Barnardine), was apparently over-sensitive in his reactions to calumny (the Duke and Lucio), and wanted to visit the Exchange in secret to observe the behavior of his subjects, though it proved impossible to maintain the secrecy. In short, many similarities between the Duke and James I are discernible and there is extensive work on this topic.  However, I think it would be wrong to see the figure of the Duke as simply a flattering idealized version of James I. The Duke is far from faultless and infallible; and one of the forceful demonstrations of the play is that you cannot simply translate abstract precepts concerning conduct and justice (such as to be found in Basilicon Doron) into the actual human flesh-and-blood realm of mixed motives, contradictory passions, and endless ambiguities of word and deed. If James I did see himself in Duke Vincentio, he should have found it a cautionary experience.

How do you legislate for a carnal world; how can justice keep up with human wickedness; what kind of ‘government’ – in the individual, in the state – is both possible and desirable. These are some of the urgent questions the play dramatically explores. Pater catches well the prevailing ethical concerns of the play:

Here the very intricacy and subtlety of the moral world itself, the difficulty of seizing the true relations of so complex a material, the difficulty of just judgment, of judgment that shall not be unjust, are the lessons conveyed…we notice the tendency to dwell on mixed motives, the contending issues of action, the presence of virtues and vices alike in unexpected places, on ‘the hard choice of two evils,’ on the ‘imprisoning’ of men’s ‘real intents.’

This Vienna is a very long way from the Forest of Arden – but very close to Elsinore and Venice.”


And from Bloom, who, I think, captures the play better than anybody I’ve read:

Measure for Measure ends with the perfectly mad coda of the long, single scene that constitutes Act V, in which the Duke pardons Angelo, Barnardine, and Claudio and turns into everyone’s matchmaker, vindictively in regard to Lucio. Nothing is more meaningful in this scene than the total silence of Barnardine, when he is brought upon stage to be pardoned, and of Isabella, once she has joined Mariana in pleading for Angelo’s life. She does not reply to the Duke’s marriage proposal, which sets aside her obsessive drive to become a nun. But then her final lines, on behalf of Angelo, are as peculiar as anything else in the play:

For Angelo,

His act did not o’ertake his bad intent,

And must be buried but as an intent

That perish’d by the way. Thoughts are no subjects;

Intents, but merely thoughts.

wenn1602291Isabella, being crazed, must be serious; Shakespeare cannot be. A murderous intention is pragmatically dismissed, when indeed it was far more than a thought: Angelo had ordered Claudio’s beheading, and this after Angelo’s supposed deflowering of Isabella. What does not take place, Isabella says, and for whatever reason, is only a thought and not a subject – that is, someone ruled by Vincentio. The imagery of burial and of perishing on the way evidently pertains to all intents, all thoughts. Nothing is alive in Isabella, and Shakespeare will not tell us why and how she has suffered such a vastation. Pragmatically mindless, she need not respond to the Duke’s proposal, and her nullity means that presumably he will have her way with her. Contemplating the future marriages of Vincentio and Isabella, of Angelo and Mariana, is not a happy occupation. Even Lucio’s enforced union with the punk Kate Keepdown is not likely to be less salubrious. I do not know any other eminent work of Western literature that is nearly as nihilistic as Measure for Measure, a comedy that destroys comedy. All that remains is the marvelous image of the dissolute murderer Barnardine, who gives us a minimal hope for the human as against the state, by being unwilling to die for any man’s persuasion.”

Personally, I think that summarizes the play quite nicely.  But what did you think?  Did you enjoy the play as much as I did?  How do you see it as fitting in with the rest of the play’s we’ve read?  Is Barnardine as glorious a character as Bloom thinks?  Share your thoughts with the group!


And now that you’ve finished the play, maybe it’s time to watch the play in its entirety again.  This is considered one of if not THE best of the BBC Shakespeare series, with a terrific cast:  Kate Nelligan, Tim Pigott-Smith, John McEnery…well worth your time.


My next posts:  Shakespeare Sonnet #134, Thursday night/Friday morning

And…on Sunday evening/Monday morning, I’ll post the introduction to our next play, one of the “biggies” – Othello.

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4 Responses to “I do not know any other eminent work of Western literature that is nearly as nihilistic as ‘Measure for Measure’, a comedy that destroys comedy.”

  1. GGG says:

    How about the happy ending is that Claudio is not beheaded, but reunited with Juliet? Not the other marriages, which all have an element of unreality and unhappiness to them.

    And in the first posts, you spoke of sadism–I couldn’t help but think of masochism in Marianna’s willingness to be married to Angelo after all. If the Duke was thinking that consummation of the marriage would ensure Mariana’s financial future–wife in all senses, she would get all of his estate when Angelo was killed, what was Mariana thinking? Perhaps she was as mercenary as Angelo after all–not only would she have his estates but a very clever, ambitious husband she could forgive for the occasional misdeed and mistreatment….like rape and murder….Maybe she was a Medici or a Borgia? ( I know we are in Vienna, but supply the name of a Viennese dysfunctional dynasty here.)

    You could also draw a parallel–the Duke the fake friar, then Isabella at the end is the fake nun–if she takes his hand. What an interesting bit to leave out. I guess we assume that she does say yes to the Duke?

    • GGG: Good points all, and an even better question about assuming that Isabella says “yes” to the Duke. Garber touches on this: “Isabella’s reply to the marriage proposal is not given in the text. Directors have therefore had to work out some way of indicating what she does and does not do with this odd invitation from a ruler who has previously denied that the ‘dribbling dart of love’ can ever ‘pierce [his] complete bosom.’ In recent years it has become common to question the Duke’s omniscience and power — after all, he fails to get the prisoner Barnardine to consent to die, in one of the play’s most darkly comic scenes, and thus scuttles his own plan. Whether vainglorious or bumbling, this Duke has often been set up as a figure who is emphatically not a version of ‘power divine,’ whatever he or his acolytes may believe. For this reason, and for the same reasons modern directors and audiences try to envisage a less-than-complaint Katherina in “The Taming of the Shrew,” contemporary stagings of “Measure for Measure” often open up the ending rather than closing it down. Sometimes Isabella turns away when the Duke offers his hand, leaving him standing alone, rather foolishly, on the stage (the analogue here is Portia’s gift to Antonio of his returned argosies, also staged as an ambivalent moment, since he would rather have Bassanio than a thousand ships loaded with treasure). But this, too, is a decides choice, a choice of refusal rather than acceptance. One dramatic solution that appealed to me was offered at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival some years ago. After the proposal, and the Duke’s final exchange with Lucio, everyone but Isabella left the stage. She alone remained, dressed in her white novice’s robe. Slowly she reached up to remove her headdress, and then shook her hair free. Instantly her novice’s robe was converted to a wedding gown, and she smiled at the audience, even though she had not yet accepted the Duke. What was particularly effective about this moment was that it directed attention to the figure of Isabella, making “Measure for Measure her play as well as, or more than, the Duke’s.”

  2. Mahood says:

    You’re right Dennis, the BBC production of M for M is excellent – in fact, I think the BBC Shakespeare productions (from those I’ve watched so far) have aged quite well. Yes, some are better than others, but they are all worth watching.

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