Measure For Measure Summary

William Shakespeare

Measure For Measure

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Measure For Measure Summary

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Measure for Measure is a play by British playwright William Shakespeare, first performed in 1604 and collected in the First Folio of 1623. Classified as a comedy, it is considered one of Shakespeare’s “Problem Plays”due to its darker themes for a comedy and the way it is not easily classified. It focuses on an aspiring nun named Isabella, who is faced with an impossible choice when her brother is sentenced to death for the crime of fornication. A cruel and corrupt official offers to spare her brother, but he demands Isabella’s virginity in exchange for keeping him from the chopping block. It explores themes including justice, morality, mercy, and the distinction between corruption and purity. It is seen as his commentary on the justice system of the time, although it takes place in Vienna as opposed to his native England. Although it is not one of Shakespeare’s most highly regarded plays, Measure for Measure is still widely read and studied, and is still performed on occasion. It had only one Broadway engagement, in 1973, although it was later performed in 1993 at the New York Shakespeare Festival. It has been adapted multiple times into film, most famously in 1979 for the BBC, and has also been the basis for an opera and a musical adaptation.

Measure for Measure begins in Vienna, a city where sex and sin are commonplace. Duke Vincentio, the leader, is looking to crack down on sin, but he doesn’t want to be seen as a heavy enforcer of sexual laws. Thus, he announces he’s leaving town for a trip and appoints a deputy named Angelo to take charge. Angelo, a notoriously strict official, is tasked with cleaning up the city. The laws in Vienna haven’t been enforced in about fourteen years, and Angelo is looking to make the new order clear. He soon arrests a young man named Claudio for extramarital sex, or fornicating, with a young woman named Juliet. Word of Claudio’s arrest and subsequent sentence of death soon reaches the ears of his virtuous sister Isabella. Isabella is looking to become a nun at a convent she actually wishes was stricter and more religious, but when she hears that her brother is facing death, she sets up a meeting with Angelo to beg for her brother’s life. At first, Angelo is completely uninterested in her pleas for mercy, but he soon finds himself attracted to Isabella’s innocent and devout nature. He makes a cruel proposition to her—if she gives up her virginity to him, he will set Claudio free. Isabella finds herself in a terrible dilemma and quickly refuses. Claudio seems doomed, but an unlikely savior may emerge.

Duke Vincentio has actually been undercover as the humble Friar Lodowick, spying on Vienna, and he hatches a plan. He tells Isabella to arrange a secret nighttime meeting with Angelo, but she will actually send Angelo’s jilted fiancee Mariana. Angela left Mariana when her dowry was lost at sea, but he’ll be forced to marry her once he has sex with her out of marriage. It’s dark in the garden where they arrange a meeting, which works perfectly. However, despite thinking that Isabella gave up her virginity to him, Angelo has no intention of keeping his promise. He sends a message to the prison keeper telling him to make sure that Claudio is executed, and to send him his head. The Duke finds out about Angelo’s deception, and comes up with another plan. Another prisoner is scheduled for execution that day, and his head will be sent in Claudio’s place. However, this plan encounters a hitch when the prisoner says he’s way too hungover to be executed. Thankfully, another prisoner, a pirate with an uncanny resemblance to Claudio, has died in his cell. His head is lopped off and delivered to Angelo, who is satisfied. The Duke then announces his return to Vienna, and arranges a meeting with Angelo. There, Isabella confronts him and exposes him for supposedly deflowering a virgin. He denies it, but Claudio shows up to confirm the story. Angelo confesses and begs the Duke for mercy, but the Duke sentences him to death. Isabella, despite Angelo’s actions, begs for his life because she values all lives. The Duke is moved, and pardons both Angelo and Claudio. He then turns to Isabella, stunned by her beauty and mercy, and proposes to her. The play ends with silence, because no one is sure if Isabella is happy, or simply wants to become a nun and had no interest in anyone’s proposal.

William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous English author and the most famous playwright of all time. He is often called England’s national poet, and many of his works are considered among the greatest classics of English literature. He was responsible for eleven tragedies, seventeen comedies, ten histories, and a wide selection of poems and sonnets, the majority of which are still widely read, taught, and performed today. His works have been adapted hundreds of times into movies, stage productions, operas, and retellings in countless settings. His impact on English-language literature is among the greatest of any author, and he is widely honored today in his homeland and around the world.