Measure for Measure is a comedy the same way oral surgery is an afternoon at the spa. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” may be the most famous line. Plenty of sin to be found here. Virtue, on the other hand, you couldn’t find with a flea glass. Any good Shakespeare nerd will tell you about the “problem plays,” where Will took on a moral problem, which he didn’t solve 10 times of out 10 (okay, there are only 3 problem plays). Measure for Measure even ends with an unanswered question, the question, the pop-the-question question. All moral problems more or less remain in their original state.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Dukes suck. MORAL: Don’t get someone else to do your dirty work.”
What happens in Measure for Measure
The Duke of Vienna announces he is going away and puts his deputy Angelo in charge. The duke is not actually going anywhere, but instead hides in plain sight to find out what happens in Vienna when he’s not around.
Angelo is a moralistic prig, and like all moralistic prigs, he has hidden depravities. His first decision is to shut down the brothels and strictly enforce the laws against sex outside marriage. He has Claudio arrested and sentenced to death for getting his (Claudio’s) fiancée pregnant on a technicality (the lawbreaking. The pregnancy came about the usual way).
Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, pleads for his life. Angelo (and I love that his name is Angelo) agrees to let Claudio live if Isabella sleeps with him. She refuses.
Angelo once had a fiancée, Mariana, but he dumped her when her family lost all their money. The Duke of Vienna, who is by now disguised as a friar, suggests a bed trick. Isabella would agree to sleep with Angelo, but then Mariana would secretly take her place. Having slept with “Isabella,” Angelo would then have to pardon Claudio. Plus he’d have to marry Mariana according to his own law.
Isabella and Mariana agree to the plan. The bed part goes off just fine. But after the deed, Angelo still gives orders for Claudio to be executed because he is afraid Claudio will try to get revenge.
Angelo demands proof that Claudio has been executed. The duke sends him the head of an already-dead pirate who looks faintly like Claudio (Bardaholics call this…wait for it…the head trick). Angelo buys it.
The duke-in-disguise tells Isabella that her brother Claudio is dead. He suggests she complain to the “duke,” who is about to return to Vienna.
The duke “returns.” Isabella tells her story. He pretends not to believe her. Eventually he reveals that he was in Vienna the whole time and knows everything, which forces everyone else to be honest. He also announces that Claudio is alive.
Angelo confesses to the full menu of crimes. The duke sentences him to marry Mariana and then be executed, which would mean Mariana would inherit his money but not have to be his wife.
Mariana and Isabella plead for Angelo’s life. The duke pardons Angelo.
Then the duke asks Isabella to marry him. She never answers. This sparks 400 years of was-it-yes-or-no Shakespeare nerd battles.
If you want to indulge your curiosity about the bed trick, or anything bed-related, and who doesn’t, I recommend Jeannette Winterson’s article Bed tricks and broken women: Shakespeare’s guide to love.