Measure For Measure (1603)

First performed at court on the 26th December, 1604, and like eighteen other plays by Shakespeare only printed when included in the 1623 Folio and presumed to have been written shortly before its’ performance date. This date is derived from a record in the Office of the Revels which some commentators have cast doubt on its authenticity. Certain features of the script suggest an adaption in Act One, Scene 2; possibly by Thomas Middleton. Further amendments occur in 3:1, to 4:1, with a stanza of a popular song, and supplying dialogue to follow. This first folio play is an amalgam and revision of three interesting plot elements derived from European storytelling; “The Monstrous Ransom” (Miss Lascelles motif that also occurs in The Merchant of Venice), a “Ruler in Disguise”, and the ignominious “Bed-trick”. The first of these elements is derived from Cinthio’s “Hecatommithi” (1504-73), the second element is from no particular literary source, although this may be a folkloric motif of “The Heroic Sacrifice” (the theme of George Whetstone’s prose version of Heptameron-Promos & Cassandra, registered and published in 1578) and the third from Boccacio’s Decameron (See also All’s Well That Ends Well). Whetstone’s two-part tragedy was never performed although it was published in 1578. For this and other reasons the play is thought to have been composed as early as the 1580’s to which the scholar and author, Charlton Ogburn would agree and support. The latter is largely synonymous with the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-13) where God, as an authority figure in the allegorical form of the Duke, demands a first son sacrifice (Claudio) but accepts a substitute once loyal obedience is recognised and observed. The play’s title comes from the Biblical Saint Matthew’s account from the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure you mete; it shall be measured to you again”. It could of course be called three weddings and a revelation since the theme focuses especially on the venal prerequisites in men and women, both mystical and secular, of holy matrimony. However, the amalgam of these three narrative themes into one play makes it very complex, although the story in itself is simple enough. The Duke represents “God” and when disguised as a priest he becomes an allegory for the institutionalised clergy. The official chosen by the Duke viz; Angelo represents the severity of Old Testament law since he reinstates a law that makes Claudio’s venal misdemeanour into a sin punishable by decapitation. Escalus represents Angelo’s higher mind or personal mentor in a spiritual sense assisting him in making the right decisions. The subject of an impending execution imbues the play with an allegorical motif familiar to those heretical followers of Arianism and the Gnostic Eastern Church who believe that in actual fact a surrogate died on the cross and that Christ was not really crucified but went on to disseminate his ministry in India and other parts of Europe. Due to an anomaly whereby Claudio’s death is first declared by Mistress Overdone who sometime after is informed by Pompey of the same-she appears unconcerned about the event; an error that might be attributed to the fact that Thomas Middleton adapted the play for performance after his death. Also Marianna’s song is taken from another play ie: The Bloody Brother, which was first performed in 1617. The idea of a corrupt magistrate or judge is derived from a letter by a Hungarian student Joseph Macarius of a similar event which occurred in Milan of a Spanish count in the period of Ferdinand of Gonzaga (1547). In this story the wife of an imprisoned man awaiting execution is coerced by a judge to have sex with her in exchange for her husband’s life and freedom. She eventually consents having consulted with her mentors who confirm there is no sin attached to an action that will save a life (the Biblical “whosoever shall give his life to save another”, comes to mind). However, having satisfied his lust the judge still condemns the husband who is subsequently executed on his orders.

The Autumnal Equinox

Known to students of Shakespeare as something of a 3-fold Riddle or Problem Play, it begins with the Duke of Vienna, Vincento about to leave the city on a mission of peace accompanied by Angelo, his deputy and Lord Escalus. We are soon made aware of Angelo’s indiscreet consort with a certain bawdy Mistress Overdone and that Isabella’s brother, Claudio has been arrested for making his betrothed, Juliet pregnant. Isabella is about to enter a nunnery but Claudio instructs Lucio, a gentleman to ask her to intercede in the matter at court and plead on his behalf. In view of this scenario Vincento changes his plans, leaves Angelo to determine the outcome of Claudio’s case. When she is secretly visited by Vincento in the disguise of a monk, Isabella agrees to plead with Angelo’s affections for the life of her brother Claudio. In court Angelo is naturally enamoured of the chaste Isabella and delays the judgement of the case in order to arrange a secret rendezvous with Isabella, to which she agrees on the promptings of her advisor and confidant Lucio. At this meeting Angelo makes his passions clear to Isabella, meanwhile Vincento arranges to meet with Claudio in prison. On the way he encounters Juliet, recognises her sincerity and tells her of his plans. Abusing his power and temporary position, Angelo makes an indirect proposal to Isabella, viz: her virtue and hand in marriage for the life of her brother. Realising the reasons for his actions are without honour she reviles him and he leaves giving her another day to decide the final outcome. Isabella informs her brother Claudio of her encounter with Angelo and his indecent proposal and shortly afterwards he is again visited by Vincento, again disguised as a monk preparing him for his possible execution. Claudio pleads the case to Isabella of surrendering to Angelo’s demands but she is equally shocked at her own brother’s plan to escape death at the price of her feminine virtue. At this meeting Vincento overhears of Angelo’s intrigues and comforts Claudio saying that he is only testing Isabella’s sincerity and loyalties. He then informs Isabella of Angelo’s own rejected betrothed Marianna who on the night of the vile occasion could be substituted for her. Isabella agrees to this plot which will save her honour, release her brother, shame Angelo and Marianna avenged. Soon after the disguised Duke comes across Pompey, newly arrested by Elbow and hears that Mistress Overdone has also been sent to jail. Isabella meets Marianna and describes the plot which is to be enacted upon the unsuspecting Angelo and she agrees. Vincento then arranges for another prisoner (Barnadine) to take the place of Claudio in the ensuing execution. To keep the audience on the edge of their seats, the pace of the intrigue deepens with the news that Barnadine is too drunk to be executed and they arrange for another prisoner, recently dead whose severed head is duly sent to Angelo as proof that Claudio has actually been executed. Isabella is kept in the dark by Vincento of all these substitutions. In court thinking the worst she naturally decides to spill the beans, to Angelo’s fears and consternation that he will be revealed as an adulterer, a false adjudicator and a murderer. The Duke then arrests Isabella for her outburst and Marianna steps in to plead on her behalf. To further elucidate the case the Monk or Friar is called upon to give evidence and for that purpose the Duke excuses himself from proceedings and offstage dons the robe of an ecclesiastic. He re-enters and Angelo’s dishonour is made clear, the Duke then orders Angelo to marry Marianna, to which he agrees and then sentences him to death. Marianna is then forced to plea for his life and begs Isabella to support her in this case. The Duke rejects such a demand and then asks Barnadine and a blind-folded Claudio to enter the court, at which they are pardoned and released. The Duke asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage, then finally agrees to release Angelo to Marianna. Only Lucio the slanderer and gossip is finally punished as the substitute “scapegoat”.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,