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


%d bloggers like this: