Measure for Measure is a play rooted deeply in early seventeenth-century culture; at the same time, it retains a powerful hold on the imaginations of modern readers. In an attempt to suggest why Measure for Measure continues to be among the most passionately discussed of Shakespeare’s plays, we might think about the ways that the seventeenth-century issues it dramatizes relate to present-day concerns.
Measure for Measure features a duke who is so anxious about the decline in the moral quality of his subjects’ lives that he temporarily removes himself from the government of his city-state and deputizes a member of his administration, Angelo, to enforce existing laws more rigorously. Angelo, who has never before had the opportunity to exercise such power over others and who thus has never had to withstand the temptation to misuse it, experiences no qualms of conscience as he holds all in the city to the same idealized standard of moral behavior that he thinks he himself exemplifies. The man he chooses as his first victim is Claudio, who has impregnated Juliet before they have solemnized their marriage. For this crime, Angelo condemns Claudio to death.
At Claudio’s request, Isabella, who is Claudio’s sister, approaches Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Every bit as idealistic as Angelo, Isabella is in the process of entering the convent of the Order of Poor Clares, where she will vow lifelong obedience, poverty, and chastity. Her eloquence in addressing Angelo arouses in him the desire to possess her, a desire so strange to him that he immediately gives in to it and, renouncing integrity and morality, attempts to extort sex from her in return for her brother’s life. Isabella, denied any opportunity to expose Angelo’s corruption, is nonetheless resolute in her spiritual commitment to preserve her chastity, no matter the consequences. Meanwhile, the duke has disguised himself as a friar so as to discover the true nature of his subjects. After eavesdropping on Isabella’s revelation to her brother about Angelo’s attempted extortion, the duke (in his friar’s disguise) offers to ally himself with Isabella against Angelo.
In view of the overriding importance of religion and the spiritual life in early seventeenth-century England, and in view of the control exerted over both religion and morality by the State in this era when Parliament actually debated the death penalty for pre-marital sex, it is easy to see how Measure for Measure might capture its audience’s interest. In today’s culture, however, in which religion exerts an influence on the lives of only part of the population, it would seem unlikely that Measure for Measure could engage audiences in anything like the same way it once did. Yet there are now other issues that have attached themselves to the play.
One such issue is the division of opinion about the role of government in shaping the morality of citizens. For those who regard such governmental action as intrusive, the duke may seem intolerably meddlesome in his interference in the lives of his people; for those who want government to act in the defense of conventional morality, the duke may be understood as properly exerting himself to impose standards of moral behavior on his people. Another issue that has become attached to the play is sexual harassment of women by men, with Angelo and Isabella’s encounter presenting itself as a powerfully dramatic representation of this ongoing problem. Yet another current issue, the right of a woman to control her own body, has arisen for modern readers from the scenes in which Isabella is forced to choose between her virginity and her brother’s life. Modern responses to Measure for Measure indicate how a play that is formed in a past culture can be transformed in its reception by present culture into a spectacle of continuing fascination.