Measure for Measure As a ‘Problem Play’

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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Measure for Measure as a play is deeply renowned for being a' problem play"; that is to say, there are many unresolved items and unanswered questions throughout. Therefore in order to make the opening 'suitable ' for a play of this calibre, the opening must also be 'suitably problematic" in order to pique the audience's interest sufficiently to ensure that they will be just as intrigued by the rest of the play as they are by the beginning.

The play's moral dilemma mainly concerns the Duke, who can be seen as manipulating others' lives without the slightest bit of regard for the consequences. It is unsure how we are meant to consider him, because even after these initial scenes enough doubt has already been raised about his motives to make the audience rather suspicious. In this play, the first three scenes contain just as many, if not more unanswered scenarios, which help to ensure that the play commences as it means to go on, and hints at the events to follow.

At the start of Act 1 Scene 1, due to it being the very first scene, you would think that the play would have a clearly defined beginning, so that the audience are able to be fully aware of all the events taking place, and to a certain extent be totally omniscient of what is happening. Instead, here, it seems that nobody apart from the Duke has the inside story behind what is happening. This is most clearly proved by the beginning of the play commencing mid conversation.

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The Duke refers to his and Escalus' 'commission', yet throughout the rest of the play the exact details of this are never mentioned; this means that the ordinarily all-knowing audience is unsure of what is going on. The context of why the Duke chooses Angelo is also indefinite; although Angelo almost pleads with the Duke to 'let there be some more test made of [his] metal', the Duke simply tells him to stop evading his duties, and take over.

This can be seen either as a test or as the Duke merely using Angelo to take the blame for any cruel but necessary actions. The word 'metal' here is a clever pun, which is being used either to highlight the possibility of the word 'mettle' being substituted for it, or to show the weighing up of the coins, of judging weighed up with kindness. It shows how deeply the Duke is aware of the double meaning of his actions, and how they therefore are being perceived by the outside world.

Another puzzling issue is the reason for the Duke claiming that his departure must be 'of so quick condition'; this is problematic enough for this issue to be recalled later in the play when the audience see the Duke pretending to be a friar so he can survey what happens, but still without giving a firm reason for having done so. This gives a further clue that he is testing Angelo, although all the same no concrete proof is ever given for this conclusion. However, even if he is testing Angelo, the question that must then be asked is why the Duke has chosen Angelo to test.

Escalus is surely a much better choice, and this can be shown by the fact that the Duke chooses Escalus as the one to give him advice, or not even that just a second opinion on whether he has chosen the right person. Of course, the Duke is the one who makes the main decision, and regardless of what Escalus' opinion is, the Duke is the one who controls the entire situation. In this circumstance, his motives are deeply ambiguous, as they are indeed even in the rest of the play.

It is confusing why he chooses to disguise himself as a friar, since at the time of the play being performed, Catholics were not usually trusted at all, let alone with the inner workings of someone's life. However here Catholicism is referred to throughout; whether it is because Isabella is a Catholic nun of one of the strictest orders, or because of marriage (which is another suitably problematic issue on its own), nonetheless it is a key fragment of the play's content.

In Scene 2, we come across for the first time some of the examples which prove the existence of Vienna's underworld. Lucio, Pompey and the other Gentlemen are prime examples of this; however it is truly unclear as to what the audience are meant to think of them. By all means, they do use such coarse expressions as would be expected to be heard from the worst characters, such as "French crown" referring of course to syphilis.

By the mentions of sexual diseases, the audience therefore presume them to be the negative characters of the play; however it is unclear as to whether all morally ambiguous behaviour should also be condemned. This issue of whether sexual promiscuity should be perceived as the worst crime, and therefore punished as such, is referred to again and again from both Angelo, the strict enforcer of this law, and Isabella, Claudio's sister, who despite her strict beliefs still wishes for the law to be more lenient in this case.

Shakespeare therefore never clearly defines what the audience should think; whether they should think that sex outside of marriage is a vice and that Angelo's strict new law is doing the3 right thing, or whether they should listen to Mistress Overdone's opinion that Claudio was 'worth five thousand' of his fellow sexual deviants. However Claudio's actions did not allow him to continue living as a free man he was now condemned to having to spend time in jail for a crime which in the eyes of some was not a crime at all.

It is particularly problematic because he believed that he was officially married, and therefore it was permissible to have a child with his 'wife'; it is only that the marriage was not completely formalised at the time that led him to be punished. If the committer of this crime had been someone else, rather than this otherwise generally upstanding citizen, this punishment of Angelo's would not have seemed so severe. In this case however, the audience finds it very difficult to judge, and this moral dilemma continues throughout the rest of the play. Isabella's opinion on her brother's problem with the law is also very puzzling.

She begs and pleads with Angelo to spare her brother's life, but this can be seen as being rather sexually provocative and calculating, as if she is aware of precisely what she is doing and what effect this will have on Angelo. Later in the play Angelo ends up blaming himself for everything and Isabella succeeds in manipulating him. But here Isabella, after coming for the express purpose of seeking a pardon, and saying that she will succeed, quickly then says 'I had a brother'. The imperfect tense there shows that in her mind, if he is not to be pardoned he is already dead.

She goes from one extreme to the other; from being very open with her feelings, to reflecting Angelo, with 'snow-broth' in her veins, a strict view on life, to even manipulative and cleverly calculating. This is rather problematic because the audience is more used to the characters' motives being clear-cut and easy to understand, unlike Isabella's complex multi-layered personality. This is a problem play, but it can be seen that the characters being unable to be understood in one step too far from just the events of the play being problematic.

Measure for Measure is a Shakespearian problem play, which sharply addresses some of the issues of the law of the day when it came to the balance between justice and mercy, or the attitudes towards non-witnessed marriage. However this play takes it one step further than there simply being difficulties to overcome; most of the play's background is in fact completely unknown. Whole conversations, except for their conclusions, are omitted, characters are not clearly described, reasons for peoples' actions are unknown, and even motives are unclear.

However when these three scenes are put in context with the rest of the play, it goes from being overly problematic to in fact just suitably so. The issues raised here are not created just to confuse the audience, but to provoke a well thought out mental response from them, prompted by the characters' opinions. These problems are referred to constantly throughout the play, and help to give it the conclusion that it has; not completely resolved of course, but as much as could be expected from such a problematical play.

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Measure for Measure As a ‘Problem Play’. (2017, Jul 31). Retrieved from

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