'Measure for Measure' - Study Guide

The Ultimate Student Study Guide to 'Measure for Measure'

This Measure for Measure Study Guide brings together plot overviews, scene translations, character profiles and theme analysis to help aid you r study of this classic play.

Estimated to have been written in the early 1600s, Measure for Measure follows the events when the Duke of Vienna decides to tighten moral conduct in his Kingdom. He hands power over to the cold-mannered Angelo, and spies on him to follow his actions.

Because of its themes around justice, punishment and morality, the play has been categorized as a problem play, despite being formally categorized as a comedy. The play sits uncomfortably in the comedy genre because it is too dark, wry and sardonic.

The play explores if it is possible to legislate over issues of morality and asks how to do this. This explains the play's title, Measure for Measure, which has a biblical origin:

"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get." (Matthew 7.1 and 7.2)

From the outset, Shakespeare is out to make a serious point about judgment and the measure of punishment.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Photo © Last Resort / Getty Images

Before we touch on the themes of judgment and punishment, let us establish the shape of the play. This plot summary provides you with an overview of the story so you can get a sense of how the plot works and understand the sequencing of events.

This will important because the themes fit closely with this. 

This summary is written specifically for students to give you a one-page view of the entire play. More »

In Measure for Measure, the plot and the themes work so closely together that they are almost indistinguishable. So, let us now turn our attention to the key themes in order to flesh out our understanding of the plot.

More than anything else, this play is asking moral questions around judgement and punishment. The play asks the audience to consider how and to what extent one person can judge another. Just because someone holds a position of power does not mean that they are morally superior.

Other themes covered here include sex and marriage, the role of religion and the position of women in society.

This theme analysis provides everything you need to gain a deeper understanding of Measure for Measure. More »

The Duke appoints Angelo to enforce morality laws in his Kingdom, and Angelo attacks this in his usual heavy handed way, ordering the death of Claudio for getting his fiancé pregnant. 

The relationship between Angelo and Isabella is pivotal in 'Measure for Measure'. Discover more in this article. More »

Why did Duke Vincentio want such a radical change in his Kingdom? What were the results? Find out in our character study. More »