Themes of Shakespeare's Comedy, 'Measure for Measure'

The play explores religion and women's roles in a patriarchal society

There are a number of themes in "Measure for Measure," William Shakespeare's comedic play. Some of these themes include:

  • Judgment and punishment
  • Sex
  • Marriage
  • Religion
  • The role of women

Here is a deeper dive into these "Measure for Measure" themes:

Judgment and Punishment

Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" asks the audience to consider how and to what extent people can judge one another. As we see in the play, just because someone holds a position of power doesn't mean that they are morally superior.

The play questions whether it is possible to legislate issues of morality and how to do so. Had Claudio been executed, Juliet would have been left with both a child and a tattered reputation, and she would have no way to look after the child. Angelo was clearly in the wrong morally, but he was given a job to do and followed through. However, he wasn’t going to legislate and punish himself. Meanwhile, the Duke has fallen in love with Isabella, Claudio's sister, so his decisions regarding punishment for Claudio and Angelo may have been skewed.

The play suggests that people should be answerable for their sins, but should also receive the same treatment as they provide—treat others as you would like to be treated, and if you commit a sin, expect to pay for it.

Sex

Sex is the main driver of the action in this play. In Vienna, illicit sex and prostitution are major social problems, resulting in illegitimacy and disease. This too is a concern for Shakespeare’s London, especially with the occurring plague, as sex could result in death. Mistress Overdone represents casual access to sex in the play.

Claudio is sentenced to death by beheading for impregnating his fiancée. Isabella is told she can save her brother by having sex with Angelo, but she risks both spiritual death and the death of her reputation.

Thus, the play questions whether it is right for government to legislate against sexuality.

Marriage

Shakespeare’s comedies often celebrate a marriage, which is usually seen as a happy ending. In "Measure for Measure," however, marriage is ironically used to regulate and punish promiscuous behavior: Angelo is forced to marry Mariana and Lucio is forced to marry Mistress Overdone. This cynical look at marriage is unusual in a comedy.

Additionally, marriage saves the women's reputations and gives them a position they would otherwise not have had. For Juliet, Mariana, and, to an extent, Mistress Overdone, this is the best option. Readers are asked to consider whether marriage would be a good option for Isabella; she could marry the Duke and have a good social position, but does she actually love him or is she expected to marry him out of appreciation for what he has done for her brother?

Religion

The title of "Measure for Measure" comes from the gospel of Matthew: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Matthew 7:2).

Appropriately, the main themes are associated with religion: morality, virtue, sin, punishment, death, and atonement. The main character, Isabella, is herself obsessed with virtue, chastity, and her spiritual journey.

The Role of Women

Each woman in the play is controlled by the forces of patriarchy. They are vastly different characters, but their social standings are limited by the men in their lives: A novice nun is blackmailed, a prostitute is arrested for running a brothel, and Mariana is jilted for not having a large enough dowry. Additionally, Juliet and her unborn child are compromised by the attitudes she will face if she has an illegitimate child.