'Measure for Measure' Themes

We guide you through some of the key Measure for Measure themes, including:

  • Judgement and Punishment
  • Sex
  • Marriage
  • Religion
  • The Role of the Female

Judgement and Punishment

Measure for Measure 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 indicate that they are morally superior.

The play questions whether it is possible to legislate over issues of morality and asks how to do this.

Had Claudio have been executed, he would have left Juliet with a child and a reputation in tatters, she would have no means to look after that child. Angelo was clearly in the wrong morally but he was given a job to do and followed that through to the nth degree. He wasn’t going to legislate against himself.

Even the Duke has fallen in love with Isabella and therefore his decisions regarding the punishment of Claudio and Angelo may have been skewed?

The play Measure for Measure seems to suggest that people should be answerable to their sins but should receive the same treatment that they have given out. Treat others as you would like to be treated and if you commit a sin expect to pay for that.


Sex is the principal concern and 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 plague as sex could literally result in death.

Mistress Overdone represents the casual and available access to sex in the play. Sex and death are inextricably linked.

Claudio is sentenced to death by beheading for getting his fiancé pregnant. Isabella is told she can save her brother by having sex with Angelo but she then risks a spiritual death and the death of her own reputation.

With these issues of sex weighing heavy, the play questions whether it is right for the government to legislate against sexuality.


Most of Shakespeare’s comedies are celebrated by a marriage, as in the fairy tales, this is most often seen as a happy ending. However, in Measure for Measure, marriage is used as a punishment, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana and Lucio is forced to marry Mistress Overdone. This cynical look at marriage as punishment is unusual in a comedy.

Ironically, in this play, marriage is used to regulate and punish promiscuous behaviour. For the females in the play, marriage saves their reputation and gives them a position they would not have had. For Juliet, Mariana and Mistress Overdone to an extent, certainly this is the best option. One is 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 love him or is she expected to marry him out of appreciation for what he has done for her?


Measure for Measure is a title which comes from the gospel of Matthew. The plot is also informed by this passage where a hypocritical deputy sentences a man to death for fornication and then propositions a young woman.

The main themes of this play are those associated with religion; morality, virtue, sin, punishment, death and atonement. Its main character Isabella is obsessed with virtue and chastity and her own spiritual journey. The Duke spends most of his time dressed as a Friar and Angelo has the attitude and demeanour of a puritan.

The Role of the Female

Each of the women in the play are limited and controlled by the forces of patriarchy. The women in the play are vastly different but their social standing is 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.

Juliet and her unborn child are compromised by the attitudes she will face if she has an illegitimate child. Each of the women are victims of patriarchal control.

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Jamieson, Lee. "'Measure for Measure' Themes." ThoughtCo, Jun. 26, 2014, thoughtco.com/measure-for-measure-themes-2984736. Jamieson, Lee. (2014, June 26). 'Measure for Measure' Themes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/measure-for-measure-themes-2984736 Jamieson, Lee. "'Measure for Measure' Themes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/measure-for-measure-themes-2984736 (accessed April 25, 2018).