Themes of Shakespeare's Comedy 'Measure for Measure'

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

Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" offers a number of themes, including:

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

Judgment 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 doesn't indicate that the person is morally superior.

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

Had Claudio been executed, he would have left Juliet with a child and a tattered reputation. 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. He wasn’t going to legislate against himself. 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 receive the same treatment as they provided. 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 plague, as sex could result in death.

Mistress Overdone represents the 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 spiritual death and the death of her reputation.

The play questions whether it is right for government to legislate against sexuality.

Marriage

Shakespeare’s comedies often are celebrated by a marriage, which is usually seen as a happy ending. In "Measure for Measure," however, 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 is unusual in a comedy.

Ironically, marriage here is used to regulate and punish promiscuous behavior. Marriage saves the females' reputation and gives them a position they would not have had. For Juliet, Mariana, and Mistress Overdone to an extent, this is the best option. Readers are asked to consider whether marriage would be a good option for Isabella, because 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?

Religion

The title of "Measure for Measure" comes from the gospel of Matthew. The plot includes a passage where a hypocritical deputy sentences a man to death for fornication and then propositions a woman.

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

The Duke spends most of his time dressed as a friar and Angelo has the attitude and demeanor of a puritan.

The Role of the Female

Each woman in the play is controlled by the forces of patriarchy. They are vastly different characters, 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.