Analysis of ‘Measure for Measure’ as a Problem Play

Chambers remarks that in "Measure for Measure the evidence of Shakespeare’s profound disillusionment and discouragement of spirit is plain enough that the search light of irony is thrown upon the paths of Providence itself”. It is written in 1604. it is Shakespeare’s last comedy, and it is considered by many to be the best-known and most controversial comedy of the author's tragic period. It contains many dark, somber elements more typical of the tragedies to come. 

Una Ellis - Fermor on Isabella: “Hard as an icicle she visits Claudio in person and lays before him the terms and her decisions – her pitilessness only growing with his pleading. Creation and death are the two issues which form the core of the play. There is equal emphasis on the forces of harmony and discord. Shakespeare’s play ends neatly with two marriages: one performed, between Mariana and Angelo, the other in prospect, between Isabella and the duke.

The modern critics have preoccupied with the tensions in the earlier part of the play. A recent definition of a ‘problem’ play runs thus: “A play in which we find a concern with a moral problem which is central to it presented in such a manner that we are unsure of our moral bearings, so that  uncerta in and divided responses to it in the minds of the audience are possible and even probable”. (E.Sehanzer). 

The play is concerned with the nature of authority, the - working of psyche, and the predicament of man faced with the universal facts of greater mystery of the actual individual. The art is ‘incarnational’ as Hough says, and again according to Hough the play’s true greatness is felt wherever its concepts are “completely absorbed in character and action and completely expressed by them”. Scholars have long debated the outcome of Shakespeare’s plot. Perhaps he was aware that the sacrifice of Isabella’s honor, followed later by her marriage to the man who had evilly betrayed her trust to gratify his own desires, as portrayed in the sources, would offend the sensibilities of his audience. This manipulation of events to induce a happy ending belongs to comedy, but there is startling contrast between the light-hearted intrigue in this last act and the serious, tragic tone of earlier scenes. In fact, the improbability of the love matches has led some scholars to criticize the last act’s tidiness as mere deference to strict comic form. But in its mixture of comic and tragic traits, Measure for Measure serves as an appropriate end to Shakespeare’s comic output, and as a gateway to a long succession of tragedies.

The characters are far too complete to be personification. Isabella is a complex character – she cannot be dismissed as an embodiment of chastity or Holiness. First one thinks of a nun’s vocation; he has a strong will – power, belief in his own principles, and a readiness to face the consequences of his actions. The duke is a representative of true secular, spiritual authority. His position is not threatened with war or intrigues. He is modest, retiring and capable of wry humour. The essential quest in measure for measure was the crowning achievement of the last plays.

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert,      
     2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
      3. Microsoft Students’ Encarta


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