“Measure for Measure” was originally grouped as one of Shakespeare’s comedies (back when there were just three categories: tragedy, comedy, and history,) but more recently it’s been reclassified as one of the three “problem plays” of Shakespeare. Problem plays are neither clearly comedy nor clearly tragedy, but mix elements of both.
Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is taking a mysterious trip, and he’s left his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo is a stickler for the law (or, at least, appears to be at first) and one of his first official acts is to sign a death sentence on Claudio. Claudio is a young man who knocked up his girlfriend. While the law calls for death, everyone advises Angelo that the details of the case don’t merit such a sentence. Those details being that the young woman, Juliet, is in love with Claudio, consensually partook of sexual intercourse, and both she and he are eager to marry so that the child will not be born out of wedlock. Angelo is unmoved by petitions from just about everyone to let Claudio live as long as he weds Juliet. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who heard the news in the convent where she is a postulant [in training to be a nun, but not yet one,] comes before Angelo seeking leniency for her brother, Angelo’s tune slowly changes, and he betrays himself as the worst form of hypocrite. If Juliet will “consent” [used loosely] to Angelo taking her virginity, he’ll let Claudio go. Obviously, Juliet isn’t at all keen on this arrangement, being a nun wanna-be and having the strict moral values one might expect of one who’s chosen such a life. She goes off preparing to tell her brother that he must die because the only way out is for her to sex up Angelo. Isabella fully expects Claudio will accept this, but Claudio has a moment of weakness in which he shares his terror of death and requests Juliet do the deed with Angelo. However, she won’t do it.
At this point, things look grim for Claudio, but we find out that the Duke is pulling a Henry V, and (far from visiting foreign lands to unknown purpose) is making his way in disguise through Vienna, learning what happens in his absence. The Duke [pretending to be a friar] has various meetings with Isabella, Claudio, the Provost (a warden), and others. The Duke-turned-friar hatches a plot that hinges on a piece of inside information that he holds.
It turns out that the sight of lovely Isabella wasn’t the first cause of Angelo being a jerk, there was a previous incident. Angelo was once betrothed to a woman, but before they could wed the woman’s fortunes changed when a storm sank the boat carrying wealth that included her dowry. Lacking a dowry, Angelo kicked the woman to the curb where she ended up turning tricks in a Viennese brothel because for fortune had sunk — literally.
The Duke / friar’s plan is that Isabella go to Angelo and say that she agrees to his despicable propositions, and that she will do the vile deed on the condition that it be someplace pitch dark so that her lady bits can remain unseen and so she won’t throw up in the lousy face of her rapist. She also insists she be able to bring a servant to the place in question. The plan revolves around getting the wronged ex-fiancé turned prostitute to agree to pull a switch-a-roo, with her engaging in intercourse in the dark with Angelo instead of the virgin Isabella doing so. Angelo having committed the same offense as the man he signed a death warrant for will have to either change his order regarding Claudio or submit himself to the same punishment.
One can see why this play is not easily classified. It contains a lot of dark subject matter. However, it does have numerous lighthearted moments of humor, including Lucio badmouthing the Duke (to the Duke’s friar-disguised face) and the servant of a local brothel’s Madame, Pompey, becoming an assistant to the executioner. As in comedies, everything works out more or less happily for all parties.
I was gripped by this play. It’s among my favorites of the Shakespearean comedies. It has an intense storyline and some fascinating moral conundrums. The Duke works his plot such that more than one character must confront a moral dilemma and choose whether to be a better version of him-, or herself. This is definitely worth reading.