What themes and issues are introduced in Act I of “Measure for Measure?”

July 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the words of nineteenth-century critic F. S. Boas, “Measure for Measure” is undeniably a “problem play”, meaning that it is a play that centres around certain moral or philosophical issues. However, as well as simply being a play about problems, “Measure for Measure” is a problem in itself – it is neither a fully-fledged tragedy nor a comedy, and one cannot isolate a single “problem”, or issue, that the play seeks to solve. Rather, the play contains a host of contrasting moral and philosophical themes, many of which Shakespeare introduces us to in the first act of the play. The most obvious theme is that of symmetry and antithesis; the idea of balance and counter-balance. The name “Measure for Measure” alludes to this in no uncertain terms, hinting of the overtones of balance and equivalence that feature heavily in the play, and conjuring the image of the ‘scales of justice’, a common image of the law. These scales represent a balance between mercy and punishment, a balance between crime and the response that it elicits. It is often suggested that the name Escalus – that of the aged, wise character of the play – intends to imply this image of the ‘scales of justice’. This title is an apt summary of the main theme and ethic of the piece – namely, the idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”Crucially, many of the apparent symmetries of the play are in fact antitheses. A prime example of this in the first act is Angelo’s overly severe punishment of Claudio – sentencing him to death for “lechery”, a crime and punishment that clearly are not in balance with one another (a fact that Lucio expresses with the question “is lechery so looked after?”). The character of Angelo fits perfectly the image of apparent balance that is in fact imbalance – his soul “seems good”, yet he resorts to “tyranny” and abuse of power; he would appear to be a man of “stricture” and “firm abstinence”, yet who (we later discover) has an illegitimate child. Indeed, we often see references to coins and money in reference to Angelo (an Angelo being a type of coin), such as the idea of a “figure” being “stamped” upon his “metal”. A coin is an apt metaphor for Angelo’s character, and indeed the play as a whole – although it appears to be one simple thing, a coin has two distinctly different sides. Angelo’s misunderstanding of the Duke’s reference to “mortality” is much like this; the Duke intends this to mean “life”, whereas Angelo sees the ‘other side of the coin’ and interprets this statement as a proclamation that he has the power to sentence his people to death. The themes of semblance and power within “Measure for Measure” are summarized by the Duke, with his decree that “we shall see, if power change purpose what our seemers be.” The theme of substitution is linked to that of semblance, and is also introduced in the first act. Substitution becomes a key facet of “Measure for Measure” – such as the substitution of Mariana in place of Isabella. We also see Angelo taking the Duke’s place, and the Duke taking that of the Friar. These substitutions hark back to the central ethic of the play – the idea of ‘measure for measure’ as alternatives that appear to be balanced often rely upon the substitution of one person for another. The idea of fraudulence or substitution fits well within the morally corrupt society in which the play is set – a society in which brothels and sexual disease are common, and in which even the most seemingly pious of people have immoral secrets to hide.The themes of sexuality and sexually-transmitted diseases permeate the entirety of “Measure for Measure.” The play is full of questions of sexual morality; such as those regarding brothels and sex outside marriage. We see multiple bawdy innuendos – such as “a French crown more” in reference to “French disease” – but we also see language pertaining to sexuality used in other contexts – the Duke calls Angelo “pregnant”, meaning knowledgeable, and Claudio wishes Isabella to “make friends with the strict deputy”. Whether or not these are used as double entendres by the characters, Shakespeare certainly includes them with the knowledge that they will be heard as such by the audience. This serves numerous purposes; firstly to foreshadow and allude to the theme of sexuality that drives the play, and secondly perhaps to illustrate that there is sexual intention behind much of what people do – again adding to the general impiety of the piece. A linked theme is that of crime and punishment. Also a sub-theme of the ‘balance/counter-balance’ that preoccupies the whole play, the concepts of crime and punishment are crucial in “Measure for Measure”. The play is obsessed with the difficulty of a balance between crime and punishment – there are abundant references in Act I to the excessive severity of Angelo’s ruling, and the courtroom scenes within the play only compound the suggestion that the workings of the law are comical and purely perfunctory. Finally, another prevalent theme is that of freedom and restraint. Another example of Shakespeare’s utilisation of ‘two sides of the same coin’; the interwoven themes of freedom and restraint are made clear even in the first act. Paradoxically, we see restraint represented as a more positive state than freedom. Claudio blames “too much liberty” for his arrest, arguing that it is not in human nature to be able to regulate one’s freedom, “like rats that ravin down their proper bane”. Similarly, Isabella wishes for “a more strict restraint”, and the Duke, who having absconded is free to do as he pleases, chooses to adopt the hermit-like life of a friar. Nineteen years of freedom has led to the appalling moral state of Vienna, and although Lucio argues that unrestricted freedom is better than just restraint, Shakespeare generally conveys that freedom should only be exercised within boundaries. Incidentally, there are many parallels between the Vienna of “Measure for Measure”, and Shakespeare’s London, which an audience at the time would have been very aware of. There could be a religious undertone to “Measure for Measure” – a preference for the moral boundaries of religion, as opposed to the total freedom of immorality. Indeed, there is much to suggest religion’s presence in the background of “Measure for Measure”. The title itself appears to come from the New Testament, “and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”. This reading of “Measure for Measure”, as an essentially religious piece, is quite common, with Brook mentioning the “religious thought of the play’s ideals”. The implications of such a reading would be that religion is the factor which can balance the imbalanced scales of such a society as Vienna, “the needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades”. In conclusion, “Measure for Measure” is, in essence, a “problem play”, in that it is a play that grapples with many problems, moral and ethical. Shakespeare shows us ‘both sides of the coin’ in this first act – piety and impiety, crime and punishment, freedom and restraint – and we, as the audience, are implored to collectively measure the value of each.  

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