Measuring ‘Measure for Measure’

William_Hunt_Claudio_and_Isabella_Shakespeare_Measure_for_MeasureI really have over-committed myself at the moment and as a result I’m getting very little time for reading for pleasure.  Something is definitely going to have to be done about that, but not until this week is out of the way and I’ve met all my obligations in respect of teaching and leading discussion groups.  So a brief post today based around my thinking on Measure for Measure for a discussion group cum lecture on Wednesday.

I’ve always thought that Measure for Measure was one of the more difficult of Shakespeare’s plays for a modern audience to understand.  Not only is there a lot of legalistic and religious argument to pick over, especially in the first three acts, but some of the laws that relate to the various types of marriage contract make so little sense these days that the basic premise of the play can seem nonsensical.  Let’s face it, if a law that says a man can be executed for having sex before marriage were to be implemented today then we would be about to see a very drastic culling of the population.

In fact, when Angelo condemns Claudio to death for getting Juliet with child he is overstepping the bounds over the law in 1604 as well, the more so because the contract of marriage that Juliet and Claudio have entered into would actually have been made more binding by intercourse. However, there were people who were asking for strengthened laws in this area and in 1650 adultery was made punishable by death, so Shakespeare would have been exploring an area that the growing influence of Puritan sects had brought to the fore.

So, parts of this play can be difficult both to understand and to give credit to.  However, the more I’ve worked on the text and read around what the various commentators have to say the more I am amazed that no one seems to have picked up on a point that I feel should be blindingly obvious. In order to save Claudio’s life, Angelo demands that Isabella, Claudio’s sister, sleeps with him.  Now, in contrast to his sources, Shakespeare makes Isabella a novice and so the debate as to why she should not give herself in exchange for her brother centres around the question of her chastity.  To some extent it replaces the question of her honour, which has been the core of the debate in the source materials.  Commentator after commentator, picking up on the fact that Isabella displays the characteristic extremeness of the newly converted, points out that she has misunderstood the notion of chastity and that it is as much a spiritual state of mind as a physical state of body. In other words, if she was to give herself to Angelo in these circumstances her spiritual chastity would not be violated.

Fine!  Let’s hear it for spiritual chastity.  But, what no one seems to point out is that if she did what Angelo demands she would be walking into a room and allowing herself to be raped.  Because let’s not be in any doubt about this, rape is what Angelo is proposing.

As it happens, I find it very hard to warm to Isabella.  She is as unforgiving in her stance as Angelo in his and has little in her that accords with any sense of Christian forgiveness.  In many respects they are two for a pair and the city or country ruled by them or their like would soon know the horrors of the rule of the despot and the inquisition.  However, that is immaterial. Whether I like her or not makes no difference to the way I feel about what’s been asked of her and the fact that I can’t find any commentators who even mention the word rape appalls me.

I shall certainly be bringing this up with my class on Wednesday afternoon to see if they think I’ve got this out of all proportion but I would be interested to hear what any of you think as well – preferably before Wednesday so that if I am going off on one without just cause I can be saved from making a complete fool of myself.

10 thoughts on “Measuring ‘Measure for Measure’

  1. Haven’t read the play, or seen it, so only mulling over the concept of rape here. Did rape exist in the way that we know it in Shakespeare’s day? I wonder if the fact that women were traded in marriage without the need for their consent means that forced sex was seen as quite normal – and that in fact, it would be the father (or head of the household) – effectively the woman’s owner – who would decide whether she should submit, and who would be seen as the ‘victim’ by having his property defiled (read: devalued). Hence if isabella’s brother is happy to give her in return for his life, then maybe it wouldn’t be seen as a rape. Perhaps by becoming a novice, Isabella feels she has transferred that ownership of her body to the Church? And that’s why it’s being seen as a spirtual rather than a physical question?

    Certainly I’ve never really thought of Shakespeare as one of the world’s greatest feminists, particularly in the comedies…which may explain why I so rarely find them funny.

    1. I’m sure there would have been some concept of rape at the time, FF because Shakespeare himself references it in Titus Andronicus but equally I’m sure we shouldn’t equate it with our own understanding. My real grip is with modern, male commentators who don’t even so much as give it a passing mention. It’s interesting that Shakespeare is the only one who tells this story who finds a way round Isabella actually having to sleep with Angelo, so perhaps more of a feminist than you thought:-)

  2. Funny that you should post about this today because I just happened to see a production of Measure for Measure this past Friday, and they did treat Angelo’s proposal as rape. They actually had him physically assault her before being interrupted. The play was entirely new to me, but the production notes and the 1930s Vienna setting that the gave it make it comprehensible to me, although I’m sure I missed a lot of nuances, as I always do when seeing a new Shakespeare play for the first time.

    You might be interested in some of the resources the theatre put online about their vision of the play. Some of the essays were particularly helpful to me.

    Essays at
    Production videos and interviews at

    1. I can imagine that 1930s Vienna would make a very interesting setting for this play, especially with the rise of the Nazi party beginning to make itself felt. Thank you very much for the links. The next session I teach is on productions of the play and they will be very useful indeed.

  3. I only read Measure for Measure recently as party of my OU course and I’ve never seen it performed. I can’t warm to Isabella either, but I’m fascinated by her dilemma and the way in which her chastity is treated like a commodity. Nowhere did I read about Angelo’s proposal as rape. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I think you’re right, the omission is quite shocking. I think that says a lot about Shakespeare’s time but just as much about present day attitudes.

    1. Yes, Karen. It’s the fact that no modern commentator raises it as an issue that really gets to me. Everyone gets het up about Angelo’s hypocrisy for setting out to commit a similar crime to the one he condemns but no one looks at what the real implications are for Isabella.

  4. I’m not familiar with Measure for Measure but what you describe certainly sounds like rape to me. It is really too bad than none of the commentators you have been reading have discussed it in such a way. More than too bad actually, really obtuse and frustrating.

    1. I had my first session with a class discussing this yesterday and although they had all read and seen the play not one of them had thought of it in those terms and yet each of them was horrified that they hadn’t when I suggested that we might think of it that way.

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