Comment on the Significance of the title “Measure for Measure”

Comment on the Significance of the title “Measure for Measure”

A good title of a play should indicate the theme of the play. It must also be such that it attracts attention like the signboard of a shop, it should give the readers an idea of the contents of the play. The title  Measure for Measure is suggestive, starting, and apt in every way.

The word “Measure” means ‘to judge’ and the title “Measure for Measure” may seem to suggest that the play advocates some kind of wild justice, as is reflected in the saying “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. This view is supported by the Duke’s following speech in the final Act of the play:

“An Angelo for Claudio, death fox death. Haste still pays haste, and leisure always answers leisure, Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.”

In making use of the phrase “Measure for Measure” for his title, Shakespeare was surely thinking of the sermon on the Mount quoted in the New Testament:

“With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again!”

The play also incorporates in spirit and in the world one other famous saying in the Old Testament about being merciful to everyone around us:

“Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”


Shakespeare also knows that this is not possible if we begin to judge others continuously. Judgment brings with it condemnation and contempt, two horribly negative emotions. Once we experience this, mercy, Kindness, and compassion are just not possible. Shakespeare has his inspiration once again from the Bible’s Sayings:

“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged, condemn. not, and ye shall not be condemned forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”

The title of the play itself can be interpreted in two different ways. When the Duke demands “An Angelo for a Claudio”, he obviously meant that Angelo must be punished exactly to the extent that Angelo would have tried to punish Claudio. Both commit premarital sex, Thus in this context, “Measure for Measure” means that the evil-doer must be punished not only in accordance with the magnitude of the evil done by him but also as severely as he has previously punished somebody else guilty of the same evil deed. However, once the Duke calls for moderation and mercy, the Aristotelian meaning of the title becomes obvious. The phrase “Measure for Measure” then implies the need for moderation and mercy. The Duke forgives Angelo, acting upon the advice: “forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” Thus, there is certainly an ambiguity about the title of the play. The Duke uses the phrase in one sense, while the general atmosphere and the conclusion of the play point to the other meaning of the phrase.

The play is undoubtedly about judging, since, every character is judging from the moment the curtain lifts to the very end. This judgment may be actually uttered through words or it may be revealed through action. Sometimes it also takes the shape of silence, Angelo judges Claudio, Claudio judges Isabella, Isabella Judges Angello, Lucio judges the Duke, Escalus judges Pompey and so does Abhorson, Barnardine Judge’s human life with his gloomy philosophy. But the worst of all is the Duke. He thinks that his only job in the governance of his state is judging all and sundry.

The problem with this kind of judging is that it can cause chaos if it is devoid of any moral philosophy. Walter Pater thinks that the underlying idea of the play is poetic justice. He comments: “The action of the play develops in us the conception of this poetic justice and the yearning to realize it, the true justice of which Angelo Knows nothing because it lies for the most part beyond the limits of any acknowledged law.”In fact, true justice is in its essence a finer knowledge through love:

” ‘Tis very pregnant:

The jewel that we find we stoop and take it, 

Because we see it, but what we do not see

We dread upon, and never think of it.”

It is for this finer justice that the people in Measure for Measure cry out as they pass before us.

In other words, the title of the play signifies that justice should be tempered with mercy. “Put yourself in His place” might well, indeed, serve as a sub-title to Measure for Measure. This is what Isabella means when she says:

“I would to heaven I had your potency, 

And you were Isabel.”

In fact, we are all sinners, and we should be merciful if we expect mercy from the Almighty. Isabella’s speech reminds us of Portia’s famous ‘Quality of Mercy’ speech to Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

In the view of the above, it may rightly be concluded that Shakespeare attempts to achieve the kind of justice that can only be possible through compassion and true understanding of what the characters of the play demand. Marshall is right when he says: “The final word of Shakespeare in the play is Mercy.”

The Duke arrives at the solution that only a combination of forgiveness and mercy can provide joy. Since the Duke forgives everyone – pimp, base slanderer, and even the worst sinner, Angelo – in the end with a lot of compassion, we must expect the title to mean. “Forgiveness for forgiveness.” Hence, the title “Measure for Measure” is highly significant.

Leave a Comment