Consider Measure for Measure as a problem play

 Consider Measure for Measure as a problem play 

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has rightly been described as a problem play. The term “problem play” was suggested by the new drama initiated by Ibsen and shaw. A problem play is one that raises certain questions that remained unanswered. Like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is also a problem play because this play raises several questions to which Shakespeare has supplied no answers.

The first problem which we face in the play is the problem of law versus mercy. Angelo, as the Duke’s deputy, revives certain laws that had become redundant during the Duke’s time. He declares prostitution to be illegal and orders all brothel houses to be shut down. In accordance with one such law, Angelo sentences a young man named Claudio to death on a charge of fornication. Now, the question that arises is how far Angelo is justified in passing this sentence of death. Claudio admits that he is guilty of having made his beloved Juliet pregnant out of wedlock; but, as he explains to his friend Lucio, he did want to marry Juliet and was prevented from doing so only by circumstances over which he had no control. Claudio, therefore, describes Angelo as a tyrant and a dictator, Escalus requests Angelo to withdraw the sentence of death against Claudio which seems to Escalus to be too severe. Angelo, however, persists in his judgement and says that a law should be enforced strictly if it is to be recognized as a law by the people. 

The quality of mercy is evidently absent from his sense of justice. Claudio has a young sister named Isabella. On hearing her brother’s plight from Lucio. Isabella decides to go to Angelo in order to try to obtain a pardon for her brother. 


During her first interview with Angelo, Isabella tells him that the law under which her brother has been sentenced to death is certainly just but too rigorous. She requests Angelo to show mercy towards her brother, saying that mercy is more valuable than any symbol of authority. But Angelo says that her brother is a forfeit of the law and that he can do nothing about it. Isabella points out that all the souls were forfeit once but that they had been saved by the martyrdom of Christ. Angelo again invokes the authority of the law saying: “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.” Isabella again appeals to him to spare her brother and argues that heaven is merciful to such delicate plants as the myrtle, though it destroys the huge oak trees. She deplores the fact that man becomes proud when he is vested with a little authority and begins to behave like an angry ape playing fantastic tricks. All these arguments, however! fall flat upon Angelo. Now, the problem here is that whether the demands of the law are stronger or the claims of mercy have more weight. We see that while Isabella repeatedly asks for mercy while Angelo only wants to enforce the law. But who is right – Angelo in Isabella?

Soon afterwards, the situation undergoes a complete change. Isabella’s youth, innocence and purity have stirred  Angelo to sexual passions. During the second meeting between the two, Angelo frankly tells Isabella that he is in love with her and that he is ready to pardon her brother’s life if she agrees to surrender her virginity to him. But Isabella quickly rejects Angelo’s offer because she thinks: “More than our brother is our chastity”. Then she meets her brother and informs him of Angelo’s crude demand. Claudio, who is feeling terrified of death, appeals to Isabella to surrender her virginity to Angelo in order to save his life. 

Isabella thereupon becomes furious with her brother and severely rebukes him.? Now, the problem before us is whether Isabella is justified in spurning Angelo’s vulgar offer to pardon Claudio’s life and whether Isabella is afterwards justified in rejecting Claudio’s appeal to her and rebuking him severely. Thus, two crucial questions. arise here: (1) should, or should not a brother willingly die for the sake of his sister’s chastity? and (i) should, or should not, the sister surrender her chastity to save the life of her brother? So, the problem of chastity versus sisterly affection remains unsolved, as does the problem of law versus mercy. 

Then comes the problem of forced marriages. Angelo is ordered by the Duke to marry Mariana, and the marriage is immediately solemnized. Now, the question is whether it is possible to defend this kind of marriage. Even after being betrayed by Angelo, Mariana still loves him. But Angelo does not give any sign at all that he still loves Mariana.  Will Angelo be happy as Mariana’s husband, and will he try to Keep Mariana happy? This is a crucial question Another victim of forced marriage is Lucio, Lucio is also ordered by the Duke to marry the whore whom he had made pregnant of course, the whore would become an honest woman when Lucio marries her, but the question is whether Lucio can even be happy as the husband of a whore. This marriage would also, therefore Serve no fruitful purpose.

We are faced with another problem too. How far is the Duke justified in completely forgiving both Angels and Lucio? Forced marriages are the only punishment that these two men receive; but is this punishment adequate? Angelo was guilty of gross misuse of his official position; he was guilty of a breach of trust because he did not keep his part of the bargain with Isabella; he was guilty of seducing a maiden (Mariana). Such a man should be hanged according to the law. If mercy was shown to him, he should have been sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. So, the Duke’s forgiveness of Angelo raises another problem. We can ignore the Duke’s forgiveness of Lucio because Lucio was guilty of slandering the duke, and because it is the Duke’s personal affair if he feels disposed to forgive this man – forgiveness is a sign of Christian charity; but in the case of Angelo, the question is whether the law can completely be ignored for the sake of the Christian ideal of forgiveness. And at what point is the law to be suspended, and forgiveness to operate?

In the view of the above, it may rightly be concluded that Measure for Measure is a problem play because Shakespeare provides no answers to the several questions with which we find ourselves faced while going through this play. This is a play in which we confront many problems such as the problem of law versus mercy, the problem of chastity versus sisterly affection, the problem of forced marriages, the problem of judgements. And in this play, as in a typical problem play, each problem carries no single true solution, but different solutions.

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