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Comparing Measure

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What is comedy? Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia says: "A comedy depicts the follies and absurdities of human beings." Webster's Dictionary defines comedy as: "A drama or narrative with a happy ending." Shakespeare's play, Measure for Measure, fits both of these descriptions. Follies and absurdities are present in the play: Lucio slanders the Duke, not realizing that his crude remarks are being spoken to the Duke himself; Angelo abuses his power thinking that the Duke is not present to know; and Ragozine happens to die in prison the day a head is needed to substitute for Claudio's. The play also ends on several merry notes, consistent with the definition of comedy. For example, Angelo's life is spared and he is forgiven; Mariana is married to Angelo; the Duke punishes Lucio humorously with marriage; Barnardine is pardoned; and Claudio is saved. The parallels between Measure for Measure and three other Shakespearean comedies, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, also help to classify Measure for Measure as a comedy. In Measure for Measure, like in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, an arbitrary law or obstacle is eventually overcome; a disguised character affects the outcome of the play; a clown adds humor to the plot; a female character bears a large responsibility for the final resolution; and forgiveness and reconciliation mark the conclusion of the action.

Some critics consider Measure for Measure a "dark" play because of the serious obstacles encountered by the characters. However, doesn't The Merchant of Venice also have near-tragic hindrances that affect the comic plot? In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio's life is at stake because of his bond to Shylock, and in Measure for Measure, Claudio awaits execution for his fornication with Juliet. Comedy often begins with some kind of irrational law which blocks up the main thrust of the comic story, and the comic story somehow manages to evade or ignore the hindrance. Sometimes, instead of the law, the play starts with a mood of deep gloom that is the main obstacle the comic action must overcome. Twelfth Night, for example, opens with Duke Orsino's love melancholy, evident from his first lines: "If music be the food of love, play on/ Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,/ The appetite may sicken, and so die" (Twelfth Night, I, I, 1-3). The depression prevalent in Twelfth Night also affects two female characters, Olivia and Viola, who are in mourning for their dead brothers. The melancholic barriers in Twelfth Night are similar to the obstacles presented by the harsh rule of Angelo in Measure for Measure. The ugly law of fornication that is strictly enforced by Angelo scowls at the characters in Measure for Measure from the beginning, and Angelo's temperament, in both his incorruptible and later phases, ensures that there will be enough gloom.

Like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, the Duke in Measure for Measure disguises himself in order to intervene and turn the tide of the near-tragic plot. Some critics, however, have a difficult time accepting the crafty Duke because he tricks and manipulates everybody in the play. However, like the Christian idea of "providence" bringing events about in an unlikely and unexpected way, the Duke's mysterious and unusual workings eventually lead to a deep benevolence. In the long run nobody in the play is physically hurt; the Duke shows mercy by punishing Lucio and Angelo only with marriage, and even the condemned criminal Barnardine is set free, except that he has another friar attached to him. Like Rosalind, who masquerades as a male in As You Like It in order to test Orlando and manipulate the other characters, the disguised Duke serves as a puppeteer in the play, and tests the quality of his subjects. Angelo, the hypocrite, and Lucio, the liar, fail but are penalized lightly and forgiven to keep with the comic ideal, while both Isabella and Escalus pass. The Duke, like the majority of Shakespeare's disguised comedic characters, affects the outcome of the play, which parallels Measure for Measure with other Shakespearean comedies.

In Measure for Measure, like in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, there is a clown-like character or characters who adds humor to the plot. The Merchant of Venice has Lancelot, As You Like It has Touchstone, Twelfth Night has Feste and his humorous lower-class friends, and Measure for Measure has Pompey, who is accompanied by other comic ruffians, the most prominent being Lucio. What Pompey and Lucio do in Measure for Measure is similar to all of the other mischievous characters mentioned: they make the audience laugh. Lucio does three humorous actions to liven up the plot: first, he slanders the Duke, unknowingly to the Duke himself; second, he serves as a cheerleader during Isabella's first encounter with Angelo; and finally, he makes rude yet amusing remarks during the last scene of the play. A few critics find Lucio's final punishment of being forced to marry a whore troubling because Shakespeare spared the life of this slanderous liar. However, one must consider that when choosing a punishment for the comic character, Shakespeare had only three choices. First, he could have had the Duke execute Lucio; however, an audience that had been entertained by this genial rascal throughout the play would have been outraged to see him severely punished. Second, Shakespeare could have had the Duke let Lucio off scot-free; however, this would have severely contradicted Angelo's punishment and left room for further disquietude. Shakespeare therefore picks the third choice, which leaves room for Lucio's comic outlook on marriage: "Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging" (Measure for Measure V, I, 516-517) and helps to end the play on an amusing note.

Another similarity between Measure for Measure and the typical Shakespearean comedy is the power of the female characters. For example, Rosalind, in As You Like It, decides how the play will end when she says:

[To Silvius] I will help you if I can. [To Phebe] I would love you if I could. To-morrow meet me all together. [To Phebe] I will marry you if ever I marry woman, and I'll be married to-morrow. [To Orlando] I will satisfy you if ever I satisfied man, and you shall be married to-morrow. [To Silvius] I will content you if what pleases you contents you, and you shall be married to-morrow. [To Orlando] As you love Rosalind, meet. [To Silvius] As you love Phebe, meet. And as I love no woman, I'll meet. So fare you well. I have left you commands (As You Like It V, ii, 103-114).

Like Viola in Twelfth Night and Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind influences the other characters while disguised in men's clothing. In Measure for Measure the females will not masquerade as men to cause the identity confusion that often affects the resolution of Shakespearean comedies, but instead play the bed-trick, which results in the same effect. The bed-trick can be classified as a type of disguise because Mariana takes Isabella's place for a night, and like the other disguises mentioned from other plays, it allows a female character, Isabella, to influence the play's outcome. Without the bed-trick, Angelo would not have sinned with Mariana, so there would have been no crime committed by Angelo to counter-balance Claudio's sin; and therefore no need for a reversal resulting in Isabella's forgiveness of Angelo. After Angelo is publicly humiliated and forced to marry Mariana, the Duke orders that he be executed. Mariana pleas for his life but is rejected, and in desperation, she turns to Isabella and says: "Sweet Isabel, take my part,/ Lend me your knees, and all my life to come,/ I lend you all my life to do you service" (Measure for Measure, V, I, 426-428). Isabella's response shows that she forgives Angelo because Angelo's desire to sleep with Isabella was foiled; therefore Angelo did not commit the evil he intended because he was tricked into sleeping with the wrong woman, and does not, in Isabella's eyes, deserve to be punished for his intents. In contrast, Isabella knows that Claudio died for a sin that Claudio actually committed. She says:

Let him not die; my brother had but justice,/ In that he did the thing for which he died./ For Angelo,/ His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,/ And must be buried but as an intent/ That perished by the way./ Thoughts are no subjects,/ Intents but merely thoughts (Measure for Measure, V, I, 444-450).

Some critics see Isabella's actions as foolish; how could she not want to kill the man who she thinks murdered her brother? The answer lies in Isabella's ethereal virtue. She does the Christian thing which she earlier asked Angelo to do for Claudio: "judge not, that ye be not judged." She said: "I would heaven I had your potency,/ And you were Isabel; should it then be thus?/ No, I would tell what 'twere to be a judge,/ And what a prisoner" (Measure for Measure II, ii, 66-69). Isabella remains true to her word after the reversal takes place. Isabella's capacity to forgive shows that she is ready to become a nun, or marry the Duke, whichever path she chooses, and leaves room for the happy ending expected in a comedy.

A few critics despise the ending of Measure for Measure, and label the unresolved issue of whether the Duke marries Isabella or not as a flaw. However, Measure for Measure is not the only Shakespearean comedy where bits and pieces of the plot are left unresolved. In Twelfth Night, after Orsino decides he wants to marry Viola, he tries to help her regain her female attire; however, the reader learns that Malvolio has since imprisoned the Captain who has Viola's clothes. Why Malvolio jailed the captain is never mentioned. Another commonly used argument against the resolution of the play is its near-tragic ending. However, the possibility of tragedy is a device commonly used in comedies. For example, in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is threatened with death, like both Claudio and Angelo are in Measure for Measure. Once Claudio and Angelo are spared, the possibility of tragedy is struck down in Measure for Measure, and the action proceeds upward through the play's ending. The last scene of Measure for Measure presents the vision of a renewed and regenerated society, with forgiveness, reconciliation, and the pursuit of happiness all over the place. Like Measure for Measure, forgiveness and reconciliation also come at the end of The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. At first glance, the unresolved plot fragments and the near-tragic denouement make it appear difficult to classify Measure for Measure as a Shakespearean comedy; however, when Measure for Measure is compared to Shakespeare's other comedies, its ending relates to The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

Not only does Measure for Measure fit the definition of comedy, it also parallels Shakespeare's other comedies. Like The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, the plot of Measure for Measure overcomes an adversarial obstacle, possesses a disguised character who affects the denouement, touches the audience with the humor of a clown or ruffian, endures the influence of a powerful a female character, and ends with forgiveness and reconciliation. The similarities between Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night help to place Measure for Measure in the same category with Shakespeare's other comedies. Furthermore, the "problems" many critics single out in Measure for Measure are also present in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, and further help to classify Measure for Measure as a comedy.…...

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