Measure for Measure

August 10, 2018 Rufeida A

Contexts to Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ and how they link to the play. A colour coordinated copy is available by request!

AO3: context

First performed in 1604 (renaissance)
General information
MFM= “Problem play / dark comedy / tragicomedy” (contain elements of comedy but also dark issues that may be unresolved though characters can be content by the end). Forces us to look at the cruel law and the uneven justice.
The title: Matthew 7:1-2 “judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again” “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!/../ like doth quit like, and measure still for measure”
About Shakespeare:
•His narratives, themes and characters show fascination with the human mind
•He often adopted parts of stories or ideas from a wide range texts from different time periods, but also leaves out some parts of the detail from these sources.
•Convey the complex reflections on humanity
• Marriage was essentially a promise. Those who made this promise to each other were regarded as legally married, whether or not they then went through the ‘blessing’ of a church marriage.
•Critics have said that the Duke has links to both Christ and James - he reprimands Lucio for talking bad about him - James was a big believer in the punishment for "slanderers of princes". James also secretly attempted to observe his subjects (often donning disguise)
•He made last minute reprieves of judgement
•Believed in Divine right of kings (the duke is said to be the divine arbiter of justice)- absolute powertyranny.
•There really was the demolition of the brothels - it was said to stop the plague
•Fornication was seen as a great sin.
•In Shakespearean England, friars were mistrusted as representatives of Catholicism, Shakespeare tends to sympathise towards them; there are friars in other Shakespearean plays e.g. in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado about Nothing etc.
•Plays were not considered as serious literature in this time period.
•The motif of a disguised ruler was a popular theme in the plays of this period.
•In September 1603 a law was proclaimed in London which allowed for the demolition of houses in the suburbs where most brothels were located in an attempt to stop the spread of the plague.
•James I is king.
•Having been brought up as a Protestant, and as a strong opponent of his mother's Catholicism, James faced opposition in England from the Catholic families who resented another Protestant ruler= Gunpowder Plot of 1605; a group of conspirators placed barrels of gunpowder under the House of Parliament, hoping to blow up the King and his senior ministers
•This failed- it was discovered and the conspirators arrested and executed.
•in theory, the king was not always in absolute control; he had judges and magistrates to apply his laws. - this could be reflecting how the Duke was not the one who had physically tried to stop the promiscuity in Vienna but was half hoping that Angelo would do this for him.
•In James' England, the King was, in theory, not in absolute control, as he had judges and magistrates to apply his laws. How ever, James believed strongly in his ‘divine right' as a ruler (see also Religious/philosophical context: Divine right of kings) and that his will should be seen as supreme.
•In Act I, scene 3, the Duke refers to the ‘strict statutes and most biting laws'. This could be referring to the death penalties, which could be applied for ‘sins’ that would today be regarded as minor offences.
•Public whippings and hangings were common.
•Wrongdoers could also be branded, have their ears cut off, or be set in the stocks or pillory.
•James I believed in witchcraft=many so-called witches were executed by hanging or burning- usually bold women were seen as witches.

•'Before our brother is our chastity'. To modern audiences this is a bewildering concept, but for women in Jacobean times a 'shamed life' was hateful in two ways: a woman who lost her virginity before she married would be branded for life, no other man would be willing to marry her and secondly it was believed that this was sinful and God would punish her in the afterlife. This argument can also be used to understand why Isabella and the Duke used Mariana in the bed trick. Without Angelo, Mariana would be seen as a tainted woman having been abandoned by a m an already so through marrying her off to Angelo, the Duke is ensuring she does not have to live a shamed and lonely life without ant support.
•Another common belief in Jacobean times was that a woman who tempted a man must accept her wrongdoing and silently suffer the punishment. Isabella does recognise her 'sin') in tempting Angelo at the end of the play when she says that before he laid eyes on her he was a good man, but she does not physically accept punishment which may also have been shocking to the audience. She does not play up to her stereotypical role of the silent woman.
Women couldn’t become actors at this time so the female characters had to be played by men.
In Shakespeare’s audience were the first generation of Englishmen and women who had been brought up hearing the Bible in English.
Outbreak of plague
Renaissance demanded a curiosity of thought which challenged old assumptions and traditions. Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli- published a book describing the immoral behaviour, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics in 1513- Critics argue over whether or not the Duke shows Machiavellian power hungry traits, or whether he just wants the best for the people.
Based on a true incident that is said to have happened near Milan where a woman prostituted herself to save her condemned husbansd.
AO4- Literary context
The right excellent and famous historye of promos and Cassandra: divided into commercial discourses by George Whetstone (1578)
Whetsone had derived his plot from the Italian author Cinthio’s collection of stories called the “Hecatommithi” (1565)
Measure for measure shows close links to whetstones work, including the comic subplot involving miss overdone and her bordello.
In Promos and Cassandra – Cassandra marries Promos, the murderer of her brother. However this union would be frowned down upon by those who went to plays in the renaissance. Shakespeare subverts this “flaw, which led to shakespeare making his alteration of the original story’s plot through introducing mariana and the device of the bed trick to save the virtue of the heroine Isabella, and at the same time do no disservice to Mariana who loved Angelo (davis harding, yale university press 1954).” This is similar to what “Alls well that ends well” which was written 6 years previous to measure for measure, did – use the bed trick. Some believe that Shakespeare was lazy to use this same dramatic device.
The play is “tragicomedy”
Measure for measure can be linked to Troilus and Cressida aswell as alls well that ends well. They were all written in the tragic period and are called dark comedies as well as problem comedies because they give a problem with human existence more serious than usual comedy, but not completely tragicly either.
More Literary context/comparisons
Many literary critics believe that Shakespeare and Charles dickens actually have the ideology of “the law is ass- a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelot, and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience chapter 51 (oliver twist)”
In “kill all the lawyers: shakespeares legal appeal by Daniel Kornstein” we see it is “an ideal play for lawyers. It quivers with legal immediacy and raises fundamental questions of law and morality. Legal themes permeate the play and rivet the attention of both lawyers and nonlawyers alike. "Good counselors lack no / clients" one character announces in the first act (1.2.198-99), and we know near the start that we are watching a play about law (Kornstein, 35).


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