Elements of Tragedy in ‘Measure for Measure’

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is not an easily understandable play. It has elements of tragedy and comedy, but it ends like neither. Categorizing it as a problem play and breaking it down using different tools is the best way to understand it.

Theatre and opera concept with theatrical masks on red velvet.
Measure for Measure uses elements of tragedy and needs tools of reading tragedy to be understood. (Image: Photo: Victor Moussa/Shutterstock)

Measure for Measure is a confusing play, which is why it is also called a problem play. It uses elements of comedy and rejects them at the same time. It uses elements of tragedy as well, but does it reject them, too?

The Arc of Development in Measure for Measure

The central tool for understanding tragedy is its arc of development, from ignorance to knowledge. In Measure for Measure, this stool does not work as it does in other plays. Nobody learns anything new. Angelo remains as he was when the play started, Lucio and Claudio receive no education, and nobody changes for better in general.

In a tragedy, the characters grow and learn. On the other hand, the whole environment is too dark to be a comedy. Also, the fair is foul here, while the foul does not eventually turn into fair. What else?

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Role of Fate and Free Will in Measure for Measure

Normally, tragedy is dominated by fate. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and other tragedies showed this well. In Measure for Measure, however, the characters have some points of will and decision, but once their decision is made, fate takes over.

A man wearing a hilarious mask of the deceiver
The arc of character development does not make any foul fair in Measure for Measure, and no character ends the play better than they started it. (Image: Danilov1991xxx/Shutterstock)

Claudio and Julietta’s story is a vivid example. It is his choice to sleep with her, but when she gets pregnant, everything gets out of his control, and he is condemned to death. Angelo follows his desires for sleeping with Isabella, and he is then trapped in a scheme after he goes against his promise and does not stop Claudio’s execution.

Even Isabella is unable to find the right thing to do to save her brother and virtue at the same time. She is trapped in a virtual prison where she cannot find the way out. Perhaps that is why the whole middle part of this play is set in a prison. All of these stories push the play toward tragedy.

Learn more about Macbeth-“Foul and Fair”.

The Duke’s Character in Measure for Measure

The duke leaves his dukedom to Angelo to see what happens when a person is in power. He comes back disguised as a friar, and even talks to Claudio to convince him to welcome, and even want, death.

When Isabella tells Claudio about Angelo’s promise to spare Claudio’s life if she sleeps with him, the duke overhears it. He then tells Isabella about Mariana, a woman that Angelo was married to but abandoned her after her dowry sank in the sea. He tells her how they can take revenge from Angelo.

At the same time, he sees himself as a kind of benevolent deity and a divine monarch similar to how James I sees himself. The other characters also feel like his power has a positive effect on their stories, although Angelo might think differently.

Learn more about the tools for a lifetime of Shakespeare.

Rules of Marriage in Measure for Measure

In Elizabethan England, an engaged couple was allowed to have sex and even live together before the official church ceremony. They could pledge in front of witnesses to get married, and then it was fine to live together until the ceremony. The couple could also speak the vows of marriage before witnesses and were then considered married.

A painting of a scene showing Claudio and Isabella  from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure
When Isabella tells Claudio about Angelo’s request, the duke overhears it and decides to trap Angelo in a clever scheme. (Image: Tate Collection/Public domain)

These marriages were called spousals, which is what Claudio and Julietta have done. Technically, they have done nothing wrong. They have spoken the vows but not in public, as they were still waiting for Julietta’s dowry.

In Angelo’s situation, if he has sex with Mariana, the civil law will view them as a married couple. Consequently, the duke comes up with a plan.

The duke tells Isabella to accept sleeping with Angelo under these conditions: it has to be completely dark, and he cannot speak a word to her. However, Isabella will not sleep with him, and Mariana will replace her in the dark. After sleeping with him, they will be a legally married couple.

Obviously, the play has no elements of comedy in its definitions of love and marriage. Angelo keeps getting worse until the duke’s scheme traps him badly and makes him admit to the duke:

O my dread lord, / I should be guiltier than my guiltiness / To think I can be undiscernible, / When I perceive your Grace, like power divine, / Hath looked upon my passes.

At the end of the play, the duke makes everything go the way he wants. Thus, the role of fate is weaker than in actual tragedies.

The fifth act, where all of the themes, plots, and complexities come together, is a critical part of the play to understand it. The preface to the fifth act is the fourth act when the duke and Isabella visit Mariana to tell her about the scheme.

Thus, the ending of the play goes against the elements of tragedy, and the role of fate is overwritten by the duke’s.

Common Questions about Elements of Tragedy

Q: Is Measure for Measure a tragedy?

Measure for Measure has both elements of tragedy and a bit of comedy. However, it is neither of them and is categorized as a problem play.

Q: How does Measure for Measure end?

Measure for Measure ends with Angelo being trapped in the duke’s scheme. It does not end like a tragedy, despite all the elements of tragedy used in it, but it definitely does not end like a comedy, either.

Q: Does Measure for Measure have elements of comedy?

Yes. Measure for Measure does not only have elements of tragedy, and it does not end like one. The elements of comedy, however, are not strong enough to make it a comedy either.

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