Significance of the title Measure for Measure

Discuss the significance of the title of the play, Measure for Measure.

2020 JC2 Preliminary Examination

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure explores titular concerns of absolutes and balance. By presenting the dialectical opposite of every absolute stance in the play, Shakespeare conveys the untenability of absolutes which are measured and complicated by the inherent messiness of human nature. Instead, the play argues for the necessity of balance, to measure justice with mercy, and restraint with liberty. However, as a problem play, Measure for Measure undermines a straightforward reading of the title, complicating it with arguments for relativity rather than a sweeping ‘measure for measure’ ethic under the justice system. The title is therefore significant in forming the basis of the play’s concerns, yet invites the audience to question its ethic.

The play’s title is significant in encapsulating Shakespeare’s examination of absolutes as untenable – every unwavering stance in Measure for Measure is challenged and measured with its opposite, a tension that arises due to the inherent complexities of human nature. This is best exemplified through the characterisation of Claudio, who undermines the Duke’s absolute arguments regarding death and Isabella’s regarding chastity by measuring them with his mortality. Disguised as a friar, the Duke presents absolute arguments for the insignificance of death, compelling Claudio in an imperative tone to ‘Be absolute for death … For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork/ Of a poor worm.’ The duke invokes the imagery of death as a ‘poor worm’ that presents no danger, augmented by the use of gentle and pleasant diction ‘soft’ and ‘tender’. Yet, this argument is measured and undermined by the complexity of Claudio’s mortality and fear of death when he expresses anxieties surrounding bodily annihilation and torment of the soul: ‘but to die, and go we know not where;/ To live in cold obstruction, and to rot … the delighted spirit/ To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside/ In thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice.’ The use of imagery of ‘cold obstruction’ and ‘rot’ undermines the Duke’s arguments for the desirability of death as a means of detaching from worldly concerns, emphasising to the audience Claudio’s very human fears of death as an unknown process. Thus, by presenting Claudio’s mortality in opposition to arguments for death, this scene encapsulates one of the tensions created in the title, where positions in the play are weakened, complicated and measured by human nature that opposes any absolute notions and complicates such standards. This is similarly echoed when Isabella rejects any compromise of her chastity and firm moral standards, asserting with the superlative ‘damned’st’ and exclamatory statements that she is absolutely unwilling to waver from her position. However, this is once again undermined and measured by Claudio arguing that Angelo’s proposition might be construed as ‘no sin’, presenting an antithetical opposite to Isabella’s stance. This culminates in his desperate, heartfelt plea of ‘Sweet sister, let me live!’, evoking sympathy from the audience and leading them to question such absolute moral standards. These tensions and moral dilemmas that arise due to the complexities of mortality and human nature form the titular concern ‘measure for measure’, where absolutes are called into question and conveyed as untenable. Every absolute is measured by its opposite, recalling the audience to the play’s title as absolute measures are undermined by equal measure.

The play’s title Measure for Measure further advocates the need to balance and measure notions of justice and mercy, and liberty and restraint, having called into question the untenability of absolutes. Isabella’s calls for mercy to balance Angelo’s harsh and uncompromising rigidity evokes the significance of the play’s title in conveying to the audience the need for balance. The harsh and uncompromising nature of Angelo’s punishment of Claudio’s illicit sexual desires is undermined by Isabella, who argues instead for balance: ‘all the souls that were, were forfeit once … How would you be/ If He, which is the top of judgement, should/ But judge you as you are?’ By metaphorically comparing Angelo to God as a judge, Isabella questions his absolute stance on harsh justice, as even God, who is the ‘top of judgement’, shows mercy to ‘all the souls’. Hence, by invoking religious arguments with interrogative statements, Isabella’s words reflect the question of the play’s title, Measure for Measure, as she attempts to convince Angelo of the need to soften absolute standards of justice and balance them with mercy, since Heaven’s conceptions of justice are unattainable and even God, as the highest of judges in the context of the Jacobean era, metes out mercy to sinners. The title is thus significant in encapsulating such a central concern of the play, which argues for the need for ‘measure for measure’, justice for mercy, and liberty for restraint, culminating in a message of balance.

Yet, Measure for Measure is a problem play, with the title inviting the audience to examine the complexities of this ethic and come to question a straightforward reading of the text. Measure for Measure undermines sweeping notions of measuring and substitution, arguing instead for relativity. The title is invoked most explicitly when the Duke metes out resolutions and revelations in the play’s final scene: ‘An Angelo for Claudio/ death for death! Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;/ Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure!’ The symmetry of each clause ‘death for death’, ‘haste still pays haste’ and ‘leisure answers leisure’ creates a mirroring effect that the title itself encapsulates, augmented by the rhyming couplet which evokes a lyrical, mirroring cadence. Yet, the title invites the audience to examine and ‘measure’ this ethic of substitution and mere equation of Angelo and Claudio. ‘An Angelo for Claudio’ is problematised given that, despite a similar basis of illicit and criminal sexual desire, Angelo’s sins are of a much greater severity than Claudio’s. Where Angelo abandoned Mariana, abused his power as deputy and demonstrated reprehensible hypocrisy, Claudio and Julietta’s sexual act is revealed to have been ‘mutually committed’, a subtle yet important detail in differentiating the gravity of their moral flaws. The title is significant in reflecting the complexities and relativity of every situation in its problematising of ‘measure for measure’, inviting the audience to question both the title itself and the subjective, disproportionate judgements expressed in the text.

Measure for Measure is thus a fitting and thought-provoking title that significantly reflects multiple concerns of the play, primarily encapsulating themes relating to absolutes that are untenable, balance that forms ‘measure for measure’ and relativity that problematises this ethic.

Desiree Chia (19-U1)