English 316 Shakespeare Questions on Measure for Measure, CSU Fullerton



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Assigned: Shakespeare. Measure for Measure (Norton Shakespeare, Comedies 841-910).

Of Interest: 1623 First Folio Facsimile | My Comments on Measure for Measure | Onsite Renaissance Guides | Instructor's Book, Net, Film Recs | Mabillard's Shakespeare Online | Gray's Shakespeare and the Internet | Elizabethan Grammar | Schmidt's Shakespeare Lexicon

See JOURNALS for instructions on journal sets.



1. In Act 1, Scene 1, the Duke invests his power with Angelo and, as second-in-command, old Escalus, saying that he has considered the matter at length even though he is departing in haste. What advice does Duke Vincentio offer Angelo about how to look upon his new commission, and how does Angelo, in turn, describe his own merit and the power that has been temporarily given to him? In addition, why does the Duke prefer to leave Vienna without fanfare?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Shakespeare introduces us to Lucio as well as to the hilariously named prostitute Mistress Overdone and her servant Pompey. In the conversations that ensue between Pompey and his friends, and then including Mistress Overdone, how does a sense of Vienna's seedy side develop? Describe the economy of vice that exists in this great city that the Duke wants to recall to virtue, and explore what it implies about the prospects of the "war on vice" that is to be carried out by the Duke's lieutenants Angelo and Escalus?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Claudio enters on his way to prison, both resenting the "perp walk" he is being forced to take and philosophizing about his dire situation. How does Claudio describe his predicament to Lucio? What exactly is the moral he draws from it, and how firm does his acceptance of that moral seem to be? What hopes does he invest in his sister, Isabella -- why, that is, does he suppose she might be able to get him out of his troubles?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, what underlying logic does Duke Vincentio reveal to Friar Thomas concerning his decision to entrust his power to subordinates -- what main reason does he advance? (We might see it as flowing from the sound Machiavellian understanding that a prince must be respected rather than merely hated or loved.) Does the Duke's reasoning seem just to you -- should a ruler do as Vincentio is doing for the purpose stated? Why or why not?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, as the Duke concludes his conversation with Friar Thomas, he reveals an interest in testing Angelo's virtue: "Hence shall we see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be" (1.3.53-54). How does this admission affect your understanding of the Duke's main purpose, which is of course to set Vienna to moral rights again? Do you find that this testing of Angelo fits well with the main goal, or does it complicate things in a not altogether positive way? Explain your response.

6. In Act 1, Scene 4, we get our first look at Isabella in the nunnery where she is soon to take her vows. Lucio, informing her of her brother's plight, relays Claudio's call for help. What is Lucio asking her to do, and why does Isabella at first perhaps misunderstand Lucio's intentions and then doubt her own ability to help Claudio? When Isabella is finally persuaded to visit Angelo, how does she construe her task?


7. In Act 2, Scene 1, what argument does Escalus initially offer to try to soften Angelo with regard to the death penalty the latter has levied against Claudio? What fundamental insight about human nature grounds that argument? How does Angelo answer Escalus? Why is he so easily able to dismiss Escalus' point, which probably seems like a good one to us, the audience?

8. In Act 2, Scene 1, what makes it so difficult for Escalus to judge the case between Master Froth, Pompey, and Constable Elbow's wife? What is the "case," as far as you can understand it? Why do you suppose Shakespeare would place this comic episode (replete with hilarious word-marring by Elbow) about sin and wrongdoing so close to the much graver instance that threatens young Claudio with death? How does Escalus handle the situation, and in what sense does he thereby distinguish himself from Angelo?

9. In Act 2, Scene 2, what concept of justice does Isabella set forth to counter Angelo's sternness, and by what main points does she try to bring this concept home to Angelo's conscience? But beyond setting down the basics of her argument, consider it as a piece of rhetoric -- how well does she perform the case she is making, when you take into account the flow of the argument, the figures Isabella employs and the passions that seem to animate her as she speaks?

10. In Act 2, Scene 2, what is Angelo's counter-argument to Isabella's plea to spare her brother Claudio? But more particularly, why is Angelo so powerfully aroused upon seeing and hearing that plea? How does he understand his predicament, and what irony does he find in the fact that it is she who supposedly tempts him to pursue selfish desire rather than simply uphold the law? What appears to be Angelo's plan at this early point? Why doesn't his recognition that he's in the wrong stop this supposed "saint" in his tracks?

11. In Act 2, Scene 3, Duke Vincentio (disguised as a friar) finds out about the Claudio/Juliet case, and advises the young woman to accept the shame of her situation and show true remorse, which she promises to do. Then, in Act 2, Scene 4, Angelo makes a brazenly improper demand of Isabella, who seems only with difficulty to comprehend his words. When she does understand, how does she respond? What possible contradiction does Angelo bring to light about Isabella's stern refusal of his advances, given what she has already said about the nature of her brother's offense as well as about Angelo's severity in applying the law? Explain. How would you describe Angelo's attitude or state of mind at this point, now that he has decided to run with his viciously immoral designs on Isabella, and how does that attitude inform his response to Isabella's anguish and outrage?


12. In Act 3, Scene 1, the Duke (disguised as a friar) reconciles Claudio to death. Attend to the Duke's rhetoric -- how does he go about (supposedly) trying to convince Claudio to accept his fate? How sound or convincing do his arguments in the service of this attempt seem to you, and why so?

13. In Act 3, Scene 1, Isabella's presence and newly imparted information (i.e. of Angelo's wicked designs upon her) unreconciles Claudio to the death that the disguised Duke had supposedly made him long for. Follow Claudio's reaction to what Isabella tells him, and attend to the rhetoric he uses to try to get his sister to accept Angelo's offer: what anxiety underlies his remarks, and how does he construe the nature of Isabella's guilt if she were to give in to Angelo? In turn, how does Isabella react to her brother's pleadings?

14. In Act 3, Scene 1, the disguised Duke offers Isabella a way to save her brother without yielding her body to Angelo. What exactly does he propose as a solution, and how does he explain to Isabella the predicament of one Mariana, a young woman who will be a main player in this scheme to upbraid Angelo? (As an aside, you might want to have a look at the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting Mariana.) What principle underlies this proposed plan of action on the part of Duke Vincentio?

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, Lucio first refuses poor Pompey the bawd's (i.e. pimp) desperate plea for bail money, and then he slanders the Duke with false accusations of scandalous behavior and consequent lax administration of justice. What do you think is Lucio's motivation for thus dismissing Pompey and then slandering the Duke (to his face, as it turns out)? What is he trying to prove -- what benefit does Lucio perhaps hope to get from his pointed indifference to a lowly acquaintance and from his willingness to sling gossipy accusations about the man in charge of Vienna?

16. Towards the end of Act 3, Scene 1, what information does Mistress Overdone provide Escalus and the Duke (still disguised as a friar) about Lucio as she is carried off to prison by the Provost? What similarity therefore obtains among the respective situations of Claudio, Angelo, and Lucio? Finally, what does the Duke suggest in his rhymed tetrameter (i.e. of four "feet" per line) couplets towards the end of this act about the proper way to deal with his straying substitute Angelo? What significant insight might these remarks harbor with regard to the more general administration of human justice?


17. The Duke (still disguised until 4.5) is busy throughout this act arranging affairs to suit the desired outcome -- justice done in front of everyone (as in, "Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done," a quote by Lord Hewart which sums up part of British and American legal tradition). What are the most important steps he takes in Act 4? What is the Duke's plan for his re-entrance as ruler of Vienna? To what extent must others be kept in the dark about the unfolding plan, and why?

18. In Act 4, Scene 2, follow the interaction between Pompey the bawd (pimp) and Abhorson the executioner. How do the two of them think of their own profession, and how does each man compare his job to the other's? Then in Act 4, Scene 3, how do the two try to prepare the convict Barnardine for his execution, which is due any time now? What is the result of this attempt, and what does this strange episode suggest about the underlying philosophy of the administration of justice in Vienna?

19. In Act 4, Scene 3, Lucio puts in another appearance. What information about his past does he reveal to the Duke (who is still disguised as a friar)? When you add up what you have gathered about Lucio based on the scenes in which he has thus far appeared, what role do you think he has played so far in this dark comedy? How has he contributed to the atmosphere, advanced the action, contributed to our understanding of "power politics" and the administration of justice in Vienna, etc?



20. In Act 5, Scene 1, the play's resolution turns on the Duke's ability to arrange affairs so that rather than enforcing strict justice -- "measure for measure" -- he and Isabella can charitably return good for evil and, thereby, make troublesome, flawed characters serve the good. Do you find the play's moral resolution satisfactory? Why or why not?

21. Shakespeare's comedies (as Northrop Frye says) sometimes involve an exodus from corrupt urban life to a magical place where characters explore their problems and are transformed. Then there is a return to urban life, with appropriate marriages making social renewal possible, and honest leadership lending political continuity; in a comedy, people must be able to dwell happily as individuals (or couples) within the forms society has lent them. Measure for Measure ends with the usual spate of marriages upon the Duke's return, but what accounts for so many critics finding it a "dark comedy" rather than an optimistic statement about the chances for individual happiness and social harmony?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.