Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure (Norton Comedies, 3rd edition, pp. 891-951).
1. In Act 1, Scene 1, the Duke hands power to Angelo and Escalus. What advice does he offer Angelo, and how does Angelo describe the power that has been temporarily given to him?
2. Why does the Duke prefer to leave Vienna without fanfare? Moreover, why doesn’t he just hand over temporary power to the experienced counselor Escalus instead of to Angelo?
3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Shakespeare introduces us to the shady, loquacious character Lucio as well as to Mistress Overdone (a Madame) and Pompey the tapster and pimp. What implications do their presence and their perspectives have for the war on vice that is soon to be carried out by the Duke’s lieutenants Angelo and Escalus?
4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Claudio enters on his way to prison for impregnating a young woman out of wedlock. How does he describe his predicament to Lucio? What hopes does he invest in his sister, Isabella—why, that is, does Claudio suppose she might be able to get him out of his troubles?
5. In Act 1, Scene 3, what underlying logic does the Duke reveal to Friar Thomas concerning his decision to entrust his power to subordinates—what main reason, and what subsidiary reason, does he advance? Do his reasons seem appropriate? Should a ruler do such a thing for the reasons stated? Why or why not?
6. In Act 1, Scene 4, we get our first look at Isabella in the nunnery where she plans to take her vows. Lucio, informing her of her brother’s plight, relays Claudio’s call for help. How do you interpret her passion for order and strictness—does it sort well with her holy aspirations? How does Isabella construe her task with regard to Claudio at this early stage of the play?
7. In Act 1, Scene 4, we are treated to Lucio’s strong attempt to win Isabella to the cause of helping her brother Claudio escape the lethal consequences of his irresponsibility. What is Lucio’s rhetorical strategy for winning Isabella’s aid? What powers does he suggest to her that she possesses? Why does he believe she will be successful when she pleads with Angelo?
8. In Act 2, Scene 1, what makes it so difficult for Escalus to judge the case between Master Froth, Pompey, and Elbow’s wife? How does Escalus handle the situation, and in what sense does he thereby distinguish himself from Angelo, who is also present for part of the interrogation? Overall, how does this comic scene relate to the broader themes of justice and fairness or equity that Measure for Measure explores?
9. In Act 2, Scene 2, how does Angelo respond to Escalus’s attempt to soften him up with respect to the sad case of Claudio, whom Angelo has already condemned to die for a sexual transgression? What logic seems to underlie Angelo’s steadfast severity? What makes this newly minted deputy ruler so immune to humility and compassion?
10. In Act 2, Scene 2, what stages does Isabella cycle through in her rhetorical and logical performance meant to counter Angelo’s Puritanical sternness? What quality proves so attractive to Angelo during his encounter with Isabella, and what irony does he find in the fact that it is this young woman, and not someone else, who is supremely able to “tempt” him?
11. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does the Duke, disguised as a friar, interact with Juliet? How does he frame her “sin,” and what religious counsel does he offer her? What observations might be made about the justice or injustice of the legal framework and logic that governs the current situation of Claudio and Juliet?
12. In Act 2, Scene 4, Angelo makes his brazen demand of Isabella, who seems only with difficulty to comprehend such a wicked proposition. What possible contradiction does Angelo bring to light about Isabella’s stern refusal, given what she has already said about her brother’s offense? Explain.
13. In Act 2, Scene 4, what do you make of the strongly erotic language Isabella employs even at the heart of her refusal to yield to Angelo’s illicit lust for her? In what sense are these two opponents, Angelo and Isabella, well matched or pitted against each other in their struggle? What larger point could Shakespeare’s pitting of them this way be making about how a society’s values can be challenged and upheld?
14. In Act 3, Scene 1, what rhetorical strategy does the Duke (disguised as a friar) employ to reconcile Claudio to death? Then, after Isabella finds (to her extreme disappointment) that her brother is not as protective of her virtue as she is, what means of saving Claudio does the disguised Duke offer her? How does he describe the situation of Mariana, who will play a key role as the rest of the play unfolds?
15. In Act 3, Scene 1, what emotional arc does Claudio follow first upon hearing the disguised Duke’s counsel and then when he speaks with his sister Isabella? What is Isabella’s current understanding of Claudio’s situation, and how does she respond to his backsliding when he finds that the price of his survival is Isabella’s chastity? Why, in particular, does she describe the course of action he urges on her as “a kind of incest” (3.1.139)?
16. In Act 3, Scene 1, Constable Elbow brings in Pompey the Tapster (or, more accurately, pimp), whom he is escorting to prison. How does the disguised Duke treat Pompey, and what course of punishment does he recommend to rehabilitate him? What progress, if any, does this interaction indicate that the Duke himself has made in his capacity as Vienna’s chief upholder of the laws?
17. In Act 3, Scene 1, what should we make of Lucio’s cavalier treatment of his acquaintance Pompey when the latter, in dire distress, asks him for bail money? Then, too, what is Lucio’s apparent motivation for slandering the Duke (to his disguised face, as Lucio will later learn to his horror)? What specific accusations does he level against the Duke, and how does the Duke respond to these spurious accusations? All the same, what cogent counsel does Lucio offer the Duke regarding the nature of vice, and lechery in particular?
18. Towards the end of Act 3, Scene 1, Escalus, after ordering Mistress Overdone off to jail, informs the disguised Duke that Claudio is to be executed tomorrow. How does the Duke respond to this news of Angelo’s continued severity? Then, when Escalus and the Provost leave him, what do the Duke’s reflections suggest he has learned from the example of the Puritan Angelo, whom he initially empowered but now understands to be a vicious hypocrite? How does he characterize his plan to counter Angelo’s severity and cure the situation going forward?
19. In Act 4, Scene 1, how is Mariana presented, now that we get to meet her in person? What song is a young page (male attendant) singing when the scene begins, and how does that song reflect on Mariana’s situation and mood? Read Alfred Tennyson’s 1830 poem “Mariana” and view John Everett Millais’s 1851 pre-Raphaelite oil painting “Mariana”: what insights do these interpretations by Tennyson and Millais offer with regard to Shakespeare’s jilted character?
20. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and over the rest of the act, what steps does the still-disguised Duke describe and take, beginning with his conversation with Mariana and Isabella here in the first scene, to direct affairs towards the just and equitable outcome he desires? Which steps in his plan seem most important, and why? To what extent and to/from whom does he reveal (or keep as a secret) key aspects of that plan, and why?
21. In Act 4, Scenes 2-3, the audience is treated to the comic fireworks that ensue when the hardened felon Barnardine, long a denizen of Vienna’s main prison, is slated for imminent execution. How does this criminal respond to the news that he must (in newly minted executioner’s apprentice Pompey’s words) “be so good … to rise and be put to death” (4.3.24-25)? Aside from the initial need to use Barnardine’s head to trick Angelo into thinking his order to execute Claudio has been carried out, why does Barnardine’s recalcitrance present a serious problem to those responsible for enforcing justice in Vienna? In what sense does his refusal to play his allotted role undermine the ethical and performative aspects of the justice system that has condemned him?
22. In Act 4, Scene 3, the disguised Duke tells us that he is keeping from Isabella the critical knowledge that the execution of Claudio has not, in fact, been carried out. What reason does he provide for this arguably cruel omission? Critics have sometimes characterized the Duke as acting like a “playwright” who arranges the ultimate outcome of all the events in Measure for Measure. Do you find that the Duke’s actions here in the fourth act justify such a reading? Why or why not?
23. In Act 4, Scene 4, Angelo admits in soliloquy (i.e., alone) that he is consumed by guilt over his treatment of the innocent Isabella. How does he construe the nature and source of his offence against her? What else does Angelo reveal about his psychological state in this scene, not only with regard to his devious decision to go ahead with Claudio’s execution but also with respect to human nature and politics or governance?
24. In Act 4, Scenes 5-6, the plot moves quickly, in preparation for the unmasking of Angelo’s lecherous attempt against the virtuous Isabella and, thereby, his utter failure as Duke Vincentio’s deputy ruler of Vienna. In what key way does the Duke show a necessarily Machiavellian (i.e., savvy, pragmatic) understanding of his situation as a ruler returning to people of uncertain loyalties? Then, too, why is it important that Angelo’s corruption and dishonesty be publicly proved? We all know Lord Hewart’s 1920s aphorism about the fundamental importance of justice not only being done, but also seen to be done. Explain the logic underlying that pronouncement in connection to Measure for Measure.
25. In Act 5, Scene 1, the Duke begins what looks like a power-and-praise-fest between himself, Angelo, and Escalus, but Isabella’s stark repetitions of the word “Justice!” transform the scene. The previous question asked you to explain the general significance of a famous aphorism about justice being seen to be done. Here in Act 5, what significance do you find in the precise way in which this public demonstration of justice unfolds? In particular, why does Isabella come in for such rough, skeptical treatment when she accuses Angelo? Why does the Duke at first make such a show of trusting Angelo and then urge him to throw the book at both Mariana and Isabella, and the supposed “Friar Lodowick” for good measure?
26. In Act 5, Scene 1, what effect does the public staging of his own corruption have upon Angelo? How does he behave at critical points in this act, as his treachery against Mariana and Isabella are exposed? What punishment does he seek when he is finally and utterly unmasked as a lecher and a hypocrite? How does the Duke enlist the “miraculously” still living Claudio along with Mariana and Isabella in rehabilitating Angelo and facilitating his quick reentry into Vienna’s civilized orbit from what could have been lasting exile or even death?
27. In Act 5, Scene 1, what surprisingly important role does Lucio play in the conclusion of Measure for Measure? Why is this slanderous, slippery rascal the one character that the Duke says he finds it all but impossible to forgive? All the same, what fate does the Duke mete out to Lucio in the general dispensation that ends the play? How does that fate reinforce the exploration of justice and equity that Duke Vincentio set in motion when he left Vienna?
28. Towards the end of Act 5, Scene 1, the Duke twice proposes marriage to Isabella. Critics have pointed out—and sometimes made much of—the fact that Isabella never actually says “Yes” before the play concludes. What do you make of this omission? Is it significant, or should we just take for granted that Isabella accepts the Duke’s proposal? What might be implied about her (and possibly the Duke) if she did not accept? What might be implied if she did accept?
29. What do you think of the quality of the marriages that the Duke’s dispensation brings into being: Angelo and Mariana, Claudio and Julietta, and Lucio and Kate Keepdown? In the comedies and romance plays, marriages are a central mechanism for renewing a troubled society and its values as well as for providing individual pleasure and contentment for couples. In what sense, or to what extent, is that true of the marriages contracted in Measure for Measure?
30. Along with All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and (sometimes) The Merchant of Venice, the comedy Measure for Measure is often labeled one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” What qualities in the play’s overall attitude and its approach to certain themes (mainly the adequacy of marriage for human happiness and the balance between justice and law, mercy and strict morality) might lead critics to place it in this category of a “dark” or “problem” play? Do you find the label appropriate? Why or why not?
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.
Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake