Much has been said over the years about what kind of play Measure for Measure is. Among other things it is a tragi-comedy, a comedy, and a thesis play. The author of a thesis play sets out to prove a point, usually about an important social issue. A list of such works would obviously include Ibsen's Ghosts, Brieux's Damaged Goods, Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, and even Leo Tolstoy's Redemption (or The Living Corpse). Most of George Bernard Shaw's plays would make that list (though sometimes it might prove hard to pick out a single thesis) as would much of Oscar Wilde, and, perhaps surprisingly, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.
Of course, Shakespeare almost never does anything in a conventional way, and Measure for Measure is not a conventional thesis play. It is as The New Theatre Handbook says of Ibsen's A Doll's House, "both a problem and a thesis play" (Bernard Sobel, ed. [New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1959], 672). And it is much more than that. Where an ordinary thesis play makes it clear which side is the right side, which path the true path, and leads us up a stairway to enlightenment, Shakespeare puts us on a roller coaster that seems to change directions when we least expect it.
The play begins with Duke Vincentio wondering whether his government may have been too lenient, and, in fact, temporarily handing over the reins of that reign (sorry, Shakespeare's puns are contagious) to the puritanical Angelo. For a brief while, it looks as though Measure for Measure will be, like Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, a play about prostitution, as Angelo sets out to eliminate all the brothels in Vienna and execute anyone who is guilty of fornication. But just when we are ready to agree that Angelo has a point (at least when it comes to getting rid of Mistress Overdone's establishment), our roller coaster dips and swerves, and we find ourselves facing a situation where Claudio is about to be executed for getting his fiancée pregnant. Now, apart from not waiting patiently enough for his wedding and being a friend of the disreputable Lucio, Claudio seems a nice enough young man. As Lucio says about him, "If I could speak so wisely under an arrest, I would send for certain of my creditors" (all references are to The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed., Sylvan Barnet [New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1972], 1.2.134 5). Most members of the audience would, I suspect, agree that Claudio's sister, Isabella, has found the solution to this particular problem when she exclaims, "O, let him marry her" (1.4.48). Decapitation seems altogether disproportionate as a punishment for this crime, and, in addition, it would clearly cause more social problems than it solves, leaving an unwed mother and a fatherless child.
So, we say, moving further away from Angelo and back toward the old leniency of the duke, "No one should die for this sin." However, Shakespeare will not let us sit quietly and be happy with our answer. Angelo, whose repression of his emotions and natural impulses is anything but healthy, finds Isabella's pleading for her brother's life irresistible, or, rather, he finds her irresistible as she pleads. He argues that if her brother's sin is minor, Isabella should certainly be willing to commit that same sin with Angelo to save her brother's life.
Now we must choose and decide again. Claudio should not die, or so we thought. Should Isabella then sacrifice her chastity to save his life? Or is this situation entirely different because Isabella would be forced to do what Claudio had done willingly and because, whatever Claudio's predicament and however little Claudio had expected to be in it (and remember no one had enforced this anti-fornication law for years), it is not Isabella's fault that he is in it or her responsibility to get him out of it. Plus, Isabella is about to become a nun. Still, if she says "no," her brother dies.
Isabella says, "no." What is more she tells her brother what Angelo has offered and she has refused. The natural question is why would Isabella tell Claudio? And the inevitable answer is so that he can make her feel better about her decision. No matter how justified she feels in maintaining her chastity, she must experience some guilt at letting her brother die, so she turns to him for reassurance and comfort. At first, Claudio says exactly what his sister wants to hear, "Thou shalt not do it" (3.1.103). But then, thinking of the horrible alternative he faces, he changes his position, and the argument between them is well summed up in Northrop Frye's paraphrase, "`But it's my chastity,' screams Isabella. `Yes, but it's my head,' says Claudio'" (Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, Robert Sandler, ed., [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986], 147).
Suddenly, it begins to be clear that this is not a thesis play about prostitution or pre-marital sex or abuse of authority or chastity, but about mercy. Can Isabella legitimately keep her chastity and let her brother die? Yes, but she cannot turn on him and abuse him for not making her feel better while she does it. The first and worst of the seven deadly sins is pride, and the religion Isabella is so proud of requires her to practice charity and mercy as assiduously as she practices chastity.
So, we condemn Isabella for her selfish righteousness and move yet closer to the duke's lenient, humane view of the law and the world. But Shakespeare is not through with us yet. Certainly, Isabella should be able to forgive her brother. Should we in the audience be able to forgive Angelo? Should Isabella be able to forgive him? And if we can't forgive him, must we then criticize ourselves in the same way that we have criticized Isabella? Long before anyone thought of interactive art forms, Shakespeare was building a play that compelled the audience to judge themselves (indeed ourselves) by the same standard they (we) used for the characters. W. H. Auden says the duke "is not just a character, but Vienna, and a mirror in which the other characters learn to know themselves. He creates an educational process that allows the characters to undergo and emerge from their sufferings" (Lectures on Shakespeare, Arthur Kirsch, ed., [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000], 191).
Measure for Measure is a comedy that sometimes looks like a tragedy, but what makes it really comic, what makes of it a happy journey with a joyous ending, is Shakespeare's understanding that while morality cannot be legislated, human beings can be educated to be better, kinder, and truer. We can learn, as the characters in this play do, that we all need--and all deserve--mercy.