Measure for Measure

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Themes and Colors
Virtue Theme Icon
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
Liberty and Justice Theme Icon
Agency and Society Theme Icon
The Role of Women Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Measure for Measure, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Agency and Society Theme Icon

Nearly every character in the play lacks the knowledge or power necessary to control his or her actions and their attendant repercussions. Of course, this is due in part to the dramatic irony that drives the plot. Because characters lack essential information about their circumstances, they are not as in command of their actions as they may believe. Examples of this are widespread; essentially any character who deals with the disguised Duke is deprived of some control, simply because the Duke uses his greater knowledge to manipulate his subjects.

However, another force behind this lack of agency is characters' inabilities to balance their impulsive desires with their overall self-interest. Oftentimes, initial lapses in self-control cascade into larger predicaments that strip characters of still more individual liberty. Claudio and Juliet, for example, lack the willpower to refrain from premarital sex. This, when discovered, robs them of more freedom still, as they must suffer legal and social penalties. Similarly, Angelo is unable to reconcile his desire for moral rectitude with his sexual desire for Isabella. Because he does not have the fortitude to behave consistently, this disconnect forces him into a cruel and morally reprehensible position--one that leads to his downfall at the play's conclusion.

The most notable—and singular—exception to this trend is the Duke himself. He uses subterfuge to manipulate other characters into fulfilling his—admittedly benign—intentions. It seems like more than a coincidence, then, that the character who wields the most official authority also wields the most individual agency as the plot unfolds. While the Duke's aims may be noble enough, his unique ability to freely act with full information suggests that the deck may be stacked in his favor. This may be intended as a commentary on the coercive power that social hierarchies can exert on those who occupy subordinate roles.

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Agency and Society Quotes in Measure for Measure

Below you will find the important quotes in Measure for Measure related to the theme of Agency and Society.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

Now, good my lord,
Let there be some more test made of my metal,
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamp'd upon it.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), The Duke
Page Number: 1.1.51-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Duke Vicentio begins the play by describing how he will leave, and he urges his deputy Angelo to "Take thy commission." The Duke specifically commands Angelo to act in his stead, by letting "Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart." The Duke places Angelo in charge of the city's justice (by giving him the ability to command executions) and virtue (by leaving him in charge of doling out mercy).

This is a heavy task, and Angelo might be responding honestly (as well as politely) when he asks the Duke to not give him such a lofty duty until he is more worthy of it. In this response, Angelo's response also alludes to notions which will resurface throughout the play, such as appearance versus reality. After the Duke gives Angelo this responsibility, Angelo will act as the duke without being the duke; the "figure" of authority will only be "stamp'd upon" him. Yet, this pretense is a public one; everyone will see and know that Angelo is not the duke himself. When describing this, Angelo uses an analogy in which his body is a kind of "metal," much like a coin; this early foray into notions of money, circulation, and capital reminds us that this play's title, "Measure for Measure" will have multiple layers of meaning as the acts continue.

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Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

Thus can the demigod, Authority,
Make us pay down for our offense by weight
The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will;
On whom it will not, so; yet still ’tis just.

Related Characters: Claudio (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.116-117
Explanation and Analysis:

As Claudio enters the stage, he is being taken to prison slowly and publicly. This is supposedly happening under Angelo's specific commands, as the provost tells Claudio when Claudio begins to (perhaps rightly) complain about this. Therefore, Claudio is being thoroughly and publicly punished for having sexual intercourse with his betrothed Juliet because of Angelo's whim and decision.

Claudio protests the societal structures which bestow "Authority" on such individuals and allow capricious human actors to (try their best to) enforce the "the words of heaven" and heaven's infallible decrees. When human figures such as Angelo make the determinations, only some guilty individuals receive punishment; the decisions of heaven are only ever partially fulfilled. According to much of the world, though, "still 'tis just" -- this partial form of heavenly justice, which is mediated by the "demigod Authority" and lower human characters, largely seems to be a fair system, rooted in justice. Claudio can see its flaws, though, from his current position outside of the system. Claudio is being forced to "pay" for his sins, and here we again see this blending of justice and monetary circulation.

Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

We have strict statutes and most biting laws
(The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds),
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.20-32
Explanation and Analysis:

It turns out that Duke Vicentio has not left the play at all; after he is absent for one scene, the audience sees him again, as he converses with a friar. Fittingly, it is in this monastery that the audience may begin to understand why the Duke has left Vienna, spurring the action of the play. The Duke at least claims that he left not for love, but rather for the good of his people. For fourteen years, he has supposedly allowed the virtue of his city to slip; in the Duke's colorful description, even fathers and children become figures of sinfulness, as "quite athwart / Goes all decorum," and liberty takes control over justice. The Duke seems to believe that Angelo is better suited to restoring this virtue, as an individual not as entrenched in the political customs of the last few years. 

But perhaps we cannot believe the Duke's description completely. He only describes his city in these flawed terms after the friar questions the Duke's intentions, making the Duke defensively claim that he has "a purpose / More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends / Of burning youth." In the Duke's depiction of Vienna, we do, however, have a portrait of a city which plays out of many of the play's overall concerns: sin versus vice, romantic and familial bonds versus isolation, and collective versus individual action.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

Ay, but yet
Let us be keen, and rather cut a little,
Than fall, and bruise to death.

Related Characters: Escalus (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.5-7
Explanation and Analysis:

After Angelo declares that he will enforce justice, striving against sinful "custom" and ensuring that the very letter of the law is carried out, Escalus takes an antagonistic approach to this idea. Escalus advocates for mercy, suggesting that law enforcement must be balanced with forgiveness and care paid to each individual case. There is more to consider than an individual's actions; intention and internal development are significant as well. 

This exchange between Angelo and Escalus reminds us that Measure for Measure deals with intellectual tensions and philosophical issues as well as the struggles and successes of individual characters. As a "problem play," it is a comedy with intellectual force in addition to its romantic conventions and devices (which have not yet appeared in the play). As such, it does not let Escalus's comment rest without a response. Angelo immediately replies.

Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

Look, here comes one; a gentlewoman of mine,
Who, falling in the flaws of her own youth,
Hath blister’d her report. She is with child,
And he that got it, sentenc’d; a young man
More fit to do another such offense
Than die for this.

Related Characters: The Provost (speaker), Claudio, Juliet
Page Number: 2.3.10-15
Explanation and Analysis:

When the Duke comes to visit the prisoners in his friar disguise, the Provost introduces him to Juliet, revealing his personal sympathy for her plight. When he mentions how Juliet is pregnant, the Provost also shares the fate of her lover Claudio. These two lovers tend to be defined in relation to one another -- one of their crimes is easily explained by the other's crime -- and this suggests the way that one person's actions never exist in a vacuum, and thus one can never be completely culpable. It also suggests, however, that Claudio is more responsible than Juliet; he is to be killed immediately, and she is not.

Act 2, Scene 4 Quotes

Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel; heaven in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception. The state, whereon I studied,
Is like a good thing, being often read,
Grown sere and tedious; yea, my gravity,
Wherein (let no man hear me) I take pride,
Could I, with boot, change for an idle plume,
Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming!

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 2.4.2-15
Explanation and Analysis:

Struck by Isabel, Angelo's distracted, guilty prayers do not fulfill their function and connect him to heaven. In this soliloquy, which Angelo utters as he is alone on the stage, Angelo becomes curiously close to Claudius in Hamlet, whose prayers did not reach heaven as well. Angelo only intends to experience sexual intercourse with Isabel, and only intends to kill Claudio, yet Angelo's speech here links him to Claudius -- the character in Hamlet who did have sexual intercourse with Gertrude and did kill the former King of Denmark, all while lamenting his own guilt as Angelo does here. This alludes to the darker nature of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's final and darkest comedy. 

Angelo is now painfully aware of his heart -- but he is only aware of his impending vices, instead of his former transgressions (the acts which Isabella suggested that he should remember). He now must confront the central dualities of the play and decide whether he will act out his own impulses or act in service of his society's justice. He must decide whether he will maintain the pretense of a wholly reasonable and just individual or allow himself to reveal his newly emotional internal experiences.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

What’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear
That makes these odds all even.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.40-43
Explanation and Analysis:

The Duke, disguised as a friar, appears to Claudio in prison to provide him with counsel. After asking Claudio whether he hopes for pardon, and hearing that Claudio does indeed remain in hope to some extent, the Duke advocates that Claudio should lose all hope and "be absolute for death." The Duke labels life as a gift that "none but fools would keep" and details life's unpleasant contradictions (that young men desire riches and old men cannot derive pleasure from the riches that they have). Again we see the darker nature of this comedy. 

The Duke's description of life's many hidden deaths also recalls this play's tension between appearance and reality. The Duke does not suggest what exactly constitutes the "more thousand deaths" of life. Yet we might believe that these deaths-in-miniature are the consequences of pretense; they slowly accrue over one's life, as one adopts different identifies, leaving each personality and experience behind, and fails to see one's internal desires and motivations gain external representation.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling—’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Related Characters: Claudio (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.133-147
Explanation and Analysis:

As Claudio speaks with his sister in his jail, he seems somewhat more than willing to die, when he claims "If I must die, / I will encounter darkness as a bride, / And hug it in mine arms." Similarly, he initially does not oppose Isabella's desire to stay pure instead of sacrificing her virginity for his life. 

Yet his resolve then becomes plagued by fear. "Death is a fearful thing," he first says, briefly, before continuing in this more fervent speech. Although we might associate the tragedy Hamlet more with death, here we briefly escape the worldly nature of this play, which focuses on the competing interests of human passions and reasons, and dwell upon the landscape of death. There is no one analogy that Claudio can use to describe it; Claudio cannot know death, and this mystery leads to his fear. His fear projects through the words, making this speech a passionate plea for his life. Through these attempts to describe death, Claudio attempts to reach through his sister's convictions. 

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!

Related Characters: Lucio (speaker), Claudio, Angelo
Page Number: 3.2.115-117
Explanation and Analysis:

Lucio asks the Duke (who is disguised as a friar) for news about the Duke, and the "friar" declines to provide any, claiming that he knows nothing of the Duke's recent affairs. Lucio then details how Angelo had been acting in the Duke's absence -- that is, ruthlessly-- and indulges in the common speculation that Angelo is not an ordinary mortal and thus not susceptible to the lusts common to flesh-and-blood humans. Lucio exclaims that there is a "ruthless thing" in Angelo ("in him") which inspires this lack of mercy, this hardness towards the baser impulses and actions that are spurred by female sexuality (or innocence, in the case of Isabella). The "rebellion of a codpiece" here jokingly refers to male genitalia and its tendency to lead men into trouble -- something usually knowingly winked at and pardoned in a patriarchal society, but here inexplicably punished. Thus Angelo's judgment against Claudio is not just seen as a harsh punishment, but as an attack upon the worldview that allows sexuality (particularly male sexuality) to exist in a vague no-man's-land, universally known to all but outside of society's direct acknowledgement and condemnation.

Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice, and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practice on the times,
To draw with idle spiders’ strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!
Craft against vice I must apply.
With Angelo tonight shall lie
His old betrothed (but despised);
So disguise shall by th’ disguised
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Angelo, Mariana
Page Number: 3.2.269-282
Explanation and Analysis:

After craftily conversing with characters through his disguise a friar, the Duke utters this soliloquy on false virtue. He focuses on Angelo's crimes, without considering the hypocrisy of his own deception and the way he is hiding his own truth underneath his priestly appearance. 

Here, the Duke also attempts to offer a solution to this play's problem of false appearances. He suggests that "craft against vice I must apply" -- supposedly, wit and intelligent plans might be enough to conquer the sin which grows when men use false "angel" appearances to hide their inner vice. The Duke's plans noticeably use their own form of false appearances, though; he will disguise Mariana, Angelo's own abandoned betrothed, so Angelo believes she is Isabella. Here, the Duke is harnessing female sexuality for his own uses.

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

The tongue of Isabel. She’s come to know
If yet her brother’s pardon be come hither.
But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Isabella, Claudio
Page Number: 4.3.115-119
Explanation and Analysis:

The Duke makes this comment as his plan is rapidly developing. Although a fellow prisoner Barnadine is refusing to die in Claudio's stead, a pirate Ragozine, who has recently died, looked similar enough to Claudio that his head can be sent to Angelo instead of Claudio's. The Duke is relieved by this lucky event, but decides that he will allow Isabel to believe that her brother has truly died, keeping her "ignorant of her good," as God might keep an individual briefly unaware of a lucky turn of fate. This situation reveals the Duke's power; it emphasizes his omnipresence and ability to choose how he shares his knowledge with others.

Yet, his decision seems to derive more from a calculating will than from a beneficent spirit. He is intentionally allowing Isabella to suffer for the sake of his own whims. She might certainly draw closer to God from this situation, making "heavenly comforts of despair," but the Duke is also being duplicitous and manipulative. Yet again, his plan involves controlling a virtuous woman. It is left ambiguous whether the Duke is here acting more as a friar or as a friar-in-disguise -- he acts concerned with Isabella's spiritual life, but also seems to want to draw out the suspense of her ignorance in order to create more drama for his own enjoyment.

Act 4, Scene 4 Quotes

But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no,
For my authority bears of a credent bulk,
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have liv’d,
Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge,
By so receiving a dishonor’d life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had liv’d!
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right—we would, and we would not.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 4.4.25-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelo and Escalus discuss the Duke's letter, which, written as the Duke, asks them to meet him at the gates of Vienna and to order citizens with complaints to present petitions on the street of the city. At the street, the common crossing-place of nuns, dukes, prostitutes -- all individuals -- the play's events promise to reveal themselves.

After Escalus leaves, though, Angelo stops describing his confusion over the Duke's orders and instead provides this soliloquy about his own actions. His (supposed) sexual experience with Isabella weighs heavily on him; in his guilt, Angelo fears that Isabella might speak out against him (although he even thinks about this in a sexual way). Yet he placates himself convincingly, arguing that the solidity of his own reputation, gender, and social rank will protect him from any possible accusations she could present. He still has the appearance of a sinless man, although he believes he is merely another sinner -- like Claudio, the man he believes he condemned to death (and now regrets). Angelo is entrenched in misconceptions; he believes he has killed Claudio and taken Isabella's virginity, which gives deeper meaning to his statement "we would, and we would not."

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

For this new-married man approaching here,
Whose salt imagination yet hath wrong’d
Your well-defended honor, you must pardon
For Mariana’s sake; but as he adjudg’d your brother—
Being criminal, in double violation
Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach,
Thereon dependant, for your brother’s life—
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.
Then, Angelo, thy fault’s thus manifested;
Which though thou wouldst deny, denies thee vantage.
We do condemn thee to the very block
Where Claudio stoop’d to death, and with like haste.
Away with him!

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Isabella, Claudio, Angelo, Mariana
Related Symbols: “Measure for Measure”
Page Number: 5.1.455-475
Explanation and Analysis:

The irony of the play is fully revealed on stage, by the city gates; the Duke openly states that Angelo has indeed committed the same crime for which he sentenced Claudio to death. And so, according to the "eye for an eye" (or, "Measure still for Measure") notion of retributive justice, Angelo should be condemned to death as well, receiving the same judgment that he doled out to others. It is no accident that the Duke, who has manufactured the play's entire plot, here reveals its fundamental irony. The Duke also seems to advocate for its "Measure for Measure" brand of justice. According to the Duke, it is "the very mercy of the law" which cries of "Measure for Measure"; he even curiously associates the term mercy with retributive justice. As we know well, however, the Duke's words are not always what they may seem to be. He is not actually planning to kill Angelo for this "fault," but he can exercise his power and momentarily pretend that he will carry out this threat.