Measure for Measure

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Appearance versus Reality Theme Analysis

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.
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon

On a superficial level, there are numerous instances throughout the play in which appearances belie the truth of a situation. This is encapsulated in the concept of dramatic irony, a term that refers to situations in which the audience knows essential information that on-stage characters do not. Ironic cases of mistaken identity appear throughout the work, such as the Duke's disguise (and Lucio's unintentional denoucement of him to his face), Isabella's switch with Mariana to seduce Angelo, and Angelo's mistaking the pirate's head for Claudio's. In each case, characters misconstrue a situation based on its appearances.

In addition, however, there are deeper disjunctions between appearance and reality. One example is the hypocritical do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do morality that Angelo exhibits. This is the ugly side of dissimulation, which allows the least virtuous characters to seem the most upstanding, at least for a time. The opposite scenario, however, is found in Isabella's personal dilemma: in order to rescue her brother Claudio, she must appear to disregard her religious vows. In other words, in order to behave justly, she must appear to behave unjustly—an exact inversion of Angelo's deceitful behavior. Similarly, the provost must ostensibly disobey his oath to Angelo and the Duke by sending the head of a pirate to convince Angelo that Claudio has been executed—but yet again, it turns out that his apparent misbehavior was in fact the correct, virtuous course of action. Even the Duke himself must deceive others in order to restore order to his state. This disconnect between appearance and reality is what propels the play's plot. It is important to observe, then, that the play's denouement ensures that each case of deceiving appearances is rectified, particularly through the comeuppance Angelo receives.

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Appearance versus Reality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Appearance versus Reality appears in each scene of Measure for Measure. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Appearance versus Reality Quotes in Measure for Measure

Below you will find the important quotes in Measure for Measure related to the theme of Appearance versus Reality.
Act 1, Scene 4 Quotes

The Duke is very strangely gone from hence;
Bore many gentlemen (myself being one)
In hand, and hope of action; but we do learn
By those that know the very nerves of state,
His givings-out were of an infinite distance
From his true-meant design. Upon his place,
And with full line of his authority,
Governs Lord Angelo, a man whose blood
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense;
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
With profits of the mind: study and fast.
He (to give fear to use and liberty,
Which have for long run by the hideous law,
As mice by lions) hath pick’d out an act,
Under whose heavy sense your brother’s life
Falls into forfeit; he arrests him on it,
And follows close the rigor of the statute,
To make him an example.

Related Characters: Lucio (speaker), The Duke, Angelo
Page Number: 1.4.54-72
Explanation and Analysis:

After we see the Duke disguise himself as a friar, Lucio goes to Claudio's sister Isabella, another individual who is only partially a member of the clergy. Isabella is in the process of becoming an authentic nun, however, so she acts as a model of piety and goodness. To Isabella, Lucio summarizes the situation so far: the Duke has left "very strangely" and mysteriously (disguising his "true-meant design") and his replacement, Angelo, has already sentenced Claudio to death for his generally minor offense of impregnating his betrothed Julia. 

Lucio echoes Claudio's conviction that human actors in command arbitrarily and unfairly use their own liberty to pick (or "pluck") sinful individuals. Then, these authoritative actors punish their chosen sinners, removing their sinners' liberty to "make" their sinners "an example" for the broader community. He also further characterizes Angelo, the figure who represents this flawed form of justice, as a man without spontaneous  human feelings. Angelo seems to be a man driven only by law and reason, instead of the variations and ambiguities of human passion.


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Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny
The jury, passing on the prisoner’s life,
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice,
That justice seizes. What knows the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? ’Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t,
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offense
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Claudio, Escalus
Page Number: 2.1.18-2.1.33
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelo's reply to Escalus's suggestion for greater mercy and forgiveness becomes a detailed unpacking of many tensions. We are introduced to the notion that temptation and sin are two separate phenomena; again the inconsistencies between the internal and the external figure prominently. Angelo also directly addresses the prevailing concern that justice can only be partial and humans cannot punish all sinners, in order to fully act out heaven's rulings. To Angelo, this is certainly reality. Yet, he suggests that individuals who enforce justice are duty-bound to punish all sins which are revealed. Although a human society cannot fully act out heaven's justice, it can fully act out its own to the best of its abilities. It can fully enforce all wrongdoings it sees, undiluted by merciful tendencies, so that it completely acts out its own justice and "nothing" will "come in partial."

Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself,
That skins the vice o’ th’ top. Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life.

Related Characters: Isabella (speaker), Claudio, Angelo
Page Number: 2.2.164-171
Explanation and Analysis:

As Isabella pleads her brother's case to Angelo, she begs Angelo to be merciful, but not always using wholly religious words such as mercy and forgiveness. Fittingly, she is the figure which reminds Angelo of his heart; she will again unintentionally do this when she unwittingly inspires Angelo to fall in love (or at least lust) with her. Though she is the individual with the most virtue, Isabella claims that Angelo also has a kind of virtue, a "kind of medicine" within himself. He can choose to refrain from making harsh choices. 

Isabella asks Angelo to recall his own "natural guiltiness" and past transgressions. She introduces the notions of human experience and emotion -- passion, frailty, and reality -- as she virtuously pleads for mercy in her brother's case.

O cunning enemy, that to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 2.2.217-223
Explanation and Analysis:

After Isabella begs him to reconsider, and spare her brother's life, Angelo confronts his sudden passionate attraction to her. The tensions of the play begin to unravel; Angelo contemplates his lust "to sin in loving virtue" and claims that the "cunning enemy" uses "saints" to fulfill his aims. Sin and virtue become hopelessly entangled, as the "virtuous maid" incites him to the very acts which Claudio committed, and for which Angelo condemned him.

Another contrast, that between reason and human impulse, becomes a flawed binary as well. Angelo has been our character of the law, our strict dictator who seems to wholly lack human passion. Yet he is the character who becomes infatuated so immediately, in an event which any reasonable individual would think could "never" occur. 

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.

Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 2.4.184
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelo ends his conversation with Isabella by refusing to be intimidated by her threat to share his offer to her with the rest of society. Angels knows that, in this social context, appearance would trump reality; Angelo has built up a solid reputation as an honest and moral character over time, and after so long, this reputation for goodness would be enough evidence to disprove any charges Isabella might place against him. Character can accrue over time, and individual circumstances are always compared and measured against past histories and records. Furthermore, as a woman in this society, Isabella's word is automatically considered less important and reliable than the word of a man, particularly a well-known nobleman like Angelo.

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

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 1 Quotes

Nor, gentle daughter, fear you not at all.
He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together ’tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit. Come, let us go,
Our corn’s to reap, for yet our tithe’s to sow.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Mariana
Related Symbols: “Measure for Measure”
Page Number: 4.1.78-83
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Duke encourages Mariana to follow his plan, he uses the language of sin and virtue to appease any doubts or concern she might have. He tells Mariana to "fear ... not" because sexual intercourse with Angelo is supposedly not sinful; Angelo "is" Mariana's husband, at least "on a pre-contrast." This social relationship is, however, remarkably similar to that between Isabella and Claudio, who were also betrothed to marry. This underscores the ways that laws, and rules become altered and rewritten in the changeable social sphere of Measure for Measure. The Duke appeals to the "justice" of this social relationship and social contract as a reason that Mariana could have intercourse with Angelo without being sinful. Then, he closes the scene with a typical rhyming couplet, again alluding to the idea of "measure for measure," and seemingly unconcerned by the moral ambiguity his comment is creating. 

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

By mine honesty,
If she be mad, as I believe no other,
Her madness hath the oddest frame of sense,
Such a dependancy of thing on thing,
As e’er I heard in madness.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 5.1.68-72
Explanation and Analysis:

The play's final scene opens by the city gates, with Isabella accusing Angelo to the Duke Vicentio, as the Duke himself (disguised in friar form) earlier bid her. Angelo attempts to suggest that Isabella is mad, but Isabella relies upon this play's tension between appearance and reality to make clear her sanity (and Angelo's guilt): "even so may Angelo, / In all his dressings, characters, titles, forms, / Be an arch-villain." This explanation seems to satisfy the Duke, who is no stranger to deception, as he himself was in costume throughout the play (except for the very first and very last scenes).

Of course, the Duke does not actually need this explanation, as he has manufactured Isabella's petition and earlier told her what to say. In this scene, the Duke is engaging in a deception of his own once again here; his vow "by mine honesty" does not signify much.

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.