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.
Appearance versus Reality ThemeTracker
Appearance versus Reality Quotes in Measure for Measure
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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!
Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!