Measure for Measure

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The Role of Women 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.
The Role of Women Theme Icon

Although the play's characters are almost all plagued by a general lack of agency, the female characters are disproportionately constrained. While some men, like Claudio and Angelo, are able to flout social mores—albeit with varying degrees of success—it is difficult to find a woman who defies social proscriptions. Mariana, for example, appears to be coerced into complying with the Duke's ruse to seduce Angelo simply because she lacks any acceptable alternative. Betrothed but unmarried, she occupies a social gray area. Her most plausible motivation for sleeping with Angelo is to legitimize the relationship that he abandoned. After her would-be marriage to Angelo is consummated, Mariana is restored to a conventional role in society, instead of the uncertain and precarious position she occupied before. 

Isabella, too, is constrained by societal expectations. She is paralyzed when her two roles—sister and nun—entail conflicting obligations. Tension mounts as it begins to seem increasingly inevitable that Isabel will subvert one of these sets of obligations, but Mariana's convenient cooperation neatly resolves the dilemma. In this way, Isabella, too, is unable to defy the station society has given to her. Even the play's ending suggests that she has little choice but to marry the Duke and continue operating very much within the strictures of society.

While the constraints faced by other female characters are not described in much detail, other characters' conduct makes it clear that Viennese women are similarly lacking in agency. Lucio's contemptuous attitude towards prostitutes, for example, indicates there is little, if any, room for women to deviate from the roles assigned to them by male-dominated society.

The Role of Women ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Measure for Measure related to the theme of The Role of Women.
Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

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. 


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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.

Might there not be a charity in sin
To save this brother's life?

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella, Claudio
Page Number: 2.4.67-68
Explanation and Analysis:

As Angelo attempts to convince Isabella to commit herself to sexual intercourse with him, he suggests that he would spare her brother if Isabella offers herself to him in this way. Before, Angelo expressed in speech the new entanglements between good and evil, virtue and vice, and appearance and reality; now, his actions (in his attempts to convince Isabella to engage in sexual actions with him) attest to these as well. 

Angelo suggests that, as a virtuous woman, Isabella has much to offer. She could choose to selfishly preserve it, until she fully commits to the nunnery and offers it to God, or she could use it to save her brother. Isabella could condemn her own soul through intercourse outside of wedlock, or she could condemn herself in order to un-condemn her brother. This suggestion does not merely use female virginity as a bartering tool; it suggests that moral depravity and consequence is transferable between individuals more broadly. Virtue and vice is entrenched in social networks and exchanges, as well as custom and law. The significance of the title "Measure for Measure" begins to become clearer, even as the moral compass of the play grows more confused. 

Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die forever.

Related Characters: Isabella (speaker), Claudio
Page Number: 2.4.114-116
Explanation and Analysis:

To Isabella, moral consequences are not easily transferred among individuals, as Angelo now suggests they are. She is not merely entrenched in systems of circulation and exchange; she is also dedicated to particular religious tenants. According to her Christian beliefs, the life of one's soul is far more important than the life of one's physical body. Thus it would be better for her brother to physically die than for her to spiritually die, thus condemning herself to an eternity in Hell.

Isabella is repulsed to the suggestion that saving her brother's life would justify losing her virginity. Her sexual purity is an intrinsic aspect of herself which, lost, would alter her beyond measure. 

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

O, were it but my life,
I’d throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin.

Related Characters: Isabella (speaker), Claudio
Page Number: 3.1.117-119
Explanation and Analysis:

As Isabella speaks to Claudio in prison, she reveals that Angelo has offered to spare Claudio's life if Isabella will have sex with him. Claudio's immediate response is to state that Isabella will not "do't" -- she will not sacrifice her virginity for her brother's life. Isabella feelingly agrees, claiming that she would "throw it [life] down" "as frankly as a pin" in order to save her brother. Once again she values the soul far more than the body. Further, she only implies that she will not even consider saving her brother through having sex. This hesitancy to even speak directly about this topic suggests the layers of privacy and secrecy which surround female sexuality and religious chastity.

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. 

Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging.

Related Characters: Lucio (speaker), The Duke
Page Number: 5.1.596-597
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly before the play ends, the Duke orders Lucio to marry the prostitute ("punk") whom he impregnated. This is how the Duke chooses to punish Lucio for speaking so slanderously about the Duke while the Duke was absent -- or so Lucio thought. (Of course, the prostitute herself never appears, and her feelings on the matter aren't considered.) Thus we end the play with sex and the law entwined, just as we began the play with Claudio being punished according the law because of his sexual "deviance." Here, a character is also being forced to confront a consequence for associating with prostitutes. Prostitution, a continuous undercurrent of the play, is now brought into contact with the Duke's public and authoritative proclamations.