Measure for Measure


William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure: Style 1 key example

Read our modern English translation.
Act 5, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis:

Shakespeare’s style in Measure for Measure contrasts “high” and “low” characters and their different ways of speaking, emphasizing these contrasts. The various aristocratic characters in the play speak in blank verse, a form of poetry composed of unrhymed iambic pentameter. Further, these characters often end their speech with a rhyming couplet: two lines of a similar length that rhyme and complete a thought. Notice both blank verse and a rhyming couplet in this speech by the Duke, in which he condemns Angelo to death before granting him clemency: 

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

These formal elements lend an elevated and sophisticated quality to the speech of aristocratic characters. The Duke’s speech here, for example, is rhetorically complex and accomplished, full of carefully chosen metaphors, poetic flourishes, and classical references. These are no casual or “off the cuff” remarks, but the official judgements of a civic leader. 

“Lower” or common characters, however, speak in conversational prose full of dirty jokes, misquotations, and slang. This way of speaking marks them as “comedic” characters whose absurdities and foolishness supply much of the play’s humor. Occasionally, these “low” characters even mock and imitate the manner of speech more typical of their “high” counterparts. This contrasting style helps to establish the plot of the story, in which a monarch, the Duke Vincentio, lives for a time among his subjects, the commoners of Vienna, learning more about the city he rules over than he ever could have learned as a distant ruler.