Measure for Measure


William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure Themes

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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.


The core tensions of Measure for Measure derive from different characters' differing attempts to attain virtue. The most prominent example is Isabella's desire to maintain her virtue while navigating the conflict between her religious devotion and her love for her brother Claudio. However, the play depicts a range of approaches to virtue: at one end is Isabella, who initially seeks to isolate herself from the sins of society and live as a nun, but…

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Appearance versus Reality

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…

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Liberty and Justice

Given the way that appearances and realities are reconciled at the play's conclusion, it is appropriate that justice is a main theme of the work. "Measure for measure" itself refers to the inevitable carrying out of justice: people get what they deserve. The play's conclusion is so satisfying because it rectifies the rampant injustice that preceded and rewards or punishes each character according to his or her moral worth.

This typical poetic justice, however, is…

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Agency and Society

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…

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The Role of Women

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…

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