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 eventually ends up reaching a compromise that saves Claudio while still preserving her purity. In the middle lies Claudio, who does not patronize brothels and seeks to wed Juliet legitimately; however, he lacks the willpower to abstain from consensual, premarital sex. On the more liberal end are characters like Mistress Overdone and Pompey, who perpetuate and profit from Vienna's prostitution problem. Finally, there is Angelo, who on one hand embodies fervent uprightness through his draconian enforcement of moral codes, but on the other hand willingly indulges in the same sorts of sexual misconduct that he punishes in others. Worst still, he, unlike most other characters, is actively dishonest about his behavior. While Mistress Overdone and Pompey readily admit to their professions, Angelo tries to mask his deviance by enforcing moral codes with an iron fist.
These characters' respective fates illustrate that virtue is not achieved through inflexible orthodoxy, but rather through sincerity. Angelo's unyielding compulsion to impose virtue on himself and others turns him into a hypocritical despot and precipitates his downfall. By marrying the Duke, Isabella ultimately ends up straying from her monastic intentions, but her choice was clearly the just course of action, compared with her initial impulse to consider Claudio's execution an acceptable consequence of his transgression. The Duke, too, is willing to make some moral compromises by using trickery to mislead his subjects, but he prevails because he makes these compromises in the pursuit of greater virtue. And less-than-pure characters like Claudio and Mistress Overdone escape the worst consequences because they, unlike Angelo, are sincere and upfront about their misbehavior. Thus, Shakespeare demonstrates that a genuine moral compass is a far more virtuous attribute than the unyielding adherence to and enforcement of a given moral code.
Virtue Quotes in Measure for Measure
We have strict statutes and most biting laws
(The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds),
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.
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.
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.
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!
Might there not be a charity in sin
To save this brother's life?
O, were it but my life,
I’d throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin.
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.
Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!
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.
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!