Measure for Measure is one of the dark comedies or problem plays of William Shakespeare . In this group of plays, we find Shakespeare confronted with some practical problems of life— generally with the problem of evil in daily life—and we find him also trying for a comic solution but net often getting it.
As a result, the comedy gets rather dark and an atmosphere of cynicism seems to emerge. In the present play, the thesis seems to build up round the problem of combining authority with mercy and justice for the purpose of eradicating the evils of a corrupt society.
Measure for Measure is one of the most brilliant of Shakespeare ’s comedies, but the laughter is bitter. It does not deal with people as they would like to be but as too many of them are, and it can be called a comedy chiefly because it has a happy ending. Represent to this school of critics sure signs of a cynical revolt in the mind of the man known as William Shakespeare , who only bodied forth his feelings in an essay on cynicism that goes by the name of Measure for Measure.
This view is challenged by others, notably in recent times, by C. J. Scisson and the poet W. H. Auden. Scisson in his British Academy lectures entitled The Mythical Sorrow of Shakespeare argued the opposite view admirably well and challenged the thesis that the author’s personal life in all its phases and periods is reflected faithfully in all that he writes. In that case Goethe in his first flush of youth could not write his The Sorrows of Young Werther (German: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) an epistolary, loosely autobiographical novelnor could Coleridge pen at the age of thirty his famous Ode on Dejection. In that view of things the whole of Greek drama including those of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides would remain practically unexplained. Nearer home, we cannot explain our own Tagore following this biographical principle in full.
The difficulties, however, can be resolved by resort to the view of the total Shakespeare and the whole process of his artistic development. He was an Elizabethan and he was also the universal man and there is no inherent contradiction between the two. He had as great a moral and intellectual frame as his great contemporary and by the strength of his genius he could rise above the dissimilitude of life to portraying immortal ink a whole eternity in poetry and drama. And that only he tried to do in Measure for Measure which remains a great achievement, a flawed masterpiece. Those who clamour against cynicism and Isabella should not forget that there is also a strong Christian theme in Measure for Measure as so powerfully argued by G. W. Knight and others that the name of the play comes from a biblical parable. That the play just stopped short of a masterpiece is not due to its cynicism but from a possible flaw in technique which failed to masterfully the available materials for the play—for Shakespeare was still maturing and the hand of glory was preparing its master strokes for the tragedies to come.
In this corrupt society of Vienna, the Duke has been conceived as the self-appointed moralist who observes with amused detachment the process of putrefaction from which he keeps himself away temporarily. In so with drawing himself from the world of Vienna, the Duke takes to many shifts and devices, which clearly exhibit that even the moralist has a very imperfect notion of morality of his Dukedom. If we appreciate this background of the play, the Duke will appear to be much less of a puzzle that’ he is thought to be by many critics.
The main charge against the Duke is that he is an enigmatic character. His retirement from kingdom, his installation of Angelo as deputy and his perambulations in his kingdom like a Harun Al-Rashid are cited as examples of this puzzle. A Quiller Couch opines that the Duke who begins well ends as a stage-puppet— a wearisome man, talking rubbish’. Wilson Knight admits partly the puzzling character of the Dukes but holds him also as the lord of the play comparing his position to Prospero of The Tempest W. W. Lawrence thinks that he is both a puppet demanded by the plot and the directing force of the play. To M. Murry the Duke is the symbol of a divine justice.