English Literature » Notes » Why is “Measure for Measure” considered a ‘dark comedy’?

Why is “Measure for Measure” considered a ‘dark comedy’?

Alternate question: “Measure for Measure”  as a Dark Comedy of Shakespeare.

What is Dark Comedy?

A dark comedy is pervaded by a gloom. It is still a play with a happy ending; and it contains also several comic scenes and interludes; but the comic elements in such a play are pushed into the background by the tone and atmosphere of seriousness and gravity. Despite the comic elements, such a play seems to have been written in a pessimistic and even cynical mood.

Measure for Measure as a Dark Comedy

Measure for Measure presents the picture of the rotten, corrupt and immoral society of Vienna, a society where people are so depraved and degenerated that even a brother does not feel hesitant to prostitute his sister and where women do not hesitate to use chastity as bait to entrap lovers. The play unfolds the dark, hidden, pernicious and despicable aspects of human character. With these dark sides of human character dealt with, the play ceases to be a comedy and becomes graver and more serious than a tragedy. So the phrase “dark comedy” rightly categorizes the play.  An attempt is made below to present some textual situations to justify the label “dark comedy” for the play, Measure for Measure.

The play begins with a mysterious note that generates a sense of gloom among the readers. Soon the play opens we come to know that the Duke wants to leave the country but he does not state why and where he will go. The social condition of the city suburbs where Mrs. Overdone and Pompey live shocks the reader. Mrs. Overdone is a prostitute living, an inhuman existence for want of customers due to war, plague, and poverty. Claudiois arrested and awarded death penalty because of making a young maiden pregnant without marrying her. The arrest of Claudio and his death penalty not only shock the people but also terrify them. According to the text, like Claudio and others also committed such crimes in the past, but they were not punished. Claudio is the first man to be punished to death for making an unmarried woman pregnant. Thus the beginning of the play presents the decayed condition of Viennese society.

Claudio’s moral degradation is not limited only to making a young unmarried woman pregnant. His filthiness reaches the height when he tells his sister Isabella to agree to satisfy Angelo’s sexual lust to save his life. We lose words to estimate this hateful man who tries to prostitute his own sister for his interest. The play is further darkened by Isabella’s and Mariana’s roles. Isabella agrees to satisfy Angelo’s sexual lust but sends in her place Mariana to do the same with Angelo. She saves her virginity at the cost of Mariana’s. The reader is further shocked at her silence when the Duke proposes to marry her although she is training to be a nun.

Mariana uses her chastity as a bait to entrap her former lover Angelo and thus to force him to marry her. This is obviously a mischievous plan which cannot be supported on any moral standard. Lucio is another morally depraved character which reveals the dark side of Viennese society.

From the beginning to the end of the play a tragic vein engulfs the audience. Human nature in the play has been depicted in a most unflattering and colorless light. Considering all these aspects of the play we can say that Measure for Measure is truly a dark comedy.

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