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The main theme of Measure for Measure is that rational rules and regulations are necessary to maintain law and order. In Angelo's eagerness for reform, he demands "measure for measure," which means pure justice, without mercy. His belief is in 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' no matter the circumstances. Measure for Measure speaks about man's action, its results, and the need for mercy, even if there is a strict legal system. Justice has to be tempered with mercy; only then can a government conduct its affairs smoothly.
Hypocrites bring their own destruction. Angelo is the personification of the hypocrite in the play. He condemns Claudio to death for his immoral actions and then proceeds to try and seduce Isabella himself. In the end, he is unmasked for his hypocrisy and begs for forgiveness for his misdeeds. Because of the Duke's mercy, Angelo is spared from the total condemnation he deserves.
Dowden has described Measure for Measure as "serious, dark, ironical", and F.S. Boas has credited the name 'problem play' to it. Measure for Measure does have a note of disillusion and despair, especially in the beginning, since there is a great deal of hypocrisy, blatant debauchery, and a violation of basic principles. "We seem to move along dim and untrodden paths, and at the close, our feeling is neither of simple joy, nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed." F.S. Boas sums the play up very well, with these words. The reader feels pity for Claudio and Juliet, anger at Angelo's behavior, frustration with Isabella's causes, but finally, hope at the Duke's methods of retribution.
Since this play was written in the Jacobean period, which was an age of chaos and confusion, the play is a poignant expression of the "dread of death and horror of life." The play's moral problems causes it to be called a 'Dark Comedy.'