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MEASURE FOR MEASURE AS A PROBLEM PLAY
A problem play reveals a perplexing and distressing complication in human life, which is presented in a spirit of high seriousness. The problem is usually one involving human conduct, as to which there are no fixed and immutable laws. Since human life is complex, problem plays, although structured similarly, are also complex and diversified in nature. Shakespeare, who masterfully depicted life's complications in his plays, wrote several dramas that are considered problem plays. In his book, Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896), F.S. Boas calls All's Well that End's Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and Hamlet as Shakespeare's problem plays. In Hamlet, the problem is clearly psychological; in Measure for Measure, it is clearly moral.
The main problem in the play deals with justice and mercy. Angelo must decide the fate of Claudio, and condemns him to death. Isabella must decide whether it is more important to save a life or save a soul. She justifies her action through her Christian belief of salvation, refuses to accept Angelo's sinful proposition, thereby committing her brother to death and saving her soul. At the end of the play, Isabella becomes the symbol of mercy when she pleads for Angelo, the man who tried to seduce her and who condemned her brother. In a similar fashion, the Duke also reveals his mercy when he pardons Claudio, Lucio, and Angelo; their "punishment" is only to get married and be a good husbands." The Duke feels he hands out appropriate justice based on the nature of the crime, measure for measure. Shakespeare, in fact, seems to be pleading for a more humane and less literal interpretation of the law in Measure for Measure.
1) Isabella's refusal to save her brother and sell her soul is reflective of the Christian understanding of eternal salvation.
2) Isabella's plea for Angelo is said to be motivated by Christian forgiveness and the need to love one's enemies.
3) The Duke's role throughout the play of controlling and leading events towards a happy conclusion makes him seem like a divine image of providence.
4) The Duke's action of testing Angelo and then Isabella is reflective of God testing his servants by submitting them to trial and tribulation.
5) Angelo is personified as the devil incarnate. He condemns a man to death and then proceeds to further condemn himself by propositioning Isabella, actually believing he has slept with her.
In a comedy, the ending is always happy and ties up all the loose ends. In this problem play, the Duke appears at the appropriate hour and solves everybody's problems.