A dark and difficult play, Measure for Measure
has been a popular play since the latter half of the 20th century for its prescient dramatisation of the issues of sexual and political hypocrisy, and the ways in which the state interferes in the private lives of its citizens. Set in Duke Vincentio's Vienna, where poverty, disease and prostitution are rife, Claudio and his fiancée Juliet are arrested for having sex before marriage, and Claudio is sentenced to death. Angelo, the Duke's deputy, who stands in for the Duke whilst he ostensibly goes off on a pilgrimage, enthusiastically endorses the sentence. In fact the Duke remains behind the scenes, watching Angelo as he falls for Claudio's sister Isabella, who comes to beg for her brother's life. Angelo is a wonderful creation, loathsome yet fascinating as he struggles with the double standards of his enforcement of draconian laws whilst lusting after the sister of the man he is prepared to execute, debating "The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?".
No one is spared Shakespeare's withering look at the mores of early 17th-century life, not even the pimps and madams who try to get by in the midst of the Duke's bizarre and coercive disguises and performances. The deeply ambiguous ending of Measure for Measure confirms it as one of Shakespeare's most ambivalent and arguably despairing plays. --Jerry Brotton