Measure for Measure, the last of Shakespeare’s great comedies, is also the darkest of his comedies, and represents his transition to tragic plays. This play differs from Shakespeare’s other comedies, and is in many ways more akin to tragedy than to comedy. In setting, plot, and character development Measure for Measure has a tragic tone, however, because none of the main characters actually loses his life, the play is a comedy.
Almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies have dual localities: the real world of crime, punishment, and responsibility, and an idyllic world, where reality is malleable, and forgiving. For example, As You Like It occurs in both the world of the court, dangerous for almost all of the primary characters, and the forest of Arden, a sanctuary that nurses conflict to resolution. Measure for Measure, on the other hand, offers no safe haven for the characters. They are trapped in the corrupted mire called Venice. Angelo, appointed scourge of the city, lets no person escape his punishing hand.
Painting no “Arden” to provide asylum, Shakespeare gives Measure for Measure a grave tone. The play is more like a tragedy: intense focus on the gravity of the situation with little emotional respite for the reader and characters. Measure for Measure is like a tragedy in plot development, as well. Shakespeare’s earlier comedies pose situations of extreme danger, but through plot development, Shakespeare handles the conflict with a lighter tone. Much is at stake, but he reassures the reader that good will prosper, and evil will not escape some sort of punishment. Measure for Measure is dangerously close to being a tragedy throughout the whole play.
Claudio’s death seems imminent; Isabella will lose either her brother by preserving her chastity, or lose her future as a nun by sacrificing her virginity to the misnamed Angelo; and Angelo, whose hyper-moral reign of terror has no sway over his own actions, nearly perverts the entire plot to his own lust. He nearly succeeds, and it appears as if he will escape punishment entirely. Only in the last scene does Shakespeare provide resolution.
The entire play bears a tragic weight that Shakespeare lifts only in the final moments. This resolution, however, adds only a nominal comedic feel to the play.
The onset of the final scene drastically alters the plot, which seemed as if it would offer no justice; such a “happy” ending clashes with the previous events. The duke, sometimes-sinister mastermind of the plot, forces the final judgment on the characters, and offers little real relief. For example, the duke demands that Isabella, who seemed set on a chaste life as a nun, marry him. The plot has thrown her from one precarious situation to another, and finally she is left with no real option, but to marry the duke. Shakespeare provides no evidence that Isabella wants this, nor does he allow her any real escape from the duke’s demand. In essence, she is in the same position with the duke as she was with Angelo.
The duke, cruelly pretends that Claudio, Isabella’s beloved brother is dead; he pretends to side with Angelo, thereby exacerbating the mental anguish of Mariana and Isabella; he bolsters Angelos confidence that he will escape punishment. Even through the end, the duke acts as a type of watered down Iago, playing on insecurities, and perverting the truth for his own controlling nature. This play hinges between tragedy and comedy. It eventually falls on the side of comedy when the duke reveals that no one shall die.
Finally, Measure for Measure balances between tragedy and comedy in the way the characters react to the twists of the plot. As Anne Barton displays in an introduction to the play, the characters of Merchant of Venice are “absolutists”. Unlike those in typical Shakespearean comedies, the characters in this dark comedy rigidly defend their beliefs.
Angelo never discards his views of premarital sex, even though he demands that Isabella sleep with him. He is determined to root out sexual license in Vienna, and his own transgression cannot dissuade him. Isabella also is more like Shakespeare’s tragic characters than his typical comedic characters. Her protection of her virginity never wavers; not even when her brother’s life is at stake will she relinquish her morals.
Isabella and Angelo are more closely related to Shakespeare’s Othello than they are to Rosalind who constantly adapts to the situation. Whereas Rosalind’s ability to change enables her to affect the plot of As You Like It, Othello’s fierce, short sighted determination sends him reeling through a predetermined fate to a tragic end. Angelo and Isabella, in their stubborn adherence to principles, head for a cruel fate, only avoided through the duke’s manipulation.
Though Measure for Measure ends with no major characters dying, it is only marginally a comedy. The characters, plot, and setting more resemble Shakespeare’s tragedies than his comedies. Shakespeare forces the “happy” ending, and in so doing, announces the end of his comedic works. The darkness of Measure for Measure is a reflection of what is to come; Shakespeares great tragedies.