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Sexuality in Measure for Measure

This paper discusses specific questions about the way in which Shakespeare handles sexuality in this, one of his darkest comedies. (5.5 pages; 1 source; endnotes)


“Measure for Measure” is one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. It’s the last of his comedies, and a very dark “comedy” it is too, particularly because of the disturbing last scene. All the loose ends are tied up, but the resolution seems forced and inappropriate, particularly as Angelo, who has behaved abominably, apparently finds happiness. One critic suggests that Shakespeare was tiring of comedies at the time, and that “Measure for Measure” looks forward to the great tragedies rather than back to the fun of the earlier works.

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In addition, the main characters are not particularly likeable: Angelo is revealed to be a hypocrite and sensualist, and the Duke gives Angelo the dirty work to do in enforcing unpopular laws while he disguises himself as a friar to see how his subjects react to the new regulations. Angelo, in effect, will be the one who takes the blame.

The scene is Vienna, and Shakespeare never shifts from that locale. In many of the other comedies, there are two principal locations: the real world and a heightened world in which extraordinary events take place: Athens, and the enchanted wood outside the city in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for example. But here Shakespeare stays in the city, exploring its corruption and focusing on the sensuality of the Viennese and the problems it causes. It gives the play a more realistic, even claustrophobic, feels than we get in the other comedies, which allow us to escape from reality.

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Perhaps because it is realistic, sexuality is the keynote of the play; I would argue that most humans think about sex more than anything else, and that preoccupation is certainly present here. Angelo becomes obsessed with Isabella, a young nun; Isabella’s brother Claudio has impregnated his common-law wife Juliet, and her pregnancy has resulted in his death sentence; and the Duke, inexplicably, falls in love with Isabella. There is a character named “Mistress Overdone” who is the madam of a house of pleasure, and who doesn’t disguise her occupation. Shakespeare’s plays are often very bawdy, but they are also frequently full of true love and captivating lovers: Romeo and Juliet; Beatrice and Benedick; Antony and Cleopatra. These lovers are attracted to each other sexually, but it is only part of a larger relationship; in “Measure for Measure” sex is much more in the foreground.

This paper asks these questions with regard to “Measure for Measure”: whose sexuality is scrutinized and by whom; what attempts are made to control sexuality and what is the result of those attempts; and does the play represent sexuality as a public or private concern?

Sexual Scrutiny

The character whose sexuality is most closely examined—in fact, the entire play turns on it—is Angelo. He is regarded as a man of severity, an icy, puritanical individual who has no sexuality at all. Furthermore, he interprets the law with meticulous exactitude; he has no sense of mercy or justice, he merely knows exactly what the law is, and carries it out without mercy. Of course, Angelo’s absolute certainty about his duties, as well as his well-known purity and abhorrence of anything remotely sensual, are suspect from the beginning. He’s too good to be true, and when confronted with his first real temptation, Isabella, he falls apart.

Angelo is particularly despicable, yet he escapes punishment. He tells Isabella flatly that if she sleeps with him he’ll let her brother go. With the help of the Duke, Isabella and Mariana set up a meeting at midnight. Angelo goes and makes love to Mariana, thinking that she’s Isabella—and then (apparently) has Claudio executed despite the fact that she kept her bargain, at least as far as he knows.

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Angelo is clearly exposed as a man driven by lust, as well as a liar and someone whose word means nothing.

There are some genuinely funny moments in the play when Isabella tells Claudio that she can free him if she sleeps with Angelo, but she’s not going to do that; he’s going to have to die to save her honour. Of course, she says, you understand and approve, and you wouldn’t have me do such a dishonourable thing. Actually, says Claudio, I would, if it would keep my head on my shoulders! The supreme irony is that Claudio is to die for fornication—the same “sin” that Angelo just committed with Marina.

Controlling Sexuality / Results of Control Attempts

There are two people in the play who are absolutely controlled (perhaps “repressed) is a better word: Angelo and Isabella. Angelo, thinks he’s above the sex drive that motivates other men. As we’ve seen, he’s not—and when he meets a woman he desires, he’s overpowered by his own sexuality, which is that much stronger for having been denied.

Isabella, who was about to become a nun, instead turns maniacal in the last scene, admitting to the entire court that she slept with Angelo (that’s not true of course, but she is willing to humiliate herself to get back at him). It’s as if she has no middle ground with respect to sexuality: she’s either a pure virgin offering herself to God, or she’s completely hysterical, making accusations and admissions in public, and shaming herself in the process. In her case, the repression of her natural sexuality leads to an inability to deal realistically with her situation.

Sex: Public or Private?

The sexuality in the play is both public and private, though there is more emphasis on the public aspects of sexuality than the private ones. While individual relationships are carried on in private (we don’t see Claudio and Juliet, Angelo and Mariana or the Duke and Isabella in any love scene), the effects of their love-making become the subject of the play, and as such move sexuality from the privacy of the bedroom to the centre of the stage. Claudio is sentenced to die because he makes love to Juliet; it is this act of love that actually sets the play in motion and brings Isabella to plead with Angelo.

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Angelo’s reaction to Isabella and his cold-blooded “deal” are made in private, but the result is Angelo’s public humiliation by the Duke in the last scene. Likewise, Mariana’s relationship with Angelo, which is a well-kept secret, is also made public at the end of the play, and he is forced to marry her. Thus, sexuality is both hidden and revealed, and when it is brought into public view, the results are usually explosive.


“Measure for Measure” will always be a difficult play, because it doesn’t end as we think it should: Angelo marries Marina, but then he was betrothed to her before. Claudio and Juliet are reunited and Isabella and the Duke are apparently to be wed (a development that comes from nowhere). But there is a sense that nothing much has changed; that the city and its administration remain corrupt, and that sexuality will continue to be as much a weapon as it is a pleasure.

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Sexuality in Measure for Measure. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved November 30, 2021, from