Are you a Shakespeare enthusiast who’s always been puzzled by the term “problem play”? Or maybe you’re a student who just got assigned to read Measure for Measure and you’re thinking, “What the heck is this all about?” If so, you’ve come to the right place! In this post, we’ll break down the complex world of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure into everyday language, making it accessible and engaging for both newcomers and seasoned fans of the Bard.

Let’s start by getting our bearings. Measure for Measure isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more famous works like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, but it’s still an incredibly rich and thought-provoking play. Often referred to as a “problem play,” it’s a blend of comedy and tragedy, with a storyline that tackles serious moral and ethical issues.

The Story of Measure for Measure


The action of Measure for Measure takes place in the city of Vienna, which has become overrun with vice and corruption. Duke Vincentio, who rules the city, decides to take a break from his duties and leave town. In his absence, he puts a strict judge named Angelo in charge. Angelo quickly sets out to clean up the city, decreeing that anyone found guilty of adultery will be put to death.

Enter Claudio and Juliet, two young lovers who are not yet married but have consummated their relationship. Claudio is arrested for getting Juliet pregnant and is sentenced to die for his crime. Desperate to save her brother, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, begs Angelo for mercy. Here’s where the plot thickens: Angelo, the supposedly upstanding judge, propositions Isabella, telling her he’ll set her brother free if she sleeps with him.

Isabella, surprised and repulsed by Angelo’s offer, refuses. Meanwhile, Duke Vincentio, who’s been secretly spying on his city all along, decides to intervene. He cooks up a plan to catch Angelo in his own trap, giving him a taste of his own medicine, hence the play’s title, Measure for Measure. We won’t spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say that Shakespeare leaves us with plenty of food for thought.

Key Themes in Measure for Measure

One major theme in Measure for Measure is the nature of justice and morality, and the difficulty of applying black-and-white rules to a world full of gray areas. When Angelo enforces the death penalty for adultery, he sets himself up as the ultimate moral authority. But his unethical proposition to Isabella and his hypocritical actions reveal that he too is flawed, just like the citizens he judges so harshly.

Another important theme is the corrupting influence of power. At the start of the play, Duke Vincentio is a benevolent ruler, but he abdicates his responsibility and leaves the city in the hands of the seemingly moral but ultimately corrupt Angelo. The play serves as a warning about the dangers of unchecked power and the need for rulers to be held accountable for their actions.

Finally, the theme of sexuality and gender roles runs throughout the play. Isabella finds herself caught in a moral dilemma, torn between her desire to maintain her chastity as a nun and her love for her brother. Claudio and Juliet’s relationship, outside the confines of marriage, is both a plot device and a commentary on the complexity of human sexuality. On the surface, Measure for Measure may seem like a straightforward story of good versus evil, but Shakespeare’s nuanced exploration of these themes makes it far more interesting and thought-provoking.

Why Should We Care About Measure for Measure Today?

Despite being written over 400 years ago, Measure for Measure is still relevant to modern audiences. Its exploration of the nature of justice, the corrupting influence of power, and the complexities of human relationships are themes that continue to resonate with us today. By grappling with these issues in the context of a compelling story and a cast of fascinating characters, Shakespeare invites us to consider the complexities of our own world and the moral dilemmas we face every day.

Plus, let’s not forget that Measure for Measure is a work of art by arguably the greatest playwright of all time. Shakespeare’s unparalleled mastery of language, his insights into human nature, and his ability to blend comedy and tragedy make Measure for Measure a play that’s well worth exploring.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it – a brief and engaging summary of Measure for Measure and its key themes, in everyday language. If you’re preparing to read or study this play for the first time, we hope this post has given you a helpful introduction. And if you’re a seasoned Shakespeare fan or a student revisiting the play, we hope we’ve inspired you to take a fresh look at this fascinating work, with a greater appreciation for its relevance and complexity.

Happy reading, and remember – Shakespeare is for everyone, not just for scholars or theater buffs. With a little context and a willingness to engage with the text, you’ll find that Measure for Measure (and all of Shakespeare’s plays) can be as entertaining and thought-provoking today as they were in the Bard’s time. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out our other Shakespearean play breakdowns, such as The Tempest and Macbeth.


Leave a comment