Though Measure for Measure ends with marriages like a conventional comedy ,the play contains many dark and tragic elements. The characters and plot of the play are linked by tragic themes and pose troublesome moral questions to the audience.In fact ,for this combination of the tragic and comic elements Measure for Measure has frequently been termed a “Problem Play”. Scholars have argued that the play is a comedy only by the force of the contrived happy ending. Its theme, characters, and action are tragic, and only the manipulations of the duke, who acts as a deus ex machina, bring the play to a happy conclusion. The eloquent poetic passages on the ephemerality of life and the fear of death's unknown realm are cited as indications of the tragic style.Coleridge called it a painful play made of disgusting comedy and horrible tragedy.
The play combines the comic and tragic conventions
Measure for measure contains both the elements of a comedy and also the elements of a tragi-comedy. Comedy in Shakespeare's time was chiefly identified by its happy ending.Other conventions of romantic comedy of the seventeenth century included an idealized heroine, love as the basic theme, and a problem brought to happy conclusion. In this respect the play is a comedy.
But the play can also be called a tragicomedy.Tragicomedy offered a tragic theme with a happy close brought about by the intervention of a deus ex machina. Conventions included characters of noble rank, love as the central theme (its ideal forms contrasted with the vulgar), disguise, and virtue and vice thrown into sharp contrast. Clearly, Measure for Measure might fall into either category and may reasonably be considered both romantic comedy and tragicomedy.
The tragic elements in the play
The first half of the paly is vary much tragic in nature, both in the darkness of the issues presented, and the depth of characterization.The main tragic plot is introduced in the second scene of the play when Young Claudio is arrested at the command of the new deputy Angelo for getting Juliet with child before they are married. Fornication is forbidden according to a law that has been allowed to sleep; Angelo reactivates the law and throws Claudio into jail.Claudio is to be executed some three days hence, at the command of Angelo.He is impervious to the entreaties of Claudio's friends and others, and indifferent to Juliet's fate. This deputy, uncompromising and assured of his own virtue, seeks to literalize the Bible’s warning that “the wages of sin is death”, usurping divine prerogatives for the State. He condemns the pregnant young woman to prison, and her lover to the executioner’s block, certain that “Tis one thing to be tempted…another thing to fall”.
The first tragic plot brings the second tragic plot of the play.In Act 2,Scene 2 Isabella,Claudio’s sister arrives to beg the deputy to reconsider her brother's sentence.She makes requests by making direct reference to Christran forgiveness. Christ, she declares, who was in a position to judge us all, showed mercy: Angelo should do likewise. The allusion to the Sermon on the Mount is clear: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Mark 4.24). But it is the law, according to the deputy, that condemns Claudio.Isabella then turns to the aspect of the case mentioned earlier in this same scene by the provost: "Who is it that hath died for this offence? / There's many have committed it" (88-89). Still, Angelo is determined to enforce the law, which he says has been long asleep. Isabella's grief drives her to fine tragic poetry. She compares Angelo to a tyrannous giant. "Man, proud man, / Drest in a little brief authority" (17-18) is too proud of his power to show mercy.
But in the course of their conversation Angelo is completely bewitched by Isabella. Having never before experienced an erotic passion he is quite unprepared for the havoc which lust now wreaks within him. Angelo stands firm but finally suggests that Isabella return on the following day. After her departure, his closing soliloquy reveals that he has been shaken by the temptation her maidenhood represents.Thus the audience suspensefuly waits for further tragic happenings.
In Act 2,Scene 3 Isabella arrives to ask Angelo's decision with regard to her brother. Angelo at first states that he must die, then hints subtly that he may yet be saved. His hints become broad, but still Isabella fails to take his meaning. Finally, the deputy asks what Isabella would do if by surrendering her body she might save her brother. In her response, the reader sees again the fine tragic poetry that Shakespeare gave Isabella in the earlier scene between herself and the deputy: "As much for my poor brother as myself: / That is, were I under the terms of death, / The impression of keen whips I'ld wear as rubies" (II. iv. 99-101). Isabella is trapped. She cannot accuse him openly since his reputation would back up his denial. She has no choice but to go to her brother with the story so that he may prepare himself for his execution.
Isabella finds herself being sexually blackmailed by the seemingly upright judge: her virginity for Claudio’s survival.This is an essentially tragic motif. The corrupt judge’s abuse of power makes all authority suspect. Claudio, young and terrified of dying, abandons his code of honor and begs his sister to save him by submitting to the rape. Isabella, faced with this double masculine betrayal, rebukes Claudio cruelly, and thus fails in the Christian charity she espouses. All three characters are in crisis. There seems no remedy to the tragic dilemma: either a life must be lost, or a soul destroyed.
Deus ex machina
Then suddenly, the Duke, disguised as a friar, intervenes (III, ii, 151) and the rest of the play is “comic” in the sense that solutions are found to each dilemma.A substitute bedmate – Mariana - once contracted to the Deputy, is disguised to take Isabella’s place with the lustful Angelo. A substitute head is found to replace Claudio’s when Angelo breaks his word and goes forward with the execution. Angelo's moral position is now far worse than that of any of the others: Planning to deflower a novice-nun, he has ordered her brother's execution to cover up his own crime — a particularly serious form of murder, in fact.
The tragic intensity reaches to the point of climax in Act 4,Scene 2.Here the provost informs Claudio that he is to die on the following day, along with a condemned murderer. The duke arrives, expecting to hear of Claudio's pardon, only to be on hand as a letter is received from Angelo urging an early morning execution. The duke, however, persuades the provost to spare Claudio, sending the murderer Barnardine's head in his place.
Later Barnardine is found unready to die and it is decided that another prisoner’s head ,who has died of a fever will be a substitute, and Barnardine will be hidden along with Claudio. When Isabella arrives, the disguised duke allows her to think that her brother's execution has gone forward. He tells her that the duke is returning and she must be present at the gates along with Angelo in order to reveal the truth and have her revenge.
Thus the tragic atmosphere is carried to the final scene of the play ,in which everything suddenly ends in seemingly happy manner. In the final scene, virtually everyone is to be married and no one is killed, not even the murderer Barnadine. However,many scholars and audience members find the Duke’s wholesale justice dubious.
The play ends in marriage for Angelo and Mariana, Claudio and Juliet, and the Duke and Isabella. Even Lucio will probably be forced to marry a prostitute whom he has impregnated. This is a traditional ending to comedies, and it provides somewhat of a conclusion, at least suggesting that all the characters are about to embark on another phase in their lives. However, it is not really a happy solution for Angelo or Lucio, who would rather remain bachelors. Isabella's willingness to marry is also unlikely, since she wanted to be a nun.