The title of Measure for Measure is taken from the Bible: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (Matthew 7.1 and 7.2). This quotation from Christ's Sermon on the Mount, stating generally that each individual will be judged as harshly as he has judged others, implies that mercy and human sympathy should temper justice.In Mark, the thought is expressed again: "And he said to them, 'Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you'" (Mark 4.24).It is interesting to note that the phrase also appears in one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, King Henry VI, Part 3: "Measure for measure must be answered" (II. vi. 55).
Generally, the title of any work is reflective of the central theme and/or plot of the piece of literature. The title Measure for Measure is truly an explication of the play's theme. The word measure means to judge, and throughout the play, judgment is being made; sometimes mercifully and sometimes unmercifully. Sometimes the judgment is made of others; sometimes the character looks inside and judges his/her own heart.
It is an irony of fate that Isabella sought justice from Angelo, and got the opposite. Subsequently, she demanded justice from the Duke, and received it "measure for measure." The Duke appears to be an exponent of the Mosaic law of justice "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', and that is precisely why he says "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death."
He dispenses his justice measure by measure. That is why, in the end, he is able to pardon Claudio, Lucio, and even Angelo and mercifully fit their punishments measure for measure to their crimes. Only Angelo seems to get off very light; but the Duke explains that a measure of repentance is met with a measure of pardon. At the end of the play, Angelo does acknowledge his misdeeds and begs for forgiveness. The title Measure for Measure is certainly an appropriate one for this play.
The first part of the play dramatizes the measure for measure in a very unchristian way.Isabella comes to Angelo to plead for her brother's life. But Angelo is taken over by his lust while in her presence. He asks whether Isabella would consider a sin to be good, if it were to help someone else; soon, he asks her hypothetically whether she would give up her virginity in order to save her brother. Isabella vehemently insists that she would not, and that she prizes her virginity over even her brother's life. Angelo is angered, and tells her that either she relents, or her brother dies; Isabella grieves that Angelo's good appearance belies the corruption that seems to have taken him over, but is still resolute that she will not sleep with Angelo to save her brother.
Isabella comes to her brother Claudio to ask him get prepared for the execution.The duke then goes apart with Isabella to suggest a plan that he declares will save Claudio and be of some help to Mariana. The latter, betrothed to Angelo, was deserted by him when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Mariana, if she consents, will be a substitute for Isabella in meeting Angelo's demands. Isabella agrees to the plan.
The Duke says that Isabella should go to Angelo immediately, agree to his terms, and ask that the whole thing happen in darkness and be brief. Isabella will send Mariana in her stead, which means that Angelo will have to marry her after all, once it is revealed that he has taken her maidenhood. Isabella agrees heartily to this plan; she will go see Angelo, while the Duke fetches Mariana, and convinces her to go along with the ruse.
Isabella convinces a young woman whom she has just met to have sexual relations under bizarre circumstances with a man who has spurned her. The plan is a strange one, yet the woman gives her consent in a period so short that it would hardly be possible for Isabella to relate even a sketch of the reasons behind the deceit. The duke's lines themselves are strange since they have no bearing upon the current scene, alluding to the deceitful gossip to which persons in great places are subject. The lines in fact seem more appropriate to the duke's reactions in the previous scene to Lucio's falsehoods. It appears that some mix-up has occurred to confuse the scene.
In any case, Mariana agrees to the plan when the duke sanctions it. Significantly, the duke repeats his assurances that the scheme is not immoral or dishonorable since Angelo is Mariana's "husband on a pre-contract" (72).
The duke promises that "disguise shall, by the disguised, / Pay with falsehood false exacting" (294-95). In other words, the duke will punish Angelo's deceit with deceit of his own. The deputy's lust, disguised by counterfeit virtue, and his false promise to save Claudio's life are paid back with the duke's own tricks: the substitute bed partner and Ragozine's head for Claudio's. Angelo gets measure for measure.
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.
Angelo's crime is compounded by treachery. He writes the provost to execute Claudio four hours earlier than his original time and to deliver the head to him. In a sense, Angelo's treachery parallels that of the duke, Isabella, and Mariana. He is deceived by a surrogate bed partner, and he, in turn, deceives the conspirators by reneging on the promised pardon.
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. Thus Isabella and the duke will have the last laugh by providing a substitute head to the deputy.
The measure for measure is also done in the last act.Here after everything is publicly exposed and the Duke proclaims that Angelo must die for committing the same sin as Claudio; Mariana protests this decision, and Isabella's intervention, to ask that Angelo be allowed the mercy her brother did not get, then causes the Duke to let Angelo go. Claudio is fetched from the prison, and the fact that he is alive is revealed to all. Immediately after his appearance, the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, perhaps using her flood of happiness at seeing her brother to secure her quick consent. Lucio is then sentenced to marrying the prostitute he got pregnant, as punishment for slandering the Duke.
The Duke then says for Claudio to be reunited with Juliet, and for Mariana and Angelo to live happily. He calls Isabella to him, since they are to be joined, and calls the play to a close on a 'happy' note.
The main theme of Measure for Measure is that rational rules and regulations are necessary to maintain law and order. In Angelo's eagerness for reform, he demands "measure for measure," which means pure justice, without mercy. His belief is in 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' no matter the circumstances. Measure for Measure speaks about man's action, its results, and the need for mercy, even if there is a strict legal system. Justice has to be tempered with mercy; only then can a government conduct its affairs smoothly.