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Shakespeare's Measure for Measure as a Problem Play

The play Measure for Measure is called the problem play, because it gives rise to many questions about the characters, themes and other issues which remain very problematic to the very end.The main characters of the play have the contrasting values in their personality,the theme of the play ’measure for measure’ has not been equally applied to all,and the play also touches upon some social,poletical and moral problems.

Problematic characters

In his book, Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896), F.S. Boas calls All's Well that End's Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida, as Shakespeare's problem plays,because it presents as heroes or heroines characters who are seriously flawed in some way and, thus, problematical for audiences used to applauding and identifying with flawless heroes and heroines. For example, the duke is fair and just–but weak. Claudio grovels for his life. Mariana loves Angelo in spite of his egregious behavior. Isabella is admirable for her virtue but censurable for her coldness.

Problematic themes

Today, most critics agree that Measure for Measure has earned its designation as a "problem play"—both because it leaves us with moral issues which remain ambiguous to the end and because it refuses to be neatly classified. The resolution of the themes and debates seems inadequate and, in the final act, the deliverance of justice and completion one expects does not occur. Other definitions have been proposed since, however all center around the issue that these plays cannot be easily assigned to the traditional categories of comedy or tragedy.

Complexities of human life

A problem play reveals a perplexing and distressing complication in human life, which is presented in a spirit of high seriousness. The problem is usually one involving human conduct, as to which there are no fixed and immutable laws. Since human life is complex, problem plays, although structured similarly, are also complex and diversified in nature. Shakespeare, who masterfully depicted life's complications in his plays, wrote several dramas that are considered problem plays.

Problem with justice and mercy

The main problem in the play deals with justice and mercy. Angelo must decide the fate of Claudio, and condemns him to death. Isabella must decide whether it is more important to save a life or save a soul. She justifies her action through her Christian belief of salvation, refuses to accept Angelo's sinful proposition, thereby committing her brother to death and saving her soul. At the end of the play, Isabella becomes the symbol of mercy when she pleads for Angelo, the man who tried to seduce her and who condemned her brother. In a similar fashion, the Duke also reveals his mercy when he pardons Claudio, Lucio, and Angelo; their "punishment" is only to get married and be a good husbands." The Duke feels he hands out appropriate justice based on the nature of the crime, measure for measure. Shakespeare, in fact, seems to be pleading for a more humane and less literal interpretation of the law in Measure for Measure.

Problem with literary genre

It is called problem play also for the fact that the literary form of the play can’t be easily defined. It shows life to be complicated and exposes the worse sides of human existence. The problem plays have neither the humor of the comedies nor the redemption of the tragedies. Like a comedy, Measure for Measure ends in multiple marriages but not with unqualified joy. There is no ‘feel good’ factor to Measure. It ends in irresolution rather than with songs or dances.

Most critics have argued that the play is a comedy because of its happy ending. However, it is not called a romantic comedy since there is no spirit of adventure or joyous abandon, which are the hallmarks of the romantic comedies. Here, intellect rather than imagination drive the action of the play. And in the end, it is rather a dark comedy, where there are glimpses into the oppressive gloom of the prison and the oppressive deceit of the human heart. Measure for Measure is a drama of ideas, and it is the ideas that are the problems. At the spiritual level, excessive zeal is corrupted to pride, and cloistered virtue subordinates charity to chastity.
It is definitely difficult to categorize Measure for Measure. At best, it is probably called a tragicomedy, since the play offers a tragic theme but with a happy closure.

Deals with the social and political problems

“Measure for Measure” has been classified a “problem play” by many scholars, partly due to Shakespeare’s prowess in confronting the problems plaguing society. Definitely in ‘Measure for Measure,’ there is discussion of political corruption, sexual politics, hypocrisy (and) meaty social issues.”

In view of the overriding importance of religion and the spiritual life in early seventeenth-century England, and in view of the control exerted over both religion and morality by the State in this era when Parliament actually debated the death penalty for premarital sex, it is easy to see how Measure for Measure might capture its audience's interest. One such issue is the division of opinion about the role of government in shaping the morality of citizens. For those who regard such governmental action as intrusive, the duke may seem intolerably meddlesome in his interference in the lives of his people; for those who want government to act in the defense of conventional morality, the duke may be understood as properly exerting himself to impose standards of moral behavior on his people.

Problem with the two worlds

There are two worlds to this play: worlds of nuns and brothel madams, strict officials and perverse prisoners, moral severity and tawdriness. “Measure for Measure” concentrates on these opposing worlds and their intersections: the places where the subversive underbelly of Vienna touches the ethically austere surface. “As the play goes on you realize that there are lines connecting these two worlds, tendrils that never really were broken,” Manganello said. “Each of the worlds encodes the other one.”

Because of its peculiar transitions between disquieting subject matter and bouts of jolly jesting, “Measure for Measure” is also considered a problem play in the sense that it’s difficult to perform. But it’s no problem for this production: The jarring shifts only serve to highlight the actors' abilities and Shakespeare’s craftsmanship in emphasizing the main themes.

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