Between his bracing comic clime and the dark tragic pit, Shakespeare, it has been said had a shadowland comprising three of his plays- All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. These are a puzzling cluster of plays that many readers of Shakespeare plainly resent. The apparently negative and amoral character of the plays raising baffling questions life’s many about riddles brings us to the frontiers of modern drama with its Ibsenite mood revealing a domestic and social surface while concealing the fathomless gloom of a tormented soul. Here in these plays, Shakespeare dealt with a problem and in a mood, the essential modernity of which was aptly pointed out by G.B.Shaw: “in such unpopular plays……We find him ready and willing to start at the twentieth century if the seventeenth would only let him.” F. S. Boas considered these plays together with Hamlet as a separate group and was the first to mark them as the problem plays of Shakespeare. While summing up their common characteristics, Boas observes: “We move along dim untrodden parts, and at the close, our feeling is neither of simple joy or pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed…… Dramas so singular in theme and temper cannot strictly be called comedies or tragédies”.
The twentieth-century view about this group of plays, which are variously termed as problem plays, unpleasant plays; dark or bitter comedies and so forth reveals no doubt one very important side of the Shakespearean coin. The irony and cynicism apparent in the plays make laughter even bitter but more than that in all these plays the imaginative endeavour is frustrated by the intellectual intrusion. The other element much talked about is the excess of sex displayed in these dramas and an atmosphere of voluptuousness with its repulsive characters and bawdy language. These comedies, as Charlton put it, are full of greasy matter and they are apt to evoke a complex response and a plethora of critical interpretations.
Measure for Measure which belongs to this group, thematically and chronologically, was more probably composed in the first years of the Seventeenth century, midway between the finest comedies and the great tragedies. The scene is Viena, a city prisoned like Cressida’s Troy. The world painted by Shakespeare is not entirely a dark world but certainly a weak world full of human follies and foibles and the moral weaknesses that the flesh is heir to. The Duke of Vienna in the right oriental fashion of Harun-Al-Rasbid, temporarily abdicates rule in favour of his deputy, Angelo who proceeds to enforce the neglected laws to save the rotting city. Isabella, who comes to plead for his brother Claudio’s life with virtuous Angelo is wronged by Angelo whom her chastity is made a bargain for her brother’s reprieve and the world comes to know what its seemers be. Claudio abandons Juliet with a child by him about to be born and Angelo forsakes Mariana, his betrothed. Ultimately with the Duke reassuming power and Isabella interceding, every offence is pardoned and the happy ending comes with a bridal procession comprising the three pairs Claudio and Juliet, Angelo and Mariana and last but not least, Duko and Isabella.
The story no doubt has an unpleasant ring and there is much greasy matter. Claudio fornicates and Angelo forsakes his love. Bawds and pimps abound and the city boils and bubbles in corruption. Foolish husbands and shrewd women are found in forced wedlocks and are laughed at with scorn. The pervasive gloom of the prison-house and brothel seems, never to leave the atmosphere or when it does, it is only to exchange places with the cold weather of a cloistered nunnery. The critics who find a bitter and cynic Shakespeare in this unpleasant play fighting a central moral problem point out all these as supporting evidence and even go so far as to dub the enskied and sainted Isabella for her rancid chastity. This attitude of the modern critics who describe Measure for Measure as a problem play is best summed up by E. Schanzer in his The Problem Plays of Shakespeare. Schanzer found that the play had (a) a central moral problem and (b) a manner of presentation balancing our moral bearings, making it possible and even probable for the auditor to respond with an uncertain and divided mind. E. K.Chambers also speaks of the seamy side of things, which simply perplexes and offends and refers to the characters of the play as intolerable personages who “pass to an end that is certainly determined by no principles of poetic justice.”
But despite all that one cannot forget Shakespeare’s total outlook on life. There is both discord and harmony in the play with equal emphasis placed on each. The play is almost mathematically divided into two halves. The first half shows the tense contradiction and the second, a sweet reconciliation pervaded by a Christian theme of forgiveness. This duality is reflected in the very title itself Measure for Measure, with its dual connotation, meaning on the one hand weight for weight and on the other, a mutual balancing of extremes. The modern taste naturally favours the antagonism and implicit extremism but is generally indifferent to the idea of this golden mean with the evocation of which the play ends in an atmosphere of religious fervour and forgiveness. Tension to the modern mind is the staple of life and so the critics sometimes project upon Shakespeare their own concept of bitter cynicism running throughout the play. This is, however, being unjust to the play as a whole. The Jacobean audience also was not perhaps so much divided and equivocal in its response to the play as is now imagined by many. Shakespeare in fact denounces none in the play. Neither Claudio nor Angelo is wicked, for one it is common human failing, for the other hypocrisy is mere self-deception. And all the characters evince that wonderful sympathy which is the secret of Shakespeare’s genius.
In fact, the contradictions begin to resolve themselves as soon as we start to look at Shakespeare as a total artist in the process of total development. Shakespeare who took the world as it is and who was less moral than his critics spun off the mingled yarn of life; the good and the evil, lust and love, bawdy tongue and immortal poetry were for him the materials out of which the master artist wove in his great loom of genius the varying patterns of existence and this he did also in Measure for Measure. Even Coleridge called it as Shakespearean throughout. It is indeed, one of Shakespeare’s most impressive achievements and if it misses the mark of a masterpiece slightly, it is certainly a flawed masterpiece preparing the way for King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. Thus stands Measure for Measure, a significant milepost in Shakespeare’s long march to perfection.