Shakespeare's play, Measure for Measure, focuses on human morality. The play also explores the question of what kind of sexual conduct is socially acceptable, and what is not. The play depicts various attitudes toward prostitution, promiscuity, and premarital sex. But it also suggests that human laws and perhaps human morality are quite arbitrary and relative.
Measure for Measure considers the need for statutes and laws to govern sexual appetites and ensure domestic tranquility. But it also focuses on the conflict between human actions and human moral values, especially as it is manifest in the issue of seeming and being. The Duke himself notes the difference between appearance and reality as he speaks about his deputy Angelo, who appears to be the perfect deputy and the disciplined (even puritanical) character. Noting Angelos character, the Duke also questions the integrity of his inner and outer worlds:
Lord Angelo is precise; Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses That his blood flows, or that his appetite Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see, If power change purpose, what our seemers be.
Angelo ultimately proves to be a seemer, one whose statements of virtue and self-control do not match his behavior. But to call him a hypocrite misses the mark: he is as surprised at his lust as anyone else, at least at its onset, and he questions his moral status at first. His virtue had always been quite real for him, and his slide into sin catches him off guard. When he finds himself lusting after Isabella, he exclaims with surprise,
What's this, what's this? Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most? Ha! No...
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... objective standards but by what the traffic will bear.
Black, James. "The Unfolding of Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 119-28.
Knight, G. Wilson. Shakespeare and Morality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
Leech, Clifford. "The 'Meaning' of Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Survey 3 (1950): 69-71.
Milward, Peter. Shakespeare's Religious Background. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1973.
New American Standard Bible. Reference ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1975.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. J.W. Lever. London: Routledge, 1995.
Thomas, Vivian. The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problem Plays. London: Croom Helm, 1987.
Wilders, John. "The Problem Comedies." In Wells, Stanley, ed. Shakespeare: Select Bibliographical Guides. London: Oxford UP, 1973.
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