In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare is able to examine the concept of right and wrong through the characters of Mistress Overdone and Mariana. Throughout the play, by using characters that most people would find morally reprehensible, Shakespeare is able to give the audience a different view of these people and, hopefully, show his audience that people aren't always what they appear to be. Through the character of Mistress Overdone, Shakespeare is able to bring a jovial side to the oldest job known to man -- prostitution. Through the character of Mariana, Shakespeare allows the audience to decide if two wrongs do, in fact, make a right. While the concepts of right and wrong are given a twist in this play, Shakespeare, in the end, allows his audience to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong.
At the beginning of act one, scene two, Shakespeare uses the bawd, Mistress Overdone, to convey to the audience that Angelo is enforcing the fornication laws of Vienna. While this seems like the more moral, and more right, action to take, Shakespeare puts a twist on what the audience would normally view as a clear cut case. In lines 79 - 81, Mistress Overdone explains to the audience the effects of these new policies. So, while it seems right to shut these businesses down, the audience now is shown that prostitution is this lady's livelihood and her way for making money. However, who is to decide if the "moral benefits" of eliminating the public display of prostitution is in the best interest of the city? By posing this question, Shakespeare forces the audience to consider both sides of the issue to, in the end, make some decision.
In England, during that time...
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... While, of course, this play does not say that Shakespeare was in favor of prostitution, it does force his audience to see these people as individuals and not objects. Likewise, by introducing the description of Mariana, Shakespeare challenges the idea of something always being right or wrong. Through the two characters, Shakespeare is able to have his audience challenge their ideas of right and wrong and force them into justifying these decisions.
Sources Cited and Consulted
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.
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.
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