True Lies and False Truths: Measure for Measure and the Gospel


The title of Measure for Measure comes from a prominent gospel saying of Jesus: 'judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again'. Biblical references pervade this play, which more than any other of Shakespeare's is constructed like a medieval allegory. Characters are named for abstractions. Vincentio, who is addressed only by his title of Duke, means 'conqueror'. His stand-in, Ludowick, signifies 'famous warrior'. Angelo is 'deputy or messenger of God'. Escalus suggests the scales of justice. Isabella means 'consecrated to God' or 'beautiful soul'. Mariana refers to the 'bitterness of suffering' as well as the intercessory mother of God. Lucio recalls Lucifer, the fallen angel of light and mocking father of lies.

Measure for Measure has the design of a biblical parable. It ends with the lesson of forgiveness implied in its title and taught by many of Jesus' parables, including those of the woman taken in adultery that concludes, 'Let him that is among you without sin cast the first stone at her' (John 8: 7), and of the foreman in which a man is punished for harsh judgements (Matt. 18: 22–35). The play's plot line follows that of the parable of the talents (Matt. 25: 14–30) and of the vineyard (Matt. 21: 33–43) in which departing masters test, observe, and return to distribute reproof and forgiveness. Jesus states that in these stories the master stands for God and the servants for humanity. In the oblique style of parabolic discourse, Shakespeare also hints that his Duke represents the Lord. The play's terse opening dialogue—' Escalus | My Lord'—recalls God's summons of Abraham: 'And after these things God did prove Abraham and said unto him, "Abraham." Who answered, "Here am I"' (Gen. 22: 1). When the Duke reveals himself to Isabella at the end of the play, she apologizes like Job: 'O give me pardon | that I your vassal, have employed and pained | Your unknown sovereignty'. (5.1.382–4) When Angelo is unmasked and exposed to judgement he says, 'O my dread lord! . . . I perceive your grace, like power divine | Hath look'd upon my passes' (5.1.363, 366–7). Like the gods of King Lear and the book of Job, the God figures of Measure for Measure and the gospels are hidden from the people they tempt, torment, and test. But rather than remaining utterly remote, in these stories they adopt disguises and mingle with those who invoke their names but fail to recognize their presence.

The First Folio places Measure for Measure among the comedies, fourth after The Tempest. Many critics have labelled it a 'tragicomedy' because of the deepening atmosphere of evil in its first half, but the play has a happy ending in which the blocking law that divides and condemns is abrogated, the errors that created the plot complications are unfolded, and the social order threatened at the beginning appears to be regenerated. 'Measure for Measure' in this sense is a comic formula—like 'tit for tat' or 'quittance'—by which poetic justice is achieved. Other comic conventions used in Measure for Measure include secrets and disguises that the audience knows but that characters are blind to, the exposure of a hypocritical puritanical killjoy, and a resolution in which opponents are reconciled, crimes are forgiven, and the drive toward marriage overcomes reluctance from many quarters.

With its happy ending in affirmation of community, redemption of debt, resolution of confusion, overriding of law, and fulfilment of desire, the Christian Bible is also a kind of divine comedy, as suggested by its alternate title of Gospel or 'Good Tidings'. The New Testament is an addition, regarded by Christians as a completion or fulfilment that redirects the pessimistic final movement of the Hebrew Bible toward a happy ending and gives the book as a whole a 'U-shaped' tragicomic plot. Individual gospel narratives share this tragicomic structure. After a downward trajectory toward crucifixion and death, they conclude with resurrection and the return of the departed hero to a triumphant community of new believers. Matthew's gospel also utilizes the comic convention of secret knowledge hidden from most characters but available to the audience, and it creates a gallery of killjoy hypocrites in the Jewish priests and Pharisees. Luke's gospel concludes with a plea for forgiveness for sinners, including those who maligned, conspired against, and betrayed the hero. Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, concludes with the vision of an allegorical marriage.


Measure for Measure also contains elements of a history play. Its opening lines suggest an intention 'Of government the properties to unfold' (1.1.3). It chronicles the effort of Duke Vincentio to strengthen the state against external and internal threats. Like Henry V, he needs to gain control over both enemies and allies in order to achieve his end, but unlike Henry, this 'conqueror' relies upon the means of persuasion and dissimulation rather than warfare and physical punishment. The gospels also are a kind of history. Like the five books of the Pentateuch, which narrate the origins and growth of God's first chosen people and their state, the five opening books of the New Testament chronicle the formation and early development of the new chosen people and their 'kingdom of heaven'. 'We use this name (Gospel) for the histories, which the four Evangelists write', states the Introduction to the Geneva Bible's New Testament. On its title page appears the same engraving and motto as on its Old Testament's: 'The Lord shall fight for you: therefore hold you your peace', Exod.14, vers.14. At the beginning of the gospels, Jesus is born into the genealogy of David, 'king of the Jews'. And though his kingship is denied by the Jews, at the end it is accepted by a new community recruited from the whole of the Roman Empire: 'All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go therefore and teach all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost' (28: 18–19).

Such resemblances of plot, character, theme, and genre between the Bible and Measure for Measure have been questioned as often as they have been noted. Many critics acknowledge a significant link between Vincentio and the God of the New Testament, but they disagree as to whether Shakespeare intended to portray him as a benign embodiment of divine power, a malicious abuser of it, or a mere mortal who aspires to be God and fails. Disagreement like this seems appropriate to a play associated with the Gospels, for these biblical books are also works of controversy, embattled and battling texts in which the events narrated, the interpretation of those events, and the interpretation of earlier texts remain in contention. Consistent with scriptural references and parallels in his other plays, Shakespeare's work allows for both sides in these debates to be true, like the Bible itself providing a basis for the wide range of readings found by his contemporaries—readings pious, sceptical, and profane. Though tracking the sustained match between Vincentio and the New Testament God may not make the Duke more appealing to those who find him incompetent or immoral, it does make sense out of a play that is often regarded as severely flawed.


Identifying himself with God through a paraphrase of Jesus (Matt: 5: 14–16), the Duke selects Angelo to shine forth in virtue: 'Heaven doth with us as we with torches do' (1.1.33). He makes him the dispenser of 'mortality and mercy' in Vienna and hastily departs. The Duke's secret purpose, revealed to the audience in the third scene, is 'to strike and gall' the unruly citizens by appointing a harsh deputy to enforce the laws that he himself has allowed to 'let slip', and at the same time to test the Deputy's integrity once he's been given the Duke's authority, in order to 'see | If power change purpose, what our seemers be' (1.3.53–4). Friar Thomas—named after the doubting disciple (John 20: 25)—is extremely dubious about this plan, as have been many critics, for it seems both politically impractical as well as ethically compromised. Nevertheless, the Duke's plan resembles the strategy of God the ruler trying to govern recalcitrant humanity with prophets, judges, kings, and a nation of priests while at the same time testing his chosen deputies.

That plan is expounded early in the Hebrew Bible and even more clearly in Paul's retelling of Old Testament history in his epistle to the Romans. He says that 'God gave [the people] up to their heart's lusts, unto uncleanness, to defile their own bodies between themselves' (Rom. 1: 24). 'Because that when that they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations' (1: 21). '. . . Men though they knew the Law of God, how that they which commit such things are worthy of death, yet not only do the same, but also favour them that do them' (1: 31). The second scene of the play pictures this situation. Lucio and his friends flaunt their disobedience:

LUCIO Thou concludest like the sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the ten commandments but scraped one out of the table.

SECOND GENTLEMAN 'Thou shalt not steal'?

LUCIO Ay, that he razed.


They take pleasure from knowing the law and mocking it. The Duke appoints his deputy Angelo to control them.

In the Bible, after repeatedly failing to discipline unruly humanity with expulsions, curses, floods, and linguistic confusion, God appointed Abraham and his descendants, the Jews, to serve as his chosen deputies. They were to be the bearers and enforcers of the Law he gave to Moses—a nation of priests, the righteous among the Gentiles (Exod. 19: 6). Angelo attempts to cast his light and carry out this role by issuing a proclamation razing the brothels and imposing capital punishment for sexual infractions. That proclamation is modelled on the Old Testament law advocated by Puritan divines who expressed the wish that Moses' death penalty would be restored for punishment of lechery. But, according to Paul, God's initial strategy failed. The law cannot be effectively or fairly applied by God's deputies: 'for by the Law cometh the knowledge of sin' (Rom. 3: 20).

An analogous failure is demonstrated in the response of the Viennese revellers. The deputy's crackdown creates not compliance but reactions of contempt, hostility, and fear towards the law. Lucio calls for an appeal to the Duke; Mistress Overdone frets for her lost business; and Claudio sees the judgement upon him as tyrannical and harsh:

The bonds of heaven: on whom it will, it will

On whom it will not, so; yet still ‘tis just

  .  .  .  .  .

Our natures do pursue

Like rats that raven down their proper bane

A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die.

(1.2.114–115, 120–2)

Here he alludes to Romans 9: 18: 'he hath mercy on whom he will and whom he will he hardneth'. Glossing such predestinarian sayings about God's own part in the transgression of sinners, the Geneva Bible states, '. . . as the only will and purpose of God is the chief cause of election and reprobation'.

After a comic interlude displaying the failure of the justice system in Vienna, Act 2, Scene 2 reveals the corruption of magistrates by the dual evils of legalism and hypocrisy. Rather than adhering to the spirit of the law to administer equity as Escalus recommends, Angelo sticks to the letter and rejects Isabella's plea that mercy be extended to her brother. The law's power of condemnation kindles his desire for more power, and he demands that she yield to him and commit the very sin for which she pleads forgiveness. Angelo fails the same test that God imposes on his chosen people. They prefer the niceties of ritual over the spirit of righteousness, and their kings, such as Saul, David, Solomon, Ahab, repeatedly abuse power in pursuit of women and wealth. Echoing the condemnations of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Paul excoriates the Jews for this failure: 'Thou that say’st, a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? . . . thou that gloriest in the Law, through breaking the Law dishonourest thou God' (Rom. 2: 22–3). These Old Testament Jews are the forerunners of the Pharisees whom Jesus accuses of the same sin: 'for outward ye appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity' (Matt. 23: 28).

Isabella's request for mercy seems to counter Angelo's legalism. But at this point in the play, she is no less bound by the law than he is. Even though she cites principles stated by Jesus and Paul, her arguments for forgiveness are just as corrupt as Angelo's for justice. She begins by admitting that what her brother did 'is a vice I most abhor | And most desire should meet the blow of justice' (2.2.29–30) and that she comes to engage in special pleading. It is only with the indecent promptings of Lucio—'you are too cold. . . . Ay touch him; there's the vein. . . . to him wench he will relent. | He's coming I perceiv’t' (2.2.58, 72, 127–8)—that she warms to the task. Her appeal to the true Christian principle of redemption is tainted by her unconsciously seductive language: 'Go to your bosom; | Knock there and ask your heart what it doth know | That's like my brother's fault. . . Hark how I'll bribe you'; (ll. 140–2, 149).

This seductiveness induces the Deputy to consider a pardon, but also for wrongful purpose: exchange for her relinquishing the 'sweet uncleanness' of her body (2.4.53). No less than the sanctimonious pirate, both Angelo and Isabella are bound by what Northrop Frye calls the 'humours of different kinds of legalism'. In order for them to be freed, 'the law must not be annulled or contradicted but transcended; not broken but fulfilled by being internalized'.

In contrast to this convoluted incident of deepening corruption, the next scene displays the beginnings of a straightforward solution to the failures of the law—the preliminary movement of 'gospel' or good news. In spite of his love for 'the life removed' (1.3.8), the departed Duke returns to Vienna to observe and also to aid his fallen subjects, disguised as a humble Friar. Having confirmed that his first deputy is unable to carry out his mission, the Duke creates a replacement, initiating an ongoing strategy of double substitution. The second substitute will be reliable because it is actually himself in disguise. This premiss may seem far-fetched, but it makes good theatrical sense by creating an elaborate plot complication which deepens spectators' suspense. It also parallels the strategy of the New Testament God, who takes on the disguise of a human in order to observe, judge, and substitute for his first failing replacement—the Jews. Paul explains the gospel story of the incarnation of Jesus as just such a disguise: 'Who being in the form of God . . . made himself of no reputation, and took on him the form of a servant, and was made like unto men, and was found in shape as a man' (Phil. 2: 6–7).

'Bound by my charity and my blessed order, | I come to visit the afflicted spirits | Here in the prison. . . . that I may minister to them' (2.3.3–8) announces the Friar, echoing the account of I Peter 3: 19—'he also went, and preached unto the spirits that were in prison'. His first encounter is with Juliet, Claudio's fiancee. He determines that unlike any of his other subjects, she has a true allegiance to the law, for she admits her culpability, 'takes the shame with joy' (2.3.37), and welcomes punishment as her due. Recognizing that she has herself found satisfaction, he absolves her, as Jesus healed 'the poor in spirit' (Matt. 5: 3), who made no pretence of righteousness (Matt. 8: 2–8). Were all those the Friar or Jesus encounters to react similarly, there would be no more drama of salvation.

In the next scene, however, the plot thickens and curdles. Angelo's confession of his own sin of lust leads not to repentance but self-division:

heaven hath my empty words,

  .  .  .  .  .

God in my mouth,

As if I did but only chew his name,

And in my heart the strong and swelling evil

Of my conception.

(2.4.2, 4–7)

The conflict is specifically focussed on sexual desire: 'Blood thou art blood. . . . dispossessing all my other parts | Of necessary fitness?' (2.4.15, 22–3). His writhing soliloquy echoes Paul's entrapped humanity: 'what I would, that do I not, but what I hate that do I (Rom. 7: 15). I delight in the law of God concerning the inner man, but I see another law in my members . . . leading me captive . . . to the law of sin' (7: 22–3).

Angelo follows the law of sin in his equivocating proposition to Isabella, urging her to submit to him for the same false reasons she had brought forward in defence of her brother. Caught in a similar Pauline contradiction—'At war twixt will and will not' (Measure 2.2.33)—she is forced to admit that her earlier pleadings were inconsistent with her own principles and asks for his pardon. His response distills the play's biblical concern with the way expression clouds the distinction between sincerity and hypocrisy: 'we are all frail' (2.4.122). Admitting his own sinfulness and yet hiding it from her, these words lead him not to forgiveness but exploitation: 'Be that you are; | That is a woman. . . . show it now, | By putting on the destined livery' (2.4.134–8).

When she finally understands his drift, she resorts to the legalistic but also criminal tactic of blackmail, threatening to indict him for criminal extortion unless he agrees to 'Sign me a present pardon for my brother' (2.4.152). He counters this threat with an even more pharisaic response: his official position guarantees that she will not be believed, and unless she yields he will have her brother tortured to death (2.4.154–9).

The return of the Friar in the next scene again produces a contrasting atmosphere of teaching, healing, and forgiveness. He comforts the despairing Claudio by convincing him that the death sentence he is under is no real threat since the life that it would take is no real life:

Reason thus with life.

If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing

That none but fools would keep.

  .  .  .  .  .

What's in this

That bears the name of life?

(3.1.6–7, 38–9)

In the chapter following the description of the law as the agency of sin and death, Paul similarly argues that 'For they that are after the flesh, favour the things of the flesh. . . . For the wisdom of the flesh is death' (Rom. 8: 5–6). Repudiating life, says the Friar, liberates the spirit: 'Be absolute for death; either death or life | Shall thereby be the sweeter' (3.1.5–6). At the end of his long speech Claudio agrees: 'I humbly thank you. | To sue to live, I find I seek to die, | And seeking death, find life. Let it come on' (3.1.41–3), echoing Jesus' advice to the disciples: 'He that will save his life, shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake, shall save it' (Matt. 10: 39).

Claudio does not retain his newfound comfort outside his teacher's presence. The Friar leaves to eavesdrop, and Isabella enters the cell to tell Claudio of Angelo's 'loathsome ransom'. When he hears there is a chance his life can be spared, Claudio backslides into subjection to the law of death and sin, fleeing the former and embracing the latter:

Death is a fearful thing.

  .  .  .  .  .

Sweet sister, let me live.

What sin you do to save a brother's life,

Nature dispenses with the deed so far

That it becomes a virtue.

(3.1.116, 134–7)

Like Isabella's to Angelo, his pleas for mercy here are false, because they are based on fear rather than faith. Under pressure of the same law, Isabella reacts in kind: 'Die, perish! Might but my bending down | Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed. | I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death, | No word to save thee' (ll. 145–8).

She is guilty not because of her choice to preserve her chastity and refuse the cruel bargain, but because of her righteous malice that now, like Angelo's, would condemn her brother to death.


This is the low point of the story, at which three souls have succumbed to their particular weaknesses and fallen into corruption. The letter of the law without the spirit of compliance has created an impasse in which magistrate rules as criminal, the plea for mercy becomes wheedling temptation, the love of life collapses into dread of death, and the tie of siblinghood turns into exploitation and recrimination. To some critics, these negative outcomes cast doubt upon Vincentio's identification with God. Louise Schleiner states the Duke's 'test results are so discouraging [that] all assertions of divine authority are undermined'. Anne Barton sees their falls as instances of the 'error and miscalculation . . . rife in [Vincentio's] plot'. But in the Bible, such temporary failures of God to achieve his purpose—whether as Jehovah or Jesus—occur repeatedly, from the fall of Adam and Eve, to the backslidings of the children of Israel and their kings, to the betrayals of Judas and the other disciples. There they are attributed not to God's incompetence but to humanity's frailty, disobedience, or treachery. Barton observes that 'reality is more unpredictable and insubordinate than the Duke suspects; his efforts at scripting are frustrated and he responds with arrangements and patchings'. As additional evidence, she presents the later interlude with Barnardine, a condemned prisoner who obdurately refuses to comply with the Duke's plan to offer him as a ransom for Claudio. However, the failure of this scheme makes the Duke more rather than less Godlike. Barnardine recalls Barabbas the murderer, whom the Jews refuse to accept as a ransom for Jesus, and also Peter, who sleeps through his master's hour of need. 'Unfit to live or die; O gravel heart', says the Duke as the prisoner rustles in his straw refusing to be awakened (4.3.61). 'Sleep henceforth and take your rest', says Jesus to his snoring disciples, and the Geneva gloss remarks on his sarcasm: 'He speaketh in a contrary sense, meaning they should anon be well wakened' (Matt. 26: 45).

The very analogy that Schleiner uses to discredit the Duke's improvisations brings him further into line with his biblical model: the failures of his earlier schemes 'force him to imitate the legal astuteness of the Pauline God who "found out a remedy" with a kind of divine lawyer's trick'. Orthodox commentators such as Wilson Knight, Battenhouse, and Sarah Velz link this dramatic moment, when the disguised Duke takes direct control over the action, to the moment when God, the ruler who has entered human history disguised as a man, takes upon himself the project of human salvation by fulfilling the demands of the law himself. As Claudio renews his wretched pleading, he is interrupted by the Friar coming out of hiding. Having heard of Angelo's fall and witnessed both Isabella's and Claudio's, the Friar shifts roles from observer, teacher, and healer to active participant in the 'government' of his subjects.

The Friar first rescues Claudio with a half-truth. He takes him aside and says that Angelo's offer to Isabella to spare him in return for sex was only a test of her chastity and that the death penalty is unavoidable. This restores Claudio to the confidence of his recent conversion—'I am so out of love with life that I will sue to be rid of it' (3.1.173–4)—and enables him to be reconciled with his sister before he departs. Next the Friar turns to Isabel to embark on a more elaborate scheme which he promises will solve many problems at once: 'To the love I have in doing good a remedy presents itself. . . . You may most uprighteously do a wronged lady a merited benefit, redeem your brother from the angry law, do no stain to your own gracious person, and much please the absent Duke' (ll. 200–5).

The word 'remedy' resonates with Isabella's invocation of the gospel story of Christ's atonement on the cross for the sins of humanity, in her earlier appeal to Angelo: 'Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once | And He that might the vantage best have took | Found out the remedy' (2.2.75–7). The Friar's allusion to this remedy recalls Paul's enthusiastic reversal from the despair of the law of sin and death to the 'good news' of justification by faith: 'It is God that justifieth, who shall condemn? . . . we are counted as sheep for the slaughter. Nevertheless, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him that loved us' (Rom. 8: 33, 36–7). The individual who accepts God's love and control, according to Paul, '. . . will cry "Abba, Father"' and will recognize that 'the same spirit beareth witness with our Spirit, that we are the children of God' (8: 15–17). Accepting the Friar's invitation, Isabella replies, 'I have spirit to do anything that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit. . . . Show me how good father' (3.1.207–9, 240).

The Friar's remedy turns out to be a bed trick. Angelo's former fiancee, Mariana, is to sleep with Angelo disguised as Isabella. This plan creates a wrenching shift of register from theological tragedy to fabliau. But the dirty story is a clean version of the 'foul redemption' that the man 'whose blood is very snow broth' (1.4.57) demanded from Isabella as ransom for Claudio's body, and it produces an apt payback for Angelo as well as for Isabella. Participating in this sexual game without actually losing her virginity is 'Measure for Measure' exchange for her legalistic obsession with chastity. The body substitution at the heart of the bed trick constitutes a comic version of the ransom story of atonement at the centre of gospel theology: 'Even as the Son of man came . . . to give his life for the ransom of many' (Matt. 20: 28). Though this typological connection between bed trick and divine ransom may seem remote, it was familiar to a Renaissance audience exposed to texts that likened the prostitute Mary Magdalen to the dying Christ and to biblical stories of Tamar using a bed trick to conceive Judah's child, Laban using a bed trick to keep Jacob as his farmhand, and the Holy Spirit surreptitiously taking the place of Mary's husband to bring about the Incarnation.

After a survey of the corruption in the prison and a taste of Lucio's slander of legitimate authority—the obverse of Angelo's hypocrisy—the Friar summarizes the condition of humanity: 'there is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it. . . . This news is old enough, yet it is every day's news' (3.1.480–9). In a speech composed of epigrammatic couplets he explains the 'cure', which requires a twofold 'dissolution' of goodness. He will dissolve the surrogate authority conferred upon his deputy by taking back 'the sword of heaven' (l. 517), and he will restore order himself with means as 'dissolute' as his subjects: 'To draw with idle spiders' strings | Most ponderous and substantial things | Craft against vice I must apply' (ll. 531–3). Following the formula of comic justice, he will trick the trickster: 'So disguise shall by th’ disguised | Pay with falsehood false exacting . . . (ll. 536-7). His own use of the legalism and deception he has condemned in his subjects is a means justified by the outcome: 'the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof' (3.1.259–60); the deception is to be 'a physic that's bitter to sweet end' (4.6.78).

Dissolving goodness to restore it or employing craft against vice, also figures prominently in the gospel story. Paul says, 'we approve ourselves as the ministers of God . . . by honour and dishonour . . . as deceivers and yet true' (2 Cor. 6: 4, 8). Jesus says to his disciples: 'Behold, I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and innocent as doves' (Matt. 10: 16). Near the midpoint of Matthew's gospel he tries to explain to his disciples why he speaks to the people in riddling parables: 'because they seeing, do not see: and hearing they hear not, neither understand. For this people's heart is waxed fat, and their ears are dull of hearing, and with their eyes they have winked' (13: 13–15). In the same position as the prophet Isaiah whom he here quotes, he knows that those who need his teaching most are least capable of accepting it. Therefore, he must proceed by secrecy, indirection, and dissimulation, confounding his allies as well as his enemies.

To enlist cooperation, the Friar partially discloses his true identity to the Provost. He shows a letter with the Duke's hand and seal, announces the Duke's impending return, and allays the Provost's doubts: 'Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be. All difficulties are but easy when they are known' (4.2.203–5). These assurances echo God's preliminary disclosures of his identity with Jesus: 'a voice out of the cloud, saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear him." When the disciples heard that, they fell on their faces and were sore afraid. Then Jesus came and touched them, and said, "Arise, and be not afraid"' (Matt. 17: 5–7).

Yet the Friar continues to deceive Isabella. To her anxious query about her brother, he replies, 'His head is off, and sent to Angelo' (4.3.113), disappointing her with the failure of his promise and teasing the audience who have just seen the dead Ragozine's head offered as a substitute. Anne Barton faults the Duke for devising 'special tests' to satisfy 'a scientific curiosity as to how [she and others] will behave under stress'. But the God of the Bible makes a habit of using such tricks to test and strengthen the faith of his own loyal followers such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Job. And Jesus tricks his disciples: while they are out in a boat, he terrorizes them with a storm, spooks them by walking across the water, and lures Peter into nearly drowning himself before delivering them from the lake (Matt. 14: 24–34). Not until the end of the play will it become clear that another reason the Friar lies to Isabella is to wean her from the pharisaical righteousness that converts frustration and grief into a desire for revenge. Earlier she directed that desire against her brother, whose death she ardently wished for. The Friar's lie allows her to experience the pain of satisfying that wish. Yet it also tempts her once again to channel frustration into a violent desire for vengeance against Angelo. To Ludowick's counsel, 'Show your wisdom, daughter, in your close patience. . . . give your cause to heaven' (4.3.115, 121), she responds, 'O I will to him and pluck out his eyes' (4.3.116). This desire must be fully surfaced before it can be purged.

In the next series of apparently random incidents, the Duke-Friar increases his control over everyone, just as God takes greater control of the action when Jesus approaches Jerusalem. From Lucio, he elicits more actionable slander and an unwitting confession to impregnating Kate Keepdown (4.3.166). Like Jesus mystifying the priests and setting them to argue amongst themselves (Matt. 21: 23–5), he confounds Escalus and Angelo with letters announcing the Duke's return. In Act 4, Scene 5 the Duke himself makes a low-key appearance to direct Friar Peter, a substitute for his substitute Friar Ludowick, who of course cannot be there when the Duke himself is present. A similar third level substitution is carried out in the gospel of Matthew shortly before Jesus enters the city. 'And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church . . . . And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in Heaven' (Matt. 16: 18–19). It is immediately followed by the charge 'that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ' (16: 20). Just as Jesus' disciples express confusion about what is to come as they are sent on various errands, Mariana and Isabella express fright and puzzlement before Friar Peter gives them their entrance cues and places to stand.

These scenes stake out the different perspectives from which different actors and the audience will observe the play's denouement. Along with Angelo, Mariana, and Isabella, the audience is privy to the secret of the deputy's guilt, which is hidden from everyone else but the Duke and his assistants. Along with Mariana and Isabella, the audience is privy to the secret of the Friar's bed trick and his plan to expose the deputy, hidden from Angelo and everyone else. Along with the Duke, whom the audience alone has just seen on stage, it is privy to the secret making him the Friar, which is hidden from Mariana, Isabella, and everyone else. But neither the audience nor anyone on stage is yet privy to the secret of why the Friar keeps Isabella in the dark about Claudio's death and what his veiled 'full purpose' is in requiring her to lie to the Duke (4.6.1–8). This elaborate arrangement of sight lines and obstacles highlights the Duke's omniscience. Though others remain in varying degrees of darkness, nothing is hidden from him. The contrast between his knowledge and their ignorance consolidates his control over his formerly unmanageable allies and enemies, concluding a progressive revelation of his omnipotence from beginning to end of the play.

A similar effect is generated by the development of multiple perspectives in the Bible: those of the crowd of Jews, of the Pharisees and scribes, of the Roman officials, of the disciples, of the reader, and of Jesus, who, though he seems to know a great deal, sometimes does not understand what God has in mind. At its very centre, the gospel of Matthew considers the split between those who are in on the secrets of the text and those who are not. 'Because it is given unto you, to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath' (Matt. 13: 10–13). According to the renaissance platonist Pico della Mirandola, 'Jesus . . . proclaimed [the Gospel] to the crowds in parables; and separately to the few disciples who were permitted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, openly and without figures. He did not even reveal everything to those few, since they were not fit for everything, and there were many things which they could not endure until the coming of the spirit taught them all truth'.


The complex and often confusing grand finale which follows these preparations in Measure for Measure is arranged as an expanding set of climactic conflicts and revelations that parallel the gospel's equally complex final story of God's entry into Jerusalem, his confrontations with Pharisees and Romans in large public trials, his mistaken identity, his humiliation, and his final self-disclosure and triumph. In both narratives, what appears to be a net closing around the heroes will turn out to be a net closing around their antagonists.

The fifth act begins with the Duke's grand entrance to the city, paralleling Jesus' entrance to Jerusalem. Vincentio's greeting to Angelo is interrupted by Isabella's sudden demand for 'Justice, justice, justice, justice' (5.1.25). She calls the Deputy 'a murder . . . an adulterous thief, | An hypocrite, a virgin-violator; (ll. 39–41). Although she and the crowd believe she challenges the Duke, he and we understand that she has been indirectly coached by him via Friar Peter. The Duke seems to defend Angelo from these accusations, toying with him and seeking like Polonius, 'by indirections [to] find directions out' (Ham. 2.1.63), pressuring him either to come clean or to condemn himself further. This form of entrapping interrogation is a favourite of the Bible's God. He uses it on his sinful deputies: Adam and Eve and Cain (Gen. 2: 9–11, 4: 9), Joseph's brothers (Gen. 42: 7–38), and David (2 Sam. 12: 1–7). In Matthew, God arranges for Jesus to mount an attack similar to Isabella's just after coming to the city. In the presence of large crowds he goes into the temple, upsets the tables of the money changers, and drives out those who are buying and selling (21: 12–13). As Isabella is questioned by Angelo and Escalus, Jesus is asked by the chief priests and elders, 'By what authority dost thou these things? And who gave thee this authority?' (21: 21). As Isabella sets Angelo, Escalus, and the Duke arguing, he 'set them arguing amongst themselves' (21: 25), and as Isabella tells the story of Angelo's crimes, Jesus tells three accusatory and threatening parables directed against the Pharisees (21: 28–45).

In addition to working on Angelo, Isabella's staged testimony carries out the Duke's intentions for her. Its half-true claim that Angelo is a 'virgin violator' allows her to get back at him publicly for his insult to her honour in proposing the foul ransom, but it also forces her to bear the humiliation of appearing in public as a non-virgin and only secretly retaining her sexual purity. This is a lesson to her about the difference between apparent and real holiness which requires her to gain a real rather than a masqueraded sympathy for her brother and Juliet. It also forces her to retreat from her earlier self-righteous insistence that, 'More than our brother is our chastity' (2.4.185).

On her way out, Isabella discloses that her collaborator in this indictment of Angelo is Friar Ludowick. The Duke orders Ludowick apprehended, feigning belief in his antagonists' lies. After Angelo once again is placed in the seat of judgement, mystification is intensified by Friar Peter's return with a veiled woman—the first of three hooded figures he will bring on stage—whose riddling discourse confirms that Isabella was lying. When Angelo commands that she lift her veil, he discovers the bed trick. Rather than Isabella, it was Mariana, his lawfully contracted fiancee, who has slept with him. This second public humiliation and indictment temporarily silences him, just as the joined forces of the Pharisees and Sadduccess are silenced by Jesus' accusations: 'And none could answer him a word, neither did any from that day forth ask him any more questions' (Matt. 22: 46).

The Duke again departs, stirring up further mischief. Asserting that the Duke is 'in' him, Escalus now takes over the interrogation and threatens to torture Isabella: 'I will go darkly to work with her' (5.1.276). In the gospel story, God abandons his true deputy and disciples to the rage of his false ones. After verbal duels with his opponents, Jesus warns his followers, 'Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you, and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake' (Matt. 24: 9). The object of the interrogation is to capture their leader: 'Then assembled together the chief Priests and the Scribes, and the Elders of the people into the hall of the high Priest, called Caiaphas, and consulted how they might take Jesus by subtlety, and kill him' (26: 3–4).

Friar Ludowick is roughly brought before Escalus for questioning: 'Come sir did you set these women on to slander the Lord Angelo?' (5.1.285–6). To the Friar's denial, he replies angrily, 'How! Know you where you are?' (l. 289), and Ludowick responds in kind: 'Respect to your great place, and let the devil | Be sometime honoured for his burning throne' (290–1). This elicits an hysterical outburst from the previously moderate Escalus: 'Why, thou unreverent and unhallowed friar, . . . to th’ rack with him. We'll touse you | Joint by joint' (5.1.302–8). To Caiaphas' rough questioning at the next tribunal reported by Matthew, 'What is the matter that these men witness against thee? I charge thee by the living God, that thou tell us, if thou be the Christ the Son of God' (26: 62–3), Jesus responds with a denial and a threat: 'Thou hast said it: nevertheless I say unto you, hereafter shall ye see the Son of man, sitting at the right hand of the power of God' (26: 64). This response is imitated by the Friar's cool disclosure of his special relation with the Duke: 'Be not so hot. The Duke | Dare no more stretch this finger of mine than he | Dare rack his own. His subject I am not' (5.1.310–2). Like Escalus, the High Priest goes wild: '[he] rent his clothes, saying, "He hath blasphemed: what have we need of any more witnesses? What think ye?" They answered and said, "He is worthy to die"' (ll. 65–6).

The Duke's false deputy, Angelo; his senior representative, Escalus; and his overt enemy, Lucio now join forces in the assault on his true deputy, the Friar. Lucio attributes his own scabrous allegations against the Duke to the Friar, who once again replaces a false substitution with a true one: 'You must sir change persons with me ere you make that my report' (5.1.333–4). The verbal attack becomes physical, and one would imagine that the stage crowd watching gets rowdy, while the theatre audience is excited by anticipation. Lucio starts to 'pluck [him] by the nose' (ll. 336–7) Escalus says, 'Lay bolts upon him' (l. 343), and Angelo tells Lucio to help the officer. During the ensuing scuffle, first Lucio curses the Friar and then pulls at his hood: 'Why, you bald-pated lying rascal, you must be hooded, must you? . . . Show your sheep-biting face, and be hanged an hour. Will' t not off?' (5.1.349–52). Such a riotous climax also takes place before the gospel's high priest: 'Then spat they in his face, and buffeted him: and other smote him with their rods, saying "Prophesy to us, o Christ, who is he that smote thee?"' (26: 67–8). And it continues after Jesus makes a similar appearance at the tribunal of Pilate 'as the crowd bowed their knees before him, and mocked him saying, "God save thee King of the Jews", and spitted upon him, and took a reed, and smote him on the head' (Matt. 27: 28–31). As in Measure for Measure, their mockery is mocked by the reader's knowledge that their victim is actually their ruler in disguise.

After Lucio pulls down his hood, everyone gasps in surprised recognition that the Friar is really the Duke. This is the primary dramatic climax of the play. It fulfils the purpose of his departure at the beginning, and of his several disguised returns: to reclaim a nation under sway of lawlessness, both by liberty and restraint. The conquering Vincentio triumphs over two formerly divided antagonists, now fully in league—Lucio and Angelo. Lucio tries to sneak away but is arrested. Angelo recognises the omniscience of the Duke and admits his crime (5.1.367–70). Isabella prostrates herself and apologises for his trouble.

The Duke reveals himself in the midst of chaos at the moment of his true deputy Ludowick's deepest humiliation. But it is a humiliation that he has engineered himself in every detail in order to 'make . . . heavenly comforts of despair | When [her good] is least expected' (4.3.107–8). All the members of his onstage audience regard this revelation with surprise from their various vantages, while the reader or playgoer, who has been in on the preparations for the disclosure since the Duke's return, is gratified at the long deferred resolution.

Likewise at the crucifixion, the gospel reaches its dramatic climax when God reveals himself at the moment of his true deputy's deepest humiliation:

Then Jesus cried again with a low voice, and yielded up the ghost. And behold, the veil of the Temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake, and the stones were cloven, and the graves did open themselves, and many bodies of the saints which slept, arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the Holy City, and appeared unto many. When the Centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, saw . . . they feared greatly, saying, "Truly this was the Son of God."

(Matt. 27: 50–4)

As in Exodus, this revelation of God's power of deliverance is forewarned--'Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man, sitting at the right hand of the power of God, and come in the clouds of the heaven' (Matt. 26: 64)—and its purposes are expounded in advance—'But all this was done, that the Scriptures of the Prophets might be fulfilled.' (Matt. 26: 56). Typical of biblical narrative, such anticipation and explanation makes the climax seem both wondrous and stage-managed, a dazzling miracle framed by its own machinery.

The way Matthew reports it, the death of Jesus begins a process of resurrection that concludes three days later: 'there was a great earthquake; the angel of the Lord . . . said . . . He is not here . . . for he has risen. . . . Behold Jesus also met them saying, "God save you"' (Matt. 28: 2, 6, 9–10). In Measure for Measure, a hundred lines after the Duke's unmasking, a third hooded figure is produced, unmasked, and resurrected. Claudio has already died in several senses—to the attractions of life following the Friar's initial sermon, from the flesh into the spirit after his brief backslide, and to all those that knew and loved him who assumed that his head was sent to Angelo. Resurrection is itself a kind of unmasking or 'apocalypse', a prototype of the final revelation in the last book of the Bible that will conclude with all the dead coming back to life.

Measure for Measure concludes with a second narrative climax that dramatizes the gospel theme referred to by the play's title. Having indeed shown what happens when 'power change[s] purpose' and 'what our seemers be' (1.3.54), the Duke now concludes his effort to teach the truth to Isabella with a new batch of lies. No longer controlling her with scripted directions, Vincentio arranges for her to freely choose to forgo vengeance, even against his own mock insistence to the contrary. First he repeats that Claudio is dead and then condemns Angelo to die for killing him, 'Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure. . . .We do condemn thee to the very block | Where Claudio stooped to death' (5.1.408, 411–12).

Both utterances tempt Isabel to find satisfaction in the punishment of her enemy—the 'justice' she demanded earlier and the 'revenges to your heart' promised by the Friar. The Duke here makes scriptural references in order to mislead, and misleads in order to teach the true path.

Pauline interpretation of the Bible attributes the same tactic to God. What he commanded in the Old Testament Law or Torah must now be superseded. Matthew's Jesus requires a repudiation of earlier biblical doctrines: 'You have heard that it hath been said "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," but I say unto you, "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also . . . pray for them which hurt you and persecute you"' (5: 38, 44).

Mariana follows this instruction by interceding with the Duke for her husband's life, and she begs Isabella to intercede for her, perhaps in the hope that like her own namesake Mary who interceded with Jesus to intercede for sinners, Isabella will lend the weight of her 'higher' wrongs to the appeal. The Duke refuses, secretly playing devil's advocate and threatening that if Isabella joins Mariana, Claudio's revenging ghost will take her to hell. But Mariana persists in asking forgiveness: 'They say best men are moulded out of faults | And for the most become much more the better | For being a little bad' (5.1.436-8). This is the same reasoning with which Isabella had half-heartedly pleaded to Angelo, the reasoning he twisted into a demand for her body. But here, by pointed contrast, the underlying intent of the words is genuine. After a long pause, Isabella accedes and kneels next to Mariana to beg for her enemy's life. The Duke requires still more—she must argue as strenuously in Angelo's defence as she had in her brother's. Like Jesus on the cross who said, 'Forgive them: for they know not what they do' (Luke 23: 34), before the assembled multitude she now models the true forgiveness that leads her lord to 'find a way' to forgive those who have transgressed against him. But the play audience has been shown a secret still hidden from everyone else in Vienna. They have seen how the inner light which she now casts was kindled by the machinations of the Duke.


Accepting the benevolence of the Duke and experiencing the ending as happy may require a kind of orthodoxy, its very implausibility an exercise for the faithful. For Wilson Knight the play reflects the 'sublime strangeness and unreason of Jesus' teaching.' According to Roy Battenhouse, the play's real meaning is available only 'to members of the Christian guild, the story embodies the secret of their "craft;" it is their "mystery," calculated in its shrewd entertainment to scandalize some and mystify others. For those who understand it from within, it is absolutely normative in its art and its ethics'. According to these critics, faith becomes the key to understanding Shakespeare's play, just as it does, according to Jesus, to understanding his symbolic parables. In line with such faith, orthodox interpreters read the Duke's final request for Isabella's hand as a representation of divine marriage—alternately symbolized in the New Testament as Jesus' union with the soul or God's marriage with the Church.

But many readers find Measure for Measure's supposedly comic ending untenable, either because they do not share the faith in the allegorized version, or because they think it overlooks the loveless and bitter quality of the three concluding marriages that are arranged by the Duke against the will of Angelo and Lucio and with Isabella's wordless acquiescence. However, the New Testament itself views earthly marriage as a compromise solution to the problem of controlling the flesh: 'It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his wife, and let every woman have her own husband. But if they cannot abide, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn' (I Cor. 7: 1–2, 9). Paul's recommendations provide a pragmatic response to bodily promptings disastrously denied by Angelo and Isabella, overindulged by Lucio, and acknowledged by the Provost: 'All sects, all ages smack of this vice' (2.2.5).

Another problem with the comic ending for non-orthodox readers resides in its apparent failure to resolve the original problems of 'government' plaguing the state of Vienna at the outset of the play. According to Leggatt, the Duke's 'solution does not work'. However, in terms of the practical politics that Machiavelli might discover in biblical history, the Duke succeeds. The Duke's political goal, like the New Testament God's, is to re-establish lost authority over a community that has strayed from itself—that is, to achieve a reformation. Reformation entails repudiation of existing statutes, both ecclesiastical and secular, in order to strengthen government with the 'spirit' of voluntary compliance. Such compliance requires a political version of the spiritual faith that Jesus and Paul demand from their followers. While Henry V is patterned after the Hebrew Bible's holy warrior, who establishes power by 'busy[ing] giddy minds with foreign quarrels' (2 Henry IV 4.3.342–3), Vincentio is modelled upon the New Testament pacifist leader who maintains his subjects' allegiance with surveillance, intimate appeals to conscience, and miraculous spectacles of punishment and forgiveness. In this respect, Duke Vincentio resembles Shakespeare's pacifist king, James I.

Jesus' justification for indirection and misleading people—'they seeing do not see, and hearing, they hear not, neither understand' (Matt. 13: 13)—is echoed by Machiavelli's: 'men in general judge more by their eyes than their hands; for everyone can see but few can feel. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few touch upon what you are'. King James, who described the monarch as a 'little God. . . . Resembling right your mighty King Divine', found in the biblical God's divine dissimulation an admirable model for worldly rulers. His motto 'Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare'—'He who does not know how to dissimulate does not know how to reign'—could apply as well to the one whom Lucio calls the 'old fantastical duke of dark corners' (4.3.152–3).

Like the God of the Bible, Vincentio triumphs over obstacles with what Machiavelli would consider a proper mixture of cruelty and mercy: 'Every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel; nevertheless he must take care not to misuse this mercy'. Too much mercy on the ruler's part will allow the people to run riot against one another and will undermine the sovereign's authority. Therefore 'it is much safer to be feared than to be loved'. By appointing a deputy to enforce a crackdown and apparently leaving town, he can re-establish authority through fear and still retain the appearance of mercy: 'I have on Angelo imposed the office, | Who may in th’ambush of my name strike home, | And yet my nature never in the fight | T’allow in slander' (1.3.40–3).

However, the Duke knows from the start that his deputy is likely to fall into the trap that Machiavelli warns against: 'A prince must . . . make himself feared in such a manner that he will avoid hatred, even if he does not acquire love; and this will always be so when he keeps his hands off the property and women of his citizens and his subjects'. Angelo can't refrain from doing just that when he shuts down the bawdy houses and goes after Isabella.

The last act shows the Duke turning Angelo's failure to his own benefit with the drawn out public spectacle of the hated deputy's self-exposure. Vincentio's comic political triumph parallels that of Cesare Borgia in Machiavelli's sardonic account of another Duke's political practice:

After the Duke had taken Romagna and found it governed by powerless lords . . . so that the entire province was full of thefts, fights, and of every other kind of insolence, he decided that if he wanted to make it peaceful and obedient to the ruler's law, it would be necessary to give it good government. Therefore, he put Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and able man, in command there and gave him complete authority. This man, in little time made the province peaceful and united. . . . Afterwards, the Duke decided that such great authority was no longer required, for he was afraid that it might become odious; and he set up in the middle of the province a civil court. . . . And because he realised that the rigorous measures of the past had generated a certain amount of hatred, he wanted to show, in order to purge men's minds and to win them to his side completely, that if any form of cruelty had arisen, it did not originate from him but from the harsh nature of his minister. And having found the occasion to do this, one morning at Cesna he had Messer Remirro placed on the piazza in two pieces with a block of wood and a bloody sword beside him. The ferocity of such a spectacle left those people satisfied and amazed at the same time.

In the New Testament, Angelo's role of merciless, legalistic, hypocritical, and obdurate deputy belongs to the Pharisees. They provide no forgiveness of sins, they torment the guiltless, they persecute their own disguised Lord, and when confronted, they fail to confess their crimes and acknowledge his authority. Though they are not chopped into two pieces like Messer Remirro, the ferocity of condemnation heaped upon them, as upon Angelo, leaves later readers of the Bible 'satisfied and amazed at the same time'. The Duke's political success in setting up Angelo as his enforcer and then repudiating him suggests that Shakespeare may have perceived the same successful political strategy working in the Christian Bible's use of the Jews.

In addition to Angelo, the other antagonist exposed at the end of Measure for Measure is Lucio. The Luciferian adversary who joined forces with the fallen Angelo to attack the Friar is also spared from the deserved death penalty but forced to join into the community of marriage under the regenerated regime of the returned Duke. Likewise the scribes, priests, and other Jews who share in the persecution of Jesus are both demonised and interceded for. And while insisting that God has rejected the Jews in favour of Christians, Paul also prophesies their eventual 'grafting in' to the community of the faithful (Rom. 11: 11–26).

Nevertheless, Angelo makes no acknowledgement of his pardon or of Mariana's love, and Lucio, rather than gratefully accepting the grace extended to him, responds with an irreverent jest implying that the Duke's divine return is nothing more than an act: 'Your highness said even now, I made you a duke; good my lord, do not recompense me in making me a cuckold' (5.1.515–16). Similarly, after the resurrection, the chief priests and elders are reported to pay Roman soldiers to bear false witness that the disciples stole the body from the tomb to support the Jews' continuing claims that the resurrection was a hoax (Matt. 28: 11–15) Just as the reader of the Bible knows that these Jews are liars, the reader of Measure for Measure knows that Lucio's discrediting of the Duke is false. And yet, given the shifting religious, political, and theatrical grounds upon which borders between falsehood and truth are determined, the only lines one can draw with full confidence are parallels.