William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

Read about Ben Jonson’s play Volpone.

Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim is highly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Background on Measure for Measure

Shakespeare is believed to have writtten Measure for Measure in 1603 or 1604, and it was probably first performed in 1604. Shakespeare's most likely source for the play was a story called "The Story of Epitia" in a 1565 book named Gli Hecatommithi by an Italian writer who used the name "Cinthio," but whose actual name was Giovanni Battista Giraldi. Gli Hecatommithi also contains a story that was Shakespeare's source for Othello, which he probably wrote in 1603, about the same time he wrote Measure for Measure. Cinthio's "The Story of Epitia" had adapted into the play Promos and Cassandra by English dramatist George Whetstone in 1578, and there is evidence that Shakespeare would have been familiar with that work as well since Measure for Measure borrows plot points that appeared in Whetstone's adaption but were not in Cinthio's original story.

Measure for Measure is considered a comedy, which is sometimes misleading. Some critics consider it a particularly "dark" comedy for its bitterness and cynicism. The play certainly raises important moral issues in its detailed descriptions of Christianity. The structure is based around secret identities and a lot of manipulation. First, the Duke disguises himself as a friar, and many problems are resolved when he discloses his identity. Second, the Duke advises other characters to carry out two other secret plans involving mistaken identity: Mariana takes Isabella's place, and the head of a dead pirate is sent in place of Claudio's. The plot is therefore complexly woven, and the resolution of the play comes with the unraveling of the layers of intrigue created by the Duke.

The Duke, then, functions as a kind of master of ceremonies in the play. Although he has placed another man in his position during his absence, he is still manipulating all the occurrences in town. He is unfailingly wise in a way that most Shakespearean characters are not. He is a good, kind, devoted leader, but his one fault lies in his inability to maintain order. For this he calls in Angelo, and through this he pardons him.

Read about Prospero, another of Shakespeare’s characters who acts as a puppet master, from The Tempest.

Measure for Measure can also be called a problem play, because it brings up a difficulty and then seeks to solve it. However, the difficulty lies in misunderstandings and hidden identities, not in the real moral questions of the play. No character comes to reconsider his or her beliefs about freedom, justice, sexual relationships, or morality. A very intriguing question–whether or not Isabella should commit a sin in order to save her brother–is never discussed in any great detail. Isabella thinks she should not and never really considers the option. Claudio thinks she should, and so he begs her to save him. The Duke tells her that she is virtuous and that the option is not really open to her anyway, and closes off the discussion by giving her a new plan. The Duke is correct in thinking that Angelo's proposal is not entirely honest, and Isabella emerges faultless; the audience, even if it considers Isabella too cold in not saving her brother, must come to the conclusion that she would have sacrificed her virginity for nothing.