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Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Quotes


Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart.

Duke, Act 1, Scene 1

With this utterance, the Duke vests Angelo with the authority to govern Vienna using his own best judgment, rather than merely following precedent. Angelo, he hopes, will be able to balance mercy and justice in his "heart," where a ruler's virtues reside.

The heaviness of this responsibility is revealed in the phrase "mortality and mercy," which suggests an ideal balance between strictness—including capital punishment—and leniency. Unlike the Duke, who later frets about having been overly lax in enforcing the law, Angelo will esteem mortality above mercy in nearly all his visible decisions as ruler.


As surfeit is the father of much fast, / So every scope by the immoderate use / Turns to restraint.

Claudio, Act 1, Scene 2

In this remarkable exchange with his friend Lucio, Claudio takes full responsibility for having broken the law. Even more strikingly, he sees himself as morally culpable for letting his desires get the better of him. His crime is, as he puts it, a consequence of abusing his personal freedoms, which in Claudio's view leads to its own kind of imprisonment. Without moderation, he insists, a fate like his is inevitable.


The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum.

Duke, Act 1, Scene 3

This odd image captures the Duke's sense of Vienna as a household gone awry. Likening citizens to babies and the legal system to a "nurse," or caregiver, the Duke laments a reversal of normal relations of authority, obedience, and respect.

The analogy, however, is faulty and naive, reflecting the Duke's immature sense of his relationship to his people. Nannies do not, as a rule, dispense capital punishment, and babies cannot be charged with obstruction of justice. The image of subjects as infants is more than a mere metaphor: throughout the play, the Duke hoodwinks his subjects into doing what he believes will be best for them. Such behavior may be appropriate for managing an unruly toddler, but it's a highly dubious way to treat an adult citizen.


Our doubts are traitors, / And makes us lose the good we oft might win / By fearing to attempt.

Lucio, Act 1, Scene 4

Neither the most serious nor the most morally upright of characters, Lucio nonetheless has some practical wisdom to impart. His advice to Isabella is probably not the only impetus to get her out of the convent to plead for Claudio's life, but it certainly helps. In Act 2 Lucio reprises his role as a cheerleader by accompanying Isabella to Angelo's house.

In Acts 3 and 4, however, Lucio's big mouth gets him into trouble when he cheerfully relates stories about the Duke's misbehavior. The audience for these tall tales, Lucio fails to realize, includes the Duke himself (in disguise). Isabella could, perhaps, stand to have more self-confidence, as Lucio argues. Lucio, in contrast, would likely be better served with a little less confidence and a little more caution.


When I that censure him do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death, / And nothing come in partial.

Angelo, Act 2, Scene 1

Here Angelo offers to be judged by the same standard he applies to others, welcoming the death penalty if he is ever found guilty of fornication. He thus submits himself to the retributive "measure for measure" logic of the play's title.

There's no reason to suspect Angelo is being openly hypocritical at this moment. He is not a secret lecher who publicly professes his hatred of lechery. It's more plausible to say that Angelo simply hasn't encountered true temptation yet and thus has no idea of his own weakness. This will change when he meets Isabella at the end of Act 2 and finds his virtuous intentions overwhelmed by lust.


Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall.

Escalus, Act 2, Scene 1

Escalus has a more pragmatic view of morality than Angelo does. He is closer to what might today be called a "legal realist," recognizing and accounting for the foibles of judges and juries. In speaking this line, Escalus acknowledges the imperfections of the Viennese system of justice—and, perhaps, of any such system.

Angelo, too, understands that some criminals escape punishment, but for him this is a reason to punish those who get caught as harshly as possible. He believes doing so deters others from committing the same crimes, even if those crimes may go undetected.


Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?

Escalus, Act 2, Scene 1

Escalus makes this little joke when Pompey Bum seems on the cusp of outwitting Constable Elbow. In the context of the scene, "Justice" is the clumsy Constable Elbow, and "Iniquity" is the smooth-talking but morally lax Pompey.

Escalus's rhetorical question, however, might also be applied to the play as a whole. If white-collar criminals such as Angelo and murderers such as Barnardine walk free, can Justice really be said to triumph over Iniquity?


The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.

Angelo, Act 2, Scene 2

Angelo is one of Vienna's highest-ranking judges, so naturally he has a stockpile of high-sounding phrases about law and justice. Here he justifies his strict enforcement of the law by reminding listeners that the law was technically in effect all along. Angelo is not making up new rules—not yet, anyway—but simply cracking down on violations of existing rules.


O, it is excellent / To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant.

Isabella, Act 2, Scene 2

In this oft-cited quote, Isabella likens Angelo to a mortal endowed with superhuman powers. By leaving him in charge of Vienna, she says, the Duke has given him "a giant's strength." In wielding that power, however, Angelo has grown "tyrannous" and abusive. In other words he has overstepped boundaries and is not morally competent to handle the responsibilities of rule.

So Isabella claims. This, however, is an odd accusation at this point in the play, because Angelo is acting with fastidious strictness, not the clumsy rage of a giant. Nonetheless, Angelo's barbaric behavior in Act 2, Scene 4 proves Isabella right.


Sir, believe this: / I had rather give my body than my soul.

Isabella, Act 2, Scene 4

Isabella is willing to endure almost any form of torture (her "body"), but giving up her chastity and thus her "soul" is off the table. Angelo tries, with a mixture of flattery, threats, and insults, to get her to reconsider, but he fails. Later in this scene Isabella backs up these words with a further, hair-raising speech in which she embraces martyrdom as an alternative to sexual sin.


Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die. / More than our brother is our chastity.

Isabella, Act 2, Scene 4

Isabella's uncompromising virtue has attracted many interpretations over the years. Some critics have faulted her for not coming to her brother's rescue, while others have applauded her refusal to yield her body to the lecherous Angelo.

However one construes Isabella's decision, this line shows she means business. Whatever her chastity may mean to her—virtue, honor, self-determination—it counts for "more than [her] brother." This is an exceptionally high price to place on virginity.


The weariest and most loathèd worldly life ... is a paradise / To what we fear of death.

Claudio, Act 3, Scene 1

These lines come at the end of a passionate, piteous speech in which Claudio expresses his fear of death. At first he tries to behave honorably and spare his sister the moral anguish of choosing between his life and her chastity. For Isabella, however, this choice is a surprisingly easy one, leaving Claudio distraught over his chances of survival. His attitude is almost the exact opposite of Isabella's: she would rather die than live in shame, and he would rather live in agony than die.


O, what may man within him hide / Though angel on the outward side!

Duke, Act 3, Scene 2

Angered by Angelo's duplicity, the Duke reflects on humankind's capacity for deceit in general. The rhyme is also a pun on Angelo, calling further attention to the deputy's outward reputation for almost unearthly purity of conduct. To those who admire his strictness, Angelo seems like an "angel," although earthier types like Lucio see him instead as a cold fish.

In the remaining lines of his speech, the Duke lays out a devious plot of his own. Using "craft" to combat Angelo's "vice," he will catch the traitorous deputy in the midst of some less-than-angelic behavior.


You must be so good, sir, to rise and be put to death.

Pompey Bum, Act 4, Scene 3

Pompey's glib and flattering speech to Barnardine serves as an illustration of his character in general. A "bawd," or pimp, by profession, Pompey is used to getting what he wants through charm and insinuation rather than by argument or force. These qualities are comically out of place in his new job as Vienna's assistant executioner.


Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.

Duke, Act 5, Scene 1

This couplet conveys the Duke's idealized vision of justice. Executing Angelo is, he argues, a fair response to Angelo's killing of Claudio, who, as the Duke well knows, hasn't been killed at all. By itself this fact undercuts the Duke's claim to be supplying "measure for measure," for he offers to repay an attempted killing with a successful one.

From there, the problems multiply as the Duke pardons everyone. In doing so he lumps attempted murderer and fornicator (Angelo), actual murderer (Barnardine), slanderer (Lucio), and fornicator (Claudio) into the same legal category. Again, rather than giving "measure for measure" as he claims, the Duke is doling out a single "measure" to all manner of behavior. Such justice might be described more accurately as "one size fits all."

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