What Problems Make ‘Measure for Measure” A Problem Play?

In the world of literature, a “problem play” refers to a genre of drama that raises moral and social issues, leaving the audience unsure of their moral bearings. It is a play that raises problems but does not offer a clear solution, leaving the audience to ponder over the issues themselves.

One such play is William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which can be categorized as a problem play. In this play, Shakespeare raises a variety of issues, including law and mercy, physical purity, forced marriage, and forgiveness. The characters’ conflicting perspectives on these issues create a moral ambiguity that the audience must grapple with.

In this article, we will delve deeper into the concept of problem plays and examine how Measure for Measure fits within this genre. We will explore the various issues that Shakespeare raises in the play, the different perspectives of the characters, and the unresolved moral questions that the play leaves us with.

The Problem of Law versus Mercy

The problem of law versus mercy is a central theme in Measure for Measure. Angelo, the Deputy of the Duke, believes in strict enforcement of the law and revives outdated laws. He insists on the strict observance of the law and sentences Claudio to death for the crime of fornication. Although Claudio admits his guilt of impregnating Juliet without marrying her, he also explains that he intended to marry her but was prevented by circumstances beyond his control.

Despite the pleas of several characters to forgive Claudio, Angelo remains adamant in his judgment, arguing that the law should be enforced strictly and rigidly. In contrast, Isabella pleads for mercy for her brother, reminding Angelo that even the most sinful souls were once saved by the martyrdom of Christ. However, all her arguments in favor of mercy fall on deaf ears.

The conflict between the importance of law and mercy forms the crux of this problem. Shakespeare raises questions about whether the strict enforcement of the law is more important than showing mercy, and whether the law and mercy are two distinct entities or interrelated concepts. The play offers no easy answers to this moral dilemma, leaving the readers to form their own opinions.

The Problem of Mercy versus Justice

In addition to the conflict between law and mercy, Measure for Measure also explores the tension between mercy and justice. Angelo is initially portrayed as a man who upholds the law to the letter, with no room for compassion or forgiveness. He is unwavering in his strict enforcement of the law, as seen in his decision to condemn Claudio to death for fornication, despite Claudio’s plea for mercy.

On the other hand, Isabella argues for the value of mercy and forgiveness, particularly in cases where the law may be too harsh. She appeals to Angelo’s sense of compassion and humanity, urging him to show mercy towards Claudio. This conflict between the law and claims of mercy is one of the central themes of the play, as it raises questions about the role of justice and the limits of forgiveness.

Furthermore, the relationship between law and mercy is explored in Measure for Measure, as the play questions whether the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Is it possible for justice to be tempered by mercy, or must they always be in opposition? These are the questions that the play grapples with, as it presents a complex and nuanced portrayal of the legal system and its role in society.

The Problem of Physical Purity

In Measure for Measure, the problem of physical purity is a significant theme. Angelo, as the deputy ruler of Vienna, is obsessed with maintaining the city’s moral and physical purity. He orders the strict enforcement of laws against premarital sex and prostitution. Angelo’s obsession with purity leads him to condemn Claudio to death for fornication, which is a crime punishable by law.

On the other hand, Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is a devout novice who places great importance on chastity and purity. She is the epitome of physical purity and represents the ideal of a virtuous woman. She pleads with Angelo to show mercy to her brother, who is scheduled to be executed for his crime. However, Angelo agrees to pardon Claudio only if Isabella agrees to have sex with him.

Isabella’s rejection of Angelo’s advances is based on her commitment to chastity and physical purity. She is willing to let her brother die rather than compromise her values. This conflict between chastity and sensuality forms a crucial aspect of the play. It highlights the problematic nature of enforcing physical purity and the importance of individual autonomy in deciding what constitutes physical purity.

The Problem of Forced Marriage

In addition to the problem of law, mercy, physical purity, and other themes, “Measure for Measure” also explores the problem of forced marriage. This theme emerges in the plotline involving Angelo’s forced marriage to Mariana, a woman whom he abandoned after she lost her dowry. The Duke hatches a plan for Mariana to take Isabella’s place in bed with Angelo, but in the end, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana to avoid punishment for his crimes.

The forced marriage raises questions about the nature of love, happiness, and justice. Did Angelo truly love Mariana, or did he only agree to marry her to avoid punishment? Is Mariana happy in the marriage, or does she feel trapped and forced into it? Similarly, Lucio is also victimized by forced marriage when he is forced to marry a prostitute as punishment for slandering the Duke.

Critics of the play have also criticized the forgiveness of Angelo and Lucio, arguing that they have not truly repented for their actions and are merely being let off the hook. The problem of forced marriage adds to these criticisms, as it raises questions about whether Angelo and Lucio are being truly punished for their crimes or whether they are simply being forced into unhappy marriages as a form of retribution. Overall, the problem of forced marriage highlights the complexity of justice and punishment in “Measure for Measure.”


In conclusion, Measure for Measure raises several problems that challenge conventional ideas of law, justice, and morality. These problems include the tension between law and mercy, the struggle between physical purity and sensuality, the issue of forced marriage, and the complex nature of forgiveness. The play does not offer clear-cut solutions to these problems but rather presents them for the audience to consider and wrestle with.

The unresolved nature of the play’s problems adds to its complexity and depth. It highlights the ambiguity of human experience and the difficulty of resolving moral dilemmas. Despite the lack of resolution, the play’s exploration of these issues is significant in the context of Shakespeare’s work.

Measure for Measure is a problem play that challenges the audience’s preconceived notions about the nature of justice, mercy, and morality. It encourages reflection on these issues and emphasizes the complexity of human experience. As such, it remains an important work in the Shakespearean canon.

If you’re preparing for your exams or any assignments on Measure for Measure, you might also want to consider purchasing the following books.

Name of the BookName of the AuthorAmazon Purchase Link
Measure for Measure (Text Book)William ShakespeareClick for Amazon Price
STUDENT’S GUIDE: MEASURE FOR MEASURE: Measure for Measure – A William Shakespeare Play with Study Guide (Literature Unpacked)Eleanor HendersonClick for Amazon Price

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