Shakespeare's Imagery in Measure for Measure: Character and Setting Depiction

Categories: Measure for Measure
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Shakespeare’s plays are full of images of the stage as a reflection of the world and of the world as a stage, thus producing the motto of the Globe Theatre where much of his work was performed, ‘All the world’s a stage’. It was named ‘The Globe’ because there were still large areas of the world that had not yet been discovered. Exploration of ‘new ‘worlds was all the rage in Europe; so going to see a play was giving the audience a chance to explore a far off, exotic place.

Even the concept of the world being a sphere or ‘globe’ was fairly new still, which added another trendy feature to Shakespeare’s theater’s name. However theatres and acting were still very controversial since people saw the playing of a role as not ‘for real’ and therefore entailed lying. Theatres were contentious also because it was argued that it was morally and philosophically wrong, to have people claiming to be who they were not and where they were not.

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For these reasons, theatres were allowed only outside the city walls, if at all with The Globe located almost adjacent to a row of brothels. Before Shakespeare could perform his plays, he had to gain the legal protection of an important person. In Shakespeare’s case it was the King James- thus the name ‘The King’s men’. As in Shakespeare’s time (the late sixteenth century) most people believed in everything in life having a fixed place.

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This was demonstrated by the fact that a peasant who even dressed like a noble could be lynched.

It struck people that if the world were a stage then people would not necessarily be who they seem, but only actors playing a role. Performances given were seen as representations of things that might happen, so if the world was all a stage then a stage could be a representation of the world.

People went to see plays in those days because it was a novelty and a place to be seen by your peers, but most of all it was a brake in the rigors of a very rough and monotonous life for most people. Audiences mostly knew well the dreary routine of everyday life, but it must have been a thankful change to for once be kept guessing about the future. More like a nowadays rock-concert, there were sitting and standing seats, creating almost an interactive audience for the actors similar to a modern pantomime. This influenced the way Shakespeare wrote his plays to quite an extent as he tended to write about whatever was in high fashion at that moment, as to make money he would have to give his audience what they wanted. During this time period, a mere 2% of the population owned 99% of the wealth. This of course caused massive extremes of wealth and poverty, extremes that are reflected in Measure for Measure where these are time and time again balanced against each other, as the title suggests. An example would be “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death…”(v.i.402), wherein death is balanced by death, also an extreme opposite of life. Just as Angelo’s evil is balanced by Isabella’s virtue, Lucio’s recklessness is balanced by The Duke’s planning, so is there for each extreme, a counter balance.

Due to the non-existence of medicine and the definite existence of acute poverty, death would have been a more frequent and less shocking thing than it is today. Lives were shorter, and very probably causing them to be more intense than ours today, since the chances of us now being swept away by plague or starvation are miniscule. I think the reason Shakespeare used imagery to the extent that he did was to make it possible for abstract things like death or the Law, to be ‘visible’ to the audience- people who were definitely more visually stimulated than we. The lack of books and literate people meant that Shakespeare had to use simple pictures that all his audience could relate to, to put forth any abstract idea.

For example “we must not make a scarecrow of the Law…”(ii.i.1). A Scarecrow is a representation of a human, designed to deceive birds, because it is a false image, or representation. It is isolated, but also man-made, while only some animals are fooled by it’s seeming. As is clear, that is exactly the image Angelo wished to give of the Law, where birds might be compared with people. I think that Shakespeare realized it would be impossible for the audience even back then to grasp all his ideas immediately, with the result that we find imagery that repeats itself again and again, then connects itself with other images in an almost infinite cycle. If Shakespeare’s plays were in fact tapestries, then certain coloured threads would be found weaving in and out of it, just like certain images.

Lucio has been described as ‘one of the most acute intelligences in the play’, but contrasting that also, Knight describes him as

…a typical loose-minded, vulgar wit. He is the product of a society that has gone too far in condemnation of human sexual desires…His very existence is a condemnation of a society that makes him a possibility… he is merely superficial…(1)

Unlike most other characters in Measure for Measure, Lucio is amoral rather than immoral, so that our view of him constantly changes, because we have no moral grounds to judge him on. When we first meet him, his jokes with the two gentlemen associate venereal disease with sexuality, but two scenes later, the sexuality of Claudio and Juliet, as he reports it to Isabella becomes, “as blossoming time/That from the seedness the bare fallow brings/ To teeming foison (1.4.41-42). I think this proves that Lucio is always looking for the dirty rumours about Vienna and is often pondering sexually linked matters. “Blood” in the sense of sexual passion is repeatedly connected with Angelo: he “scarce confesses/ That his blood flows…”(i.iii.51-52); he is “a man whose blood/ Is very snow-broth”(i.iv.57-58). This reveals about Lucio, because he is always joking and spreading rumours, that you should possibly not always trust what he says, but it shows him to be very alert to the city’s happenings.

He shows a general lawlessness, and I think it’s significant that he ironically singles out the Duke, the embodiment of the law for his attentions: “Nay, friar, I am a kind of burr, I shall stick”(iv.iii.164-165). The theme of self-destruction is somewhat carried on in these actions, where Lucio brings about his own downfall due to his persistence. This is evident in this quote where even after being discouraged by the ‘friar’ from his stories about the Duke, he carries on with them.

For every scope by the immoderate use

Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane

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


This comes true for Lucio. On account of his immoderate use of scope in “slandering” The Duke, he got his due ultimately, and The Duke gained his revenge.

This illustrates a general lawlessness; even recklessness in him. I think this reflects also his unremitting and loquacious character, this is proved by the way that Lucio at no point forgets about the condemned Claudio who he does try and help. Lucio is described as a fantastical in some versions of the text’s dramatis personae, which is relevant because he is so fantastically complex and varying. He is not shy in expressing his views on others, an example is where he speaks of “…the old fantastical Duke of dark corners…”(4.3.47-48), illustrating the Duke as hiding away and doing devious things, like a spider crawling around and sucking out the peoples thoughts on Angelo specifically.

The Duke has the first and last lines in the play, and corresponds to God not simply because he is our equivalent of Him, by holding the power of “mortality” and “mercy”, but also as he is throughout the entire play the all-seeing and all-knowing entity, the ‘prime manipulator’. Indeed “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners”(iv.iii.147-148), as Lucio describes him, “would have dark deeds darkly answered”(iii.ii.151). For me this builds a rather sinister picture of what the Duke does in his spare time. A Duke of “dark corners” suggests to me a creature that lurks in places where he cannot be seen, because he does not want to be seen, while G, Knight, describes him as a “dark” figure. “I love the people, / but do not like to stage me to their eyes”(i.i.67-68). This shows he is homophobic and associated with shadowy corners or behind the scenes, but it was well known in Shakespeare’s time that graveyards were built in circular shapes so that there would be no place for the Devil to hide. If The Duke does not like to “stage” himself to “the people”, this again points out that he is the one doing the staging, telling everyone how they are to act.

By bringing Angelo to rule in his stead in the hope that he will restore law and order to Vienna, The Duke applies what is known as a Machiavellian principle. This is summed up by the phrase ‘the end justifies the beginning’- or the use of any means to secure your own interests. The man Machiavelli himself has been thought of as one of the most evil men in history. He believed in the total separation of politics and morals, depicted in his book ‘The Prince’. This book was banned soon after it’s publishing because it was branded as malevolent. The instructions it contained concerned the ruling of people and in a nutshell entailed bringing in another to do the dirty work of punishing misdeeds, having allowed the region to fall into corruption. Then destroying the unpopular ruler and returning yourself to your former position looks you looked upon as the saviour of the people. When the Duke applies this principle of the procession from false justice, to merciless rigour, to merciful grace, what everyone does not realize is that The Duke, in his experiments to find who are the “seemers”, is himself the greatest seemer. Since Machiavelli was seen by some to be the Devil incarnate, the audience can note on several occasions The Duke being associated with the Devil. First and foremost is the imitation of Machiavelli, but also in other ways.

It was the poet Milton himself who wrote in Paradise Lost, “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven”. Images of fire and the Devil are littered through the text of the play. For example here the disguised Duke says, “and let the Devil/ Be sometime honored for his burning throne…”(v.i.288-289). This indicates irony to me at first, because The Duke suggests that even the Devil deserves some credit for always managing to be so good at being bad. This has some reference to Angelo, because he did such a ‘good’ job of being corrupt and hypocritical. On closer examination of this imagery, it is a phallic image of repressed sexual desires, as the Devil’s horns were connected with the sign of horns, which would be stamped on the door of a person if their partner had illegal sex with someone else. So therefore the Duke may possibly also be implying that it is all right to occasionally honour your sexual desires. He mentions, in relation to love and desire “the dribbling dart of love…”(i.iii.2). If his views on love are that of a “dribbling” dart as opposed to a straight dart, then the audience might have reason to assume that The Duke is not altogether of normal sexuality, or that his ideas on it are warped. This is a direct image of Cupids arrow of love, although if it is a dribbling one, then it wavers up and down.

This phallic image would suggest that he has repressed sexual desires, although here he mocks the thought that he is in love. The irony of this is that in the final scene of the play, he reveals himself to be attracted to Isabella all along by asking for her hand in marriage. An alternative that suggests itself to me is that The Duke in fact only tricks himself into believing he loves the “enskied and sainted”(i.iv.34) Isabella, when he is actually “not inclined that way…”(iii.ii.107). This possible self-deception helps to create a fantastically complicated character, which not only deceives others but also deceives himself.

“Hence we shall see/ If power changes purpose and what our seemers be”(1.3.54-55). Here the Duke gives voice to what he had been planning all along, dealing with different kinds of deceit, whether intentional or not. I believe this is a major theme: the concept of things appearing to be what they are not in reality. The Duke states that he intends to find out if Angelo will say true to his outward appearance, or whether his newfound power will corrupt him. Although the immediate irony is that the Duke intends to investigate Angelo’s ‘seeming’, while at the same time he himself will adopt a friars clothing- seeming to be what he is not. This raises many questions about the moral nature of man, and also what hope there is if even the most powerful of us are hypocrites inside. However Angelo says, though, “Let’s write ‘Good Angel’ on the Devil’s horn,/ ‘Tis not the Devils crest…”(ii.iv.16-17). This ascertain that evil always reveals itself, no matter how it is respectably disguised does prove true for Angelo in the end when he is dealt justice by The Duke on his return.

Power, it’s affects on those who use it and to what ends they use it is also a premise central to Measure for Measure. Shakespeare concerns this topic especially with the notion of the weak overpowering the strong- the reversal of power. In Shakespeare’s time it was a common belief that absolutely everything could be grouped in an importance scale and that these different groups are all correspondent to one another, only on a different scale. “Liberty plucks Justice by the nose;/ The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart/ Goes all decorum…” (i.iii.30-32). This quotation is an example, spoken by the duke concerning this topic. I think this is reflected in the play, where even at the very beginning, The Duke hands over absolute power (“mortality and mercy”) to Angelo. This ‘role-reversal’ reveals Angelo for his true, hypocritical self, while contrasted by The Dukes chosen desire to disguise himself as a holy Friar. This means that the Duke is no longer able to issue commands, but only request that things be done and hope that they are, although he is still respected as a monk.

…but man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured…


Here Isabella points out exactly how petty man is in reality, but how great we seem to think we are. Being ignorant of what we are “most assured” says to me that it is always Death that will have the last laugh, and that no power on earth can stop it. This stand against the man wielding absolute power proves Isabella to be very intelligent and also very courageous. By doing this Shakespeare actually places Isabella, a woman, above man in the ‘order of importance’. In doing this he suggests that maybe people should not just take it for granted that that was the way that the world worked.

I believe an idea central to Measure for Measure is this:

And forgive us as we forgive our debtors.

Thus linking with the title, itself taken from the Bible, “Judge not, that ye be not judged…and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”(Matt.vii.1). The play tends towards a Christian allegory, while much that is said can be compared with sections of the bible. I think Shakespeare would have used images associated with the Bible to a large extent because in his day it was law to attend church. During these sermons long Bible passages were read, so practically everybody would be familiar with the stories, thus enabling his audience to relate to the parallels in his plays. Measuring things out against each other becomes vitally central throughout the play, just as we should forgive those who sin against us. But ‘justice’ then is a mockery: for in what way can man, who is himself a sinner presume to judge? Man is inherently flawed; therefore no one can judge anyone else because you might be just as bad in reality.

This concurs to The Duke who supposedly places himself outside the law by handing his power to Angelo and dressing up as someone else. I mentioned before that you could be arrested in those days for simply dressing as someone you are not, so The Duke in this way, holding absolute power in effect places himself outside the law. Even having but one person more powerful than the law renders it pointless, as laws categorically applies to everyone. In the last scene this is pertinent, where it is measure up to the Final Judgment, “Twice have the trumpets sounded.”(, where The Duke is to right all wrongs by issuing justice. However, the Duke then appoints Angelo, already proven to be morally infirm, to “be [the] judge of [his] own cause.”(v.i.166-167). Surely it is immoral to allow a anyone to be judge and jury in their on case? The well-known saying: ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’ seems to be true here. This connects with the paradox of an omnipotent God, who, if all-powerful must be able to create a rock which this entity itself cannot pick up. But if it is unable to lift the rock, it therefore cannot have the power to do anything.

I have seen corruption boil and bubble

Till it o’errun the stew…


I think this is an excellent summary of the picture of Vienna as a whole that Shakespeare tries to create in his audience’s minds. Envisioning a stew being overrun by corruption brings to me the impression of evils festering and increasing, because it has been left to stand unchecked for too long. It carries on this way until there is so much of it that it has spilt out, but inevitably is stopped by the fire underneath, which could be compared with the law. Stews in those days were not just the edible kind, however, but were brothels. This metaphor then becomes related to sexual immorality, because if it were the corruption that overruns the brothels, then it relates to Claudio’s getting his “friend” Juliet with child. It would be interesting to note also that it is almost always night in Vienna whenever a scene takes place, which adds an extra ‘dark’ character to it. Vienna would have been a very far off, mysterious place for the general public in Shakespeare’s time.


They would have known practically nothing about it, thus allowing him to build whatever image of Vienna he likes. In The Duke’s same speech he tells Escalus (the neutral or weighing man as his name suggests) to be not so “hot”, while a fire is needed to heat a stew. So we could think of Vienna as a fiery hot place, in which the imagery of fire is continued. Fire was a risky thing to use in those times, when for the most part buildings were very prone to burning down as a result of them catching fire. Whereas they were a huge safety hazard in that respect, torches were also safety devices, used as protection from vagabonds and bandits if you had to venture out onto the streets at night.

Earlier in the play The Duke mentions, “The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades…”(i.iii.21), which again repeats the image of the need to curb the anarchy that the neglect of Vienna’s strict rules has brought. Restraint of “scope” is the image here again. Putting on bits on horses to control them, where the “bits and curbs” represent the Law echoes the words of Claudio where he says that imprisonment results from too much freedom. The corrupt nature of the city is suggested in the association of sex with disease in the conversation of Lucio and the two gentlemen, and of sex with sin in the soliloquies of Angelo, but is not maintained throughout the whole play. Shakespeare in his desire to show that sexuality can have positive associations, those of fertility and plenty, gives Lucio the lines in his encounter with Isabella which are hardly in character (i.iv.40-44).

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Shakespeare's Imagery in Measure for Measure: Character and Setting Depiction. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Shakespeare's Imagery in Measure for Measure: Character and Setting Depiction

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