Wasserman on Shakespeare’s Measure

Irving Wasserman did not write, and we have begun to type out his classes from our our class notes of 1980-1983.

We do have, though, some excellent study questions on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, when it wqas included at the end of a class called Ethics, which featured a reading of Harry Veatch, Rational Man, and some Federalist and Lincoln.

Philosophy 201- Ethics

Study questions for Measure for Measure

Note: There are, of course, many ways to study a Shakespeare play, some of them exclusively literary or dramatic. We will be discussing Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s so called “problem” plays, as a documenrt that shows “the kind of claims that our very human nature makes upon us (Veatch, p. 136). It can be said that this play shows human extremes, both in setting ( a palace, a nunnery, a brothel, a prison) and in situation (threatened execution, etc.). How is extremism displayed in the characters, as well? Could you argue that the play seems to plead for a mean in human behavior and conduct?

Act I

  1. According to what the Duke says to Angelo (I,i. 27-47), why is he giving to Angelo all the power of city government?
  2. 2. In the second scene, we learn of two immediate concequences of Angelo’s administration of the laws. How would you characterize them?
  3. 3. Judging by what he says of himself (I,i. 67-72 and I,iii. 7-10), what kind of person is the Duke? What do you think of his scheme to reform the city and test Angelo?
  4. 4. What kind of person do you judge Isabella to be from her first appearance in I.iv?

Act II

  1. In the argument between Escalus and Angelo (II, i. 1-31), who do you think reasons more soundly?
  2. 2. Compare the behavior of Angelo and Escalus when it comes to hearing an actual case (II.i).
  3. 3. It seems likely that the case is so confused that there is no “truth to be found What do you thinknm of the “justice” that Escalus hands out to Froth and to Pompey.
  4. What are Pompey’s ethical assumptuions (see his comments II,i. 283-84)
  5. 6. Consider Angelo’s justification for his severity (II, ii. 110-25).

Page 2

7. Ironically, what does Isabella’s plea reveal to Angelo about himself?

8. Trace the logical dilemma Isabella finds herself in at Angelo’s proposition (II, iv).

Do you agree that she would be acting under compulsion, should she save her brother by these means? Are there circumstances that mitigate the3 seeming selfishness of her refusal to save her brother (see also III, i. 137-47


  1. The Duke, dressed as a Friar, offers Claudio a very skeptical view of human happiness, evidently in an effort to help him face death (III,i, 118-32 and 172).
  2. Which action would you call “natural”? “rational”?

3. To modern readers, the convention of the “bed trick that the Duke devises to save Claudio is not, certainly, believable. The Duke justifies it by the lines, “Virtue is bold and goodness never fearful” (III, i, 211) Do you think it is Ethical?

The marriage convention of the time involved dowries and financial settlements. Compare the way Angelo acted in the face of difficulties (III,i, 217-27) with the way Claudio acted (I,ii, 150-57).

Compare the view the Duke hears about himself from Lucio (III,ii, 120-42 and from Escalus (III, ii. 235-40). Granted that what Escalus says is the true character of the Duke, is he at all responsible for the stories Lucio tells of him?

Acts IV and V: and the play as a whole

  1. Consider the portrait of Barnardine given by the Provost (IV, ii. 145-55).
  2. Can he be held responsible for his actions?
  3. The play ends with a meting out of punishments and general forgiveness. Discuss the treatment given
  4. Angelo
  5. Barnardine
  6. Lucio

One of the concerns of the play seems to be the relation of politics, or law, to everyday life. Is it clear at the end of the play what kind of law or administration of law in regard to sexual offenses should be followed?

Page 3

4. Another concern of the play seems to be the nature of the ruler or leaders of the city. The Veatch text cited Charles I as someone who knew the situation of his country only “by report and study” (p. 85). Conmpare the Duke in Measure for Measure.

5. If “living intelligently involves seeing things as they are and seeing oneself as one is” (Veatch, p. 86), who in the play has learned the most- the Duke? Angelo? Isabella?

mm- Excellent! Maybe we can find the ’80 or 82 class notes!

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