Scene Progression in Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HOW TO READ AND UNDERSTAND SHAKESPEARE

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Scene progression is the tool that shows how much seriousness lies in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Although it is regarded as a comedy, many scenes are not funny, and the progression throughout the play has important things to reveal about the hypocrites and ‘fouls’ who are dressed as ‘fair’. But what is the scene progression tool, and how does it help?

An image of the Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.
Measure for Measure is a problem play and can be understood through tools such as scene progression. (Image: VictorianWeb/Public domain)

Measure for Measure has numerous tragic scenes. For example, in the opening of Act 3, there is a very disappointing description of life, spoken by a priest to a man condemned to die: “Reason thus with life: / If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing / That none, but fools would keep.”  “A breath thou art … thou art Death’s fool.” “Thou art not noble,” “Thou’rt by no means valiant,” “Happy thou art not.” He then continues to draw a picture of life as base, cowardly, enviable, and miserable.

The lines remind the reader of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” which is not at all comic. He ends the “comfort” lines with how a man should welcome death since life can bring miseries and diseases. It gets even more tragic when the condemned man thanks the priest and tells him that now he too thinks it is better to die. This is how Measure for Measure can be seen as a problem play.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Shakespeare’s Problem Plays

Shakespeare wrote his best comedies from 1599 to 1601. Then, in the next seven years, he wrote his great tragedies. However, there were three problem plays produced in the middle of this period, one of which is Measure for Measure. The problem plays are neither comedy nor tragedy, being both comic and bitterly tragic.

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays - Google Art Project
Many main characters in Measure for Measure are not really what they appear to be, and hypocrisy is a strong theme in the play. (Image: Yale Center for British Art/Public domain)

Either Shakespeare wanted to write comedies again, but the dominance of tragedy in his mind made them bitter, or the audience wanted more comedies, but he no longer believed in them. The understanding tools reveal the strangeness of Measure for Measure immediately.

Learn more about comic tools in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Essential Tools to Understand Measure for Measure

The first tool here is the altar or tomb tool, where marriages take place, but they are so unsatisfying that no one wants them to happen. Next is the ‘block to love’ tool; but here, no person blocks the young love, the law does.

Sexuality in this play takes its basest form, and as the heroine is trying to escape from it, the so-called hero manipulates her powerfully. At the end of the play, she gives no response to his request, and it is not clear if any marriage is possible or even desirable. When these tools fail to help the reader understand the play, what can help?

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

The Scene Progression Tool

With the scene progression tool, the progressive development of the settings of the scenes are compared. The tool helps readers see how important the structure and the setting are in getting to the meaning.

The first place where this tool comes into operation is the First Act. The First Scene occurs at the place of government, displaying law, power, and order as the highest authority in the play. The second Scene, however, is right outside a brothel—the place of illicit sexuality, disorder, and illegality—where the reader finds out about Claudio. He is sentenced to death for getting a woman pregnant without marrying her. The third Scene is set in the cell of a friar, a religious and secret place, where the duke wants to disguise himself as a friar and go back to his city as a spy.

The final scene of Act I is at a nunnery, where Lucio tells Isabella about Claudio’s condemnation. Lucio is first seen at the brothel scene, and Isabella is Claudio’s sister, who is about to enter the convent for life. What can the scene progression tool tell us?

How the Scene Progression Tool Works

The play starts at the place of public order and law, but immediately shifts to its opposite, the brothel. The same happens quite frequently throughout the play, and the scenes shift from pure goodness to pure evil until they are difficult to distinguish. In some scenes, they thoroughly mingle.

A scene from Act II, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.
Many of the characters in Measure for Measure are not the pure goodness that they try to present themselves as. (Image: William Hamilton/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

At the religious place in the third scene, one expects goodness. However, we find deception and lies: the duke is asking the friar to help him with pretend to be a friar with the aim of spying on his dukedom and the man who rules now. The duke puts Lord Angelo in his place and leaves on his task. The next surprise is that the friar, who is supposed to embody goodness and trust, agrees to help the duke and conspire with him.

Isabella also is not as pure as she is expected to be as a future nun. She requests rules upon entrance to the convent, stricter than the strict running rules of the Sisters of Clare. However, she is not there for the love of God. She is there as she fears, and even hates, the body and sexuality, and even is repulsed by love itself.

Measure of Measure is full of paradoxes and meanings that can be revealed through different tools.

Common Questions about Scene Progression in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Q: What is an example of scene progression in Measure for Measure?

In Measure for Measure, in Act 1, the first scene, the place of government, the duke’s palace or castle is described, while in the next scene, we move to a street right outside a brothel, the place of illicit sexuality, disorder, and illegality.

Q: What does the change of scenes between the first and the second scenes in Measure for Measure show?

The scene progression in Measure for Measure shows that pure goodness and pure vice are put side-by-side until, eventually, we can hardly tell them apart.

Q: Does the ‘block to love’ tool help in understanding Measure for Measure?

Yes. Although scene progression is a more efficient tool here, the block to love in Measure for Measure is also helpful. However, here the highest law in the land outlaws young love, not an angry father.

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