The Fair and the Foul 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

The element of “fair and foul” is not just limited to Macbeth. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is not a tragedy, but has a fair and foul story as well. Here, fair eventually turns into foul, perhaps, as a result of power. Another possibility is that they were always foul but disguised themselves as fair. The play makes it complicated to figure out the truth, but not impossible.

Statue of William Shakespeare Lincoln Park, Chicago.
The fair and the foul are so hard to tell apart in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that no character can be trusted as really as good as they show. (Image: Victorgrigas at English Wikipedia/CC0/Public domain)

Angelo and Isabella

At the opening of the play, the duke tells Lord Angelo that he can tell what Angelo is like on the inside, merely by his appearance. He left Angelo in charge of the city both to escape the responsibility of enforcing laws and to test Angelo’s virtue under the effect of power. As he predicted, power turns Angelo into a foul or makes him reveal his hidden character.

Isabella pleads to Angelo for her brother’s freedom from the prison. She is a nun, yet Angelo desires her and asks her for love. She first turns him down with an ironically sensual wording and imagery. The second time, she threatens Angelo that if he does not help with Claudio’s freedom, she will tell everyone what kind of man he is.

Veiled medieval woman staring out of the window of her castle.
Angelo wants to conquer Isabella, and she says that she does not want it, but the way she speaks is very much the opposite of what she says. (Image: Devin Meijer/Shutterstock)

This is where Angelo fully reveals his wickedness and tells her that no one would believe her words over his reputation as a virtuous man. He continues,

“redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance.”

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

Angelo is officially the fair gone foul. Unlike many other plays, there is no absolute hero to oppose him. Isabella is also a confusing character. She can either be a heroine with strong moral qualities or another hypocrite. Is there any ray of hope?

Learn more about overcoming tragedy in Measure for Measure.

The Character of Lucio

Lucio spends much time in brothels, where he first appears in the play as he jokes about grace and venereal disease. However, he turns serious when he hears about Claudio’s condemnation to death because of getting a girl pregnant. He says, “but, after all this fooling, I would not have it so.”

When he goes to the convent to tell Isabella about her brother, the wording he uses to describe that Claudio has had sex and got a woman pregnant is very different from the vulgar language at the brothel. He even uses metaphors of nature and blossoms. He also believes that Angelo’s death sentence for Claudio is too much and unnatural.

Lucio is the one character that speaks the truth about Vienna in the first half of the play. In the second half, he speaks so harshly about the duke – when he comes back disguised as a friar – that it gets him in trouble. However, he also has some true points there. The duke’s purpose of getting into disguise was to spy on his dukedom, and especially on Angelo in the duke’s place. Lucio offers some truth and a ray of hope, but is there any other character like that?

Learn more about the tools for a lifetime of Shakespeare.

Barnardine, the Prisoner

A painting of Isabella in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure
All the fairs in the play are usually hypocrites who use the good face to either get what they want or escape what they do not want. (Image: Francis William Topham (1808-1877)/Public domain)

There is another character in prison, also with a death sentence: Barnardine. He refuses to come out of his cell until they chop off his head. In fact, he refuses everything that he can. When the duke comes to the prison disguised as a friar and asks about Barnardine, the provost responds that the man is always drunk, cares for nothing, is “careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come: insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal.”

Barnardine is allowed to escape any time he wants, but he is too drunk and uncaring to make an attempt. The duke tries to execute him and spoil Angelo’s scheme by presenting his severed head as Claudio’s, but Barnardine refuses and tells him is does not consent to die that day. Even when the law tells him it is finally time to die, he again refuses and goes back to his cell for more drinks.

His constant refusals hold a specific message: in a world as crazy as the one in the play, where loving a woman deserves the death penalty, hypocrisy rules, the fair and the foul are the same, and no good is to be found, ignoring and refusing might be the only ways to cope with it.

Common Questions about the Fair and the Foul in Measure for Measure

Q: How does the tool of juxtaposition relate to fair and foul in Measure for Measure?

It is the tool of looking closely at the juxtaposition of scenes and how characters and scenes interact, that shows the fair and the foul in Measure for Measure, and how fair will become foul in the end.

Q: Which character is a perfect example of fair and foul in Measure for Measure?

Angelo in Measure for Measure is fair and the foul at the same time, but the transition from fair to foul happens eventually in the play.

Q: Is Barnardine in Measure for Measure also a fair that turns into foul?

Barnardine is an imprisoned character who eventually stops caring for everything, even escaping prison when they allow him. The fair and the foul is not the best tool for understanding Barnardine in Measure for Measure.

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