Comparing Measure

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Parallels between Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night

What is comedy? Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia says: "A comedy depicts the follies and absurdities of human beings." Webster's Dictionary defines comedy as: "A drama or narrative with a happy ending." Shakespeare's play, Measure for Measure, fits both of these descriptions. Follies and absurdities are present in the play: Lucio slanders the Duke, not realizing that his crude remarks are being spoken to the Duke himself; Angelo abuses his power thinking that the Duke is not present to know; and Ragozine happens to die in prison the day a head is needed to substitute for Claudio's. The play also ends on several merry notes, consistent with the definition of comedy. For example, Angelo's life is spared and he is forgiven; Mariana is married to Angelo; the Duke punishes Lucio humorously with marriage; Barnardine is pardoned; and Claudio is saved. The parallels between Measure for Measure and three other Shakespearean comedies, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, also help to classify Measure for Measure as a comedy. In Measure for Measure, like in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, an arbitrary law or obstacle is eventually overcome; a disguised character affects the outcome of the play; a clown adds humor to the plot; a female character bears a large responsibility for the final resolution; and forgiveness and reconciliation mark the conclusion of the action.

Some critics consider Measure for Measure a "dark" play because of the serious obstacles encountered by the characters. However, doesn't The Merchant of Venice also have near-tragic hindrances that affect the comic plot? In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio's life is at stake because of his bond to Shylock, and in Measure for Measure, Claudio awaits execution for his fornication with Juliet. Comedy often begins with some kind of irrational law which blocks up the main thrust of the comic story, and the comic story somehow manages to evade or ignore the hindrance. Sometimes, instead of the law, the play starts with a mood of deep gloom that is the main obstacle the comic action must overcome. Twelfth Night, for example, opens with Duke Orsino's love melancholy, evident from his first lines: "If music be the food of love, play on/ Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,/ The appetite may sicken, and so die" (Twelfth Night, I, I, 1-3). The depression prevalent in Twelfth Night also affects two female characters, Olivia and Viola, who are in mourning for their dead brothers. The melancholic barriers in Twelfth Night are similar to the obstacles presented by the harsh rule of Angelo in Measure for Measure. The ugly law of fornication that is strictly enforced by Angelo scowls at the characters in Measure for Measure from the beginning, and Angelo's temperament, in both his incorruptible and later phases, ensures that there will be enough gloom.

Like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, the Duke in Measure for Measure disguises himself in order to intervene and turn the tide of the near-tragic plot. Some critics, however, have a difficult time accepting the crafty Duke because he tricks and manipulates everybody in the play. However, like the Christian idea of "providence" bringing events about in an unlikely and unexpected way, the Duke's mysterious and unusual workings eventually lead to a deep benevolence. In the long run nobody in the play is physically hurt; the Duke shows mercy by punishing Lucio and Angelo only with marriage, and even the condemned criminal Barnardine is set free, except that he has another friar attached to him. Like Rosalind, who masquerades as a male in As You Like It in order to test Orlando and manipulate the other characters, the disguised Duke serves as a puppeteer in the play, and tests the quality of his subjects. Angelo, the hypocrite, and...
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