The exact genre of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is still a matter of debate among critics. However, it can be difficult to classify. You could not simply call it a “comedy,” as you would miss the disquieting feeling at Act V’s end, where the Duke proposes Isabella. This is why the term “problem-play” has become an accepted description for the three Shakespeare plays between 1601-1604. Problem plays, unlike comedy, are more complex than comedy and pose many questions that leave us with few answers. The play’s “happy ending”, according to commentators, has been called a “tragicomedy” by some. Giraldo Citthio, an Italian Renaissance writer said that a tragedyomedy will have a conclusion but not the “terrible” or “compassionable”. Shakespeare does indeed explore the theme “human frailty” quite honestly.
Lord Angelo is the most famous example of individual weakness within Measure for Measure. His subsequent fall from grace would be to diminish Shakespeare’s dramatic impact. Act1 Sc1 tells us that Angelo has never had his “metal” as ruler tested. It is unlikely that he can succeed in this role. The Duke is however the one who discovers Angelo’s key weakness. Act1 Sc3 he confides in the Friar that Angelo’s Deputy “scarce confesses/That he blood flows”, meaning Angelo fears his own sensuality. Lucio soon reinforces his statement, calling him “a man whose Blood/ Is very Snow-broth.” Lucio is a stark contrast to the lecherous behavior that has been sweeping through Vienna. Shakespeare highlights the fact that lechery cannot fully be stopped through Lucio. Angelo might attempt to “geld, splay all of Vienna’s youth”, but his efforts are ultimately futile. Angelo’s encounter (Act2 Sc2) with Isabella demonstrates that he must be more compassionate for Claudio and his Puritanical ways. Isabella tells Angelo “Go to [his] Bosom, Knock There” and asks him to examine his “natural guiltiness”, as all men have experienced. Angelo discovers his vulnerability as a result of this gentle reasoning. As a sign of his humanity, he puts an ironic spin on Isabella’s “Save Your Honour” and shifts the emphasis to “From you.” The presence of Isabella has had such an effect on his mental state that it is difficult for him to feel sympathy with his “tragic” death. The Globe recently produced a production in which the actor played the role assumed a pantomime portrayal of the “villain” and his response to Isabella’s threat that “I’ll tell all the world/ What man thou art” was met by an appalling “hiss” from the audience. Angelo’s “terrible” side seems to be what Cinthio was referring to.
It could be awkward to depict Isabella in comical terms due to the extreme nature of her character. Angelo’s explicit sexual repression of Angelo is more subtle and subtle than Isabella’s. When she requests “a stricter restraint” in the nunnery, her self-restriction is impliedly excessive. This is in contrast to the rigid conventions that are already in place. Act2 Sc4 shows Angelo’s bizarre outburst. Isabella describes graphically how it would be better to “strip [herself] like a mattress” than to “yield her body up to shame” if she was to sleep with him. Her use words like “longing” along with the sadistic imagery and “keen whips”, suggest a deep-seated sexual fantasy. Isabella is surrounded by a veil of her emotional insecurity, as the external and internal “goodness” (III.1.180), which Angelo, Lucio and Lucio perceive in Isabella. Lucio’s humor in Act2 Sc2 is what makes her inner vulnerability a source for laughter. Lucio keeps her going in an effort with Angelo to save Claudio’s life. Isabella’s reasoning is enhanced by her bawdy undertones, such as his cries of “O to him, to he, wench!” or “Ay, touch em; there’s the blood” Claudio asserted that Isabella had the ability to speak a “speechless language/ such as move men” in this episode (I.2.line174). It becomes more difficult to discern whether Shakespeare is serious about self-deception or merely demonstrating how things are often not what they seem. If these two explanations can co-exist, then Isabella’s role is very comical and a “problem plays” character.
Lucio is perhaps one of the few examples of comedy in Measure for Measure. He makes a lot of jokes about the predicaments of others and also pokes fun at himself. Act3 Sc2 shows Pompey being taken to prison by Lucio. Lucio doesn’t do anything but mock his friend’s fate. Lucio refuses to give Pompey bail money when he is asked. Lucio is well-versed in the details of Pompey’s crime (“being drunk”), and ironically this is not the first time Lucio has heard about it. Lucio’s mischievous nature is evident even when he’s with more respectable friends like Claudio. Lucio responds to the Duke’s question about Claudio’s sentence by using the innuendo “For filling up a bottle with tun-dish” (III.2.167). Lucio’s crude references to Lord Angelo are the most powerful. The Duke is informed by Lucio that Angelo was “begot between two stocksfishes”. This means that he has no sexual desire or appeal. Lucio then asserts that Angelo’s “urine contains congealed iron” to further reinforce his ‘coldhearted’, inhumane image. Lucio is arguably the worst offenders in Act5 because of his relentless slander. Even though Lucio may have had a great time laughing, there is now a sense that Lucio is being punished. The Duke’s proposal for Isabella creates an unsettling atmosphere that is completely out of character for comedy. It feels as though the Duke has used other characters exclusively as a means and end. Lucio is made his “jewel” for all the social disorder in Vienna. Lucio still manages to lift the mood with a last humorous retort. “Marrying a pusk, my Lord, is pressing for death, whipping or hanging” (V.1.520). The Duke’s abrupt statement that “Slandering the prince is a crime” makes this somewhat less important.
Even though the Bard depicts a rather grim picture of human nature, his play’s theme “human frailty”, is funny. Harold Bloom claims that Measure for Measure is “beyond any possible limits, past farce and long past satire. It almost surpasses irony at its most savage.” According to Sean Holmes, who directs a current production, the best performance would make the audience feel so moved they wouldn’t applaud the end. This is a bit extreme but it shows how Shakespeare mixes comedy and tragedy to spark debate, not laughter. The central theme of the play, “Cucullus Non facit Monachum” (V.I.261) is an important assertion about the play’s genre. Darker truths lie behind Measure for Measure’s humor.