Ask Philippa: Measure for Measure Edition

Measure for Measure was written in 1604 at a pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s career. The playwright was 40 and had just finished writing a long line of comedies that explored complex issues of sex, marriage, and personal identity, and great tragedies—Othello, Macbeth, Lear—were in gestation. Measure falls somewhere between them, mixing the darkness of a brutal change of regime with the eventual relief of a comic resolution: along the way, it asks many questions and does not provide easy answers.

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at, or post below to ask her a question.

Measure for Measure continues through September 8. Click here to learn more and buy tickets!


4 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: Measure for Measure Edition

  1. Glad to see that prenzie survived intact in this production.My authority for this play is N.W.Bawcutt in the Oxford Shakespeare series.His arguments are convincing and besides, I like the word. Try using it.People affect to understand it if used in context.” Pompous and prudish” comes close . Much virtue in prenzie

    • Hello Roger,
      I’m really sounding like a geek here – but there was no quarto version of M for M; and as early as the 2nd quarto (about 1630) editors decided that “prenzie” was a mis-spelling and altered it to “princely.” So now you’ve given a whole new layer of meaning! Thank you!

  2. Shakespeare is amazing in his ability create complexities.
    At one point in the play Angelo says he loves Isabella. He troubles himself trying to work through how someone so opposite could affect him so. Is it just lust? Did Shakespeare want to imply Angelo lusted after Isabella, or did Shakespeare intend for Angelo to feel love? Is he inept at expressing love, or unwilling to be that vulnerable? Is Shakespeare using “love” interchanging with “lust,” in the case of Angelo? At first she does not understand what he is talking about. Is he testing her for her feelings toward him?
    She apparently has no interest in men, only God.
    And so is the Duke really any better than Angelo, when asking Isabella, out of the blue, to give up her vows for him? Is he expressing love or lust?
    How did Measure for Measure play in Shakespeare’s time? Is it known if the play was liked by the court or by the patrons?
    Thanks for your grove talks and question answering. I appreciate you enhancing our understanding of the plays and productions.

    • Hello Mike,

      Hi Mike, and I love your questions – we’re a team! I think a key to Angelo’s awakening of feeling lies in that first exchange between him and Isabella, where Isabella asks him to knock at his own bosom and see if there is feeling there that is at all like Claudio’s. We might assume that Angelo has been a prudish, puritanical figure – and that when he does knock at his own bosom, he is surprised to discover feelings of lust. Another line that is very resonant to me comes just after Isabella has left after her first audience with him: after she leaves, he says, “For thee – even for thy virtue.” Is there something about this virtuous creature that somehow permits him to discover in himself feelings of attraction – in a way in which he couldn’t, for example, if looking at a playboy magazine? Then there’s also the suggestion that (since Shakespeare wanted to mock the puritans, who were by this time in the ascendancy) there is something utterly perverse in Angelo’s feelings of lust.

      I agree with you about the Duke – why should he wrest Isabella out of one predator’s arms only to replace this predator with himself? This is why Tyne wanted to work in her own twist at the end.

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