In what way is Shakespeare's Measure for Measure a tragicomedy?

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Answered by: Camden, An Expert in the The Plays Category
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure can be seen as a tragicomedy for several reasons. There are several problematic aspects of the play that make it difficult to classify as either comedy or tragedy, which include the awkward bedroom trick, the inability to resolve the initial societal concern at the beginning of the play, and the ending of the play that is not necessarily a happy ending despite the resulting marriages. Measure for Measure is a tragicomedy because it fits the formula of ending in marriage, as a comedy, however the play possesses morally questionable activities from the protagonists that make placing the play in the genre of comedy too problematic. Conversely, the play is not a tragedy as fatal flaws are not met with death or ruin. Measure for Measure is a tragicomedy because it does not fit conveniently within either the genre of comedy or tragedy pursuant to Shakespeare’s other works that do fit within these genres.

In her essay “Shakespearian Tragicomedy” Verna Foster states “The testing of Angelo is the premise of Measure for Measure as tragicomedy, for Angelo’s new authority and the Duke’s disguised presence in Vienna promise tragic potential and comic resolution, respectively.” (Foster 61). Foster’s essay explains how Shakespeare is combining two incongruous genres. Angelo’s treatment of Isabella is reminiscent of a tragedy, as Angelo is rejecting the morality the Duke believed he held before his proposal to Isabella. When Isabella asks if Claudio will die, Angelo states: “He shall not, if you give me love.” (III.1) an aspect of tragedy that is present is that Angelo, believing to have taken Isabella’s virginity, still orders Claudio to be killed. However, the elements of comedy are the Duke’s ability to summarily route Angelo. He trades Isabella with Angelo’s former betrothed Mariana and substitutes a pirate for Claudio. Despite having been a party to the scheme, the Duke still insists upon maintaining a comedic air about the situation. Although the Duke has the authority to resolve the aforementioned issues by resuming his position of power, he chooses to bring the truth to life in an awkward reveal at the conclusion of Shakespeare’ s play.

Measure for Measure concludes with several marriages. Marriage is problematic in Shakespeare’s play as it is truly only a reward for Marianna, Claudio, and Juliet. On the other hand Angelo and Lucio are punished with marriage. Lucio’s response to the Duke’s decree that he marry the prostitute betrays marriage as a celebration: “Marrying a punk. my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (V.1) Shakespeare subverts the expectation that marriage is a joyous occasion by having the duke impose marriage as a catch-all solution. Like a tragedy, Angelo has fallen victim to his fatal flaw: lust for Isabella.

However, he is married by the end of the play. The Duke’s proposal to Isabella is also problematic. The sole purpose for the convoluted bedroom trick and resulting corpse switch is to save Isabella from Angelo. With her initial desire to be a nun, a marriage proposal is unfitting for her character. This highlights that Shakespeare’s play can neither be a comedy nor a tragedy.

Moreover, the original societal issue is not resolved. The Duke left for Angelo to maintain order and curtail the sexual immorality that has led to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. However, the initial concern is never even addressed upon the Duke’s inevitable return to power. Mistress Overdone and Pompey are never seen again, much less punished for their contributions to the immorality of Vienna.

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