The Role of Folklore and Folktale in ‘Measure for Measure’

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Folklore and folktale are a normal part of Shakespeare’s plays. In Measure for Measure, there are many instances of this tool being used in different parts of the play and with different characters. Angelo, Isabella, Mariana, the Duke, Lucio, and almost all other characters are involved in folktales. Read on to see which folktales found their way into Measure for Measure.

First Folio (Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies)
Folklore and folktale usually play an important role in Shakespeare’s writings, especially in Measure for Measure. (Image: Andreas Praefcke/Public domain)

Shakespeare commonly use folklore and folktale in his plays. Measure for Measure uses the tool in many acts and themes and with many characters. To find out where all the tool has been used, one must first learn about the settings in the play.

Mariana’s Home

Mariana is Angelo’s abandoned fiancé. When the duke finds out that Angelo is trying to force Isabella into sleeping with him, he comes up with a scheme that involves both women. Mariana’s home is a “the moated grange”, which is a kind of farm. It represents a place of repose, nature, and life, where love could be rekindled.

The grange is the contrast to Vienna, where lechery, lust, disease, and the injustice of harsh laws reign. This setting soon overwrites the greenery of love and peace from Mariana’s home. However, the shift of the play begins in the short presence in the grange.

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

Stagecraft in Measure for Measure

The stagecraft tool helps the readers understand the duke very well in the second half of this play. He is an actor when he comes back disguised as a friar, a director when he arranges people different impersonations and performances, and a writer who determines how the play ends. The duke is like a weakened version of Hamlet or Henry V.

The Use of Folklore and Folktale in Measure for Measure

Image of Isabella, a character from Shakespeare' Measure for Measure
The duke’s scheme that involves Mariana and Isabella is based on a folktale where a man sleeps with a woman, thinking he is sleeping with another. (Image: Francis William Topham (1808-1877)/Public domain)

Shakespeare used folklore and folktale in his writings frequently. The scheme against Angelo is an example. The bed trick is a folktale device, where a man thinks he is sleeping with a woman, but the woman gives her place to another, and he ends up sleeping with the second woman.

The corrupt judge—also Angelo—is another example. Trying to use his power to force a woman into bed with the promise of saving her brother or husband, which he breaks after sex, is a folklore story.

The next folkloric item is the prince (here, the duke) in disguise. He comes back to his dukedom disguised as a friar. Perhaps, the most fundamental and international figure of folklore and folktale is the trickster. The trickster is mischievous, loves disguise and deception, and enjoys arranging the most unexpected outcomes.

Learn more about the tools for a lifetime of Shakespeare.

The Trickster in Measure for Measure

Lucio has a good reason to call the duke the “old fantastical Duke of dark corners.” Obviously, the trickster in Measure for Measure is the duke. From a religious point of view, the trickster has a hidden force for good that pushes the story toward a happy ending, like the Holy Spirit, the “comforter” left behind after the Resurrection and Ascension to guide the world.

This is similar to what the duke does, turning the tragic ending into a comic one. To see how he does it, we need another element called the basanos or the test.

Learn more about Measure for Measure and the elements of comedy in it.

The Basanos in Measure for Measure

The duke puts every character to test. Angelo, Isabella, Mariana, Escalus, even Lucio are all tested with different elements. The complement to understanding basanos is viewing it as the ordeal.

In Measure for Measure, the ordeals of Isabella and Angelo lead the play to its end. Angelo fails at the test and is easily mislead by power. His virtue is too shallow to stand against his desires, and he turns into a tyrant. Apparently, the duke already knew of Angelo’s hypocrisy, and Angelo himself knew better than anyone, as he reveals in a soliloquy:

“When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects: Heaven hath my empty words, Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, Anchors on Isabel. Heaven in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception.”

Angelo is a hero and villain, but not a true villain. He suffers guilt and even regrets executing Claudio. His words at this scene resemble those of Isabella when she wanted to plead for her brother’s life. She says she loves her brother but hates his crime. Isabella and Angelo mirror each other as both conceal their true selves and need to learn who they really are.

Act five is when the scheme against Angelo is played—the one with two women switching places for sleeping with a man. That is another basanos that Angelo fails.

Thus, we can see that Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is heavily dependent on elements of folklore and folktale, even more than his other plays.

Common Questions about Folklore and Folktale in Measure for Measure

Q: Are there elements of folklore in Measure for Measure?

Measure for Measure uses the folklore and folktale tool significantly. Angelo’s deception, the scheme that the duke, Mariana, and Isabella developed, the duke in disguise, they are all elements of folktale.

Q: Is there any common tool of drama in Measure for Measure?

Yes. Shakespeare uses folklore and folktale in his dramas, and in Measure for Measure as well. As it is a problem play, it has different elements from different types of plays, but the folktales are extremely bold here.

Q: What is the trickster character?

In folklore and folktale, the trickster is mischievous, loves disguise and deception, and revels in arranging outcomes nobody could have expected.

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