Using the ‘Place and Person’ Tool in Understanding Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’


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

Most of Shakespeare’s plays can be categorized as comedies or tragedies, and each category has determining characteristics. However, there are three plays that fall into neither: the problem plays. Measure for Measure if one of them, and a strong tool to understand it is the ‘place and person tool’. Read on to find out how it works and what it specifies.

Shakespeare's Globe Theater where most of his plays were staged.
The ‘place and person’ tool shows the readers how law and order is led by a double-sided hypocrite. (Image:Victor Moussa/Shutterstock)

The Duke

The place and person tool explains the importance of how a character relates to a place or scene. In Measure for Measure, each place is associated with a certain character. There are some important characters, and each either hides something or eventually changes to worse: the duke, Angelo, Isabella, Lucio, and Claudio. The duke’s abdication of authority is the first source of all the problems in the play.

The duke leaves his dukedom to Angelo, a lord, and leaves to a friar’s cell secretly. No one knows where he goes, but he wants to get help from the friar to disguise himself as one and return to spy on the dukedom and especially Angelo. But why does he leave Angelo in charge?

He wants to impose some rules in his city, but he is afraid that the people will no longer like him. He tells the friar in the third scene that Vienna has harsh laws on the books that he has not enforced for 14 years. Now, society is extremely chaotic, and he needs the rules, but he does not want to lose popularity. Solution? Leaving Angelo in charge for a while so that he imposes the laws, and the duke keeps his likable face. Why Angelo?

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

The Reason for Picking Angelo

William Hunt Claudio and Isabella in a scene from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.
When Isabella tries to save her brother Claudio, she pleads to Angelo and another side of Angelo’s character emerges. (Image: Tate/Public domain)

At the beginning of the play, Angelo is a more likable character than the duke. Before picking him, the duke asks his other deputy, Escalus, what he thinks of this plan to have Angelo take the duke’s place. When Angelo enters, the duke tells him,

Angelo, / There is a kind of character in thy life, / That to the observer doth thy history / Fully unfold.

That is unusual for Shakespeare’s characters to say, as it goes against the appearance versus reality problem he tries to depict in his writings: the appearance and reality do not usually match, and one cannot judge a person merely by their appearance. However, here the duke says he can tell what Angelo’s true inner character is, simply by looking at his appearance.

Apparently, the duke can already tell what the readers will find out eventually throughout the play. Angelo seems to be moral, self-controlled, and virtuous, but the duke believes power would reveal his real desires and who he really is, or change him into a different person. He is conducting a philosophical experiment to see if virtue can stand against power.

Learn more about The Merchant of Venice.

The Two-Sidedness of Characters

The duke is like Hamlet and Prince Hal in the sense that he tries to understand how the human self and human society work. At the same time, he is the coward avoider of responsibility that does not want to be disliked by his people. He is not the only two-sided character in the play.

Isabella is a character who first appears when she is about to enter a convent for life. She is not becoming a nun for the love of God and religion. She does it because of her fear of the body and her uncompromising dislike for human company. However, she goes to plead for the life of her brother, Claudio, who is condemned to death because he got a woman pregnant. She does not approve of what he has done and tells him that:

There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice; For which I would not plead, but that I must; For which I must not plead, but that I am At war ‘twixt will and will not.

These lines show the split nature of all characters in the play. When Isabella goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, Angelo reveals to the readers that he has fallen completely in love—or lust—with her.

Learn more about Measure for Measure.

Isabella, the Fair or the Foul?

In the second interaction with Angelo, Isabella turns him down firmly, but with words that draw a very erotic scene:

“Were I under the terms of death,
The impression of keen whips I’ld wear as rubies, And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’ld yield
My body up to shame.”

Painting of the Plays of William Shakespeare, containing scenes and characters from several of his plays.
The characters in Measure for Measure are not what they seem to be, and the two-sidedness is not specific to only one or two. (Image: John Gilbert/Public domain)

The conversation takes place at Angelo’s house, which is supposed to be a place of law, order, and authority. However, it seems like the law has acted in reverse and brought out Isabella’s most sensual side. It is not clear if Isabella knows what she is doing, but it is clear that almost all characters in the play are bound to a specific setting, and their two-sidedness affects the place and its function.

Thus, the place and person tool can help understand the duality and hidden meanings of Measure for Measure.

Common Questions about the ‘Place and Person’ Tool in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Q: What is the place and person tool?

The place and person tool is concerned with how a character relates to a place or scene. In Measure for Measure, each of the places is associated with a different character.

Q: Why does the duke leave his dukedom and put Angelo in charge in Measure for Measure?

The place and person tool in Measure for Measure reveals that the duke is afraid that his people would hate him and see him as a tyrant if he tried to impose strict laws. Thus, he puts Angelo in charge so that he imposes the laws and the duke is not disliked.

Q: What does Angelo ask of Isabella in Measure for Measure?

Angelo tells Isabella if he can grant her brother’s freedom if she agrees to sleep with him. Isabella says no, but in a confusing manner. The place and person tool shows that she might also not be as pure and innocent as she shows.

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