Skip to content

A Scholar’s Perspective

Justice and Revolution

Carla Della Gatta, who contributes this essay, is a performance theorist and theater historian whose research focuses on aurality and ethnicity. She is coeditor of Shakespeare and Latinidad and author of the forthcoming monograph, Latinx Shakespeares: Staging U.S. Intracultural Theater. She is assistant professor of English at Florida State University.

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure depicts a society on the cusp of revolution. The laws are so strict that those in power violate the very laws they are tasked to uphold and consequently fear enforcing them on others. Shakespeare’s play opens with Duke Vincentio’s admission that he wishes to temporarily turn over governance, or rather law enforcement, to his deputy Angelo. In director Henry Godinez’s production, Shakespeare’s Vienna is transposed to 1950s Havana, with its thriving nightlife, music, and licentiousness that flourish under the nose of the Duke, who has allowed the laws to slip over the last fourteen years.

The production is set during the period in Cuba when President Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship would soon be replaced in 1959 by the rebel movement, spearheaded by Fidel Castro and what would later become the Communist Party of Cuba, which still governs today. The setting of Havana during the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s brings forward the dangers of religious ideology as means to dominate over the people. But it also offers the vibrancy of civil life, the intermixing of peoples in the city, and the staggering economic inequality—all that lead to a hope in a better future being possible if there is a change in governance.

As the play begins, the Duke decides to leave and brings in Angelo as the new law-and-order man, someone who can strictly enact the laws and is above reproach for any past mistakes. A young man named Claudio is arrested, publicly, because he has had sexual relations prior to marriage with his fiancée, Juliet. Claudio cannot afford the marriage banns; it is his poverty, not a lack of love, that make him unable to legalize his union. He is sentenced to death by beheading, making clear to audiences in both Shakespeare’s day and in our present time that punishments exceed the crime for those the government does not value equally. Mistress Overdone, the bordello owner, and those who work to make their living in her thriving business, are clearly in demand in society, yet they are subject to scrutiny and incarceration.

Claudio sends for his sister, Isabella, who is a novice of the convent and, once learning of Claudio’s situation, meets with Angelo to petition for Claudio’s release. Angelo reveals his own hypocrisy when he propositions Isabella in exchange for freeing her brother. Shakespeare structures the play in such a way that we get to see Isabella deliberate what she should do, weighing Claudio’s violation of the law, corporeal punishment, her familial duty toward her brother, her own corporeal autonomy and chastity, and Christian ethics.

As a novice nun, and therefore one who wishes to retreat from society to devote her life to her faith, her perspective on fairness and forgiveness is central to the story. Unique in the Shakespearean canon, the title of the play comes from a passage from the Bible, from Matthew 7:2: “or with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you.” The play combines ideas of religion with jurisprudence, questioning where we get our personal moral code, and how this might differ from the ethics within a culture.

Revolution occurs when the people overthrow those in power—or, stated differently, revolution is the dictatorship of the proletariat. Measure for Measure raises the question of who feels central in society when the laws and customs are too strict to account for human behavior. With so much illegal traffic—in cigars, rum, premarital sex—public lives do not mirror private lives, and clearly, Angelo’s righteousness does not equate to religious piety. The Duke’s use of disguise as a friar suggests that indirect influence, especially through the weight of a religious figure, may be a key strategy to reshaping the culture and its rules.

Measure for Measure has the most instances of each of the words “virtue,” “justice,” and “mercy” in the entire Shakespearean canon. Culminating in the final scene, nearly every character appears onstage to sort out not only the details of what has occurred but also the punishments (and rewards) for their actions. Perhaps this is the true staging of justice, putting everyone in a room together and admitting their actions before the community.

It also puts on trial assumptions about punishment and forgiveness. The play asks what crime is worse: adherence to unjust laws or breaking them to enact justice? Mariana, at the Duke’s suggestion, participates in committing a wrong to someone who has wronged her, and for both her and the society, the ends justify the means. At the play’s close, the proposed unions may not exactly be the recompense for any crimes or lies—or the solution to moving society forward.

Measure for Measure has often been referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” a designation that signals just how challenging it has proven for scholars to classify. It is in fact a comedy—defined by several qualities of the early modern theater, including that nobody dies onstage and there are unions at the end, even if they are problematic. It is the last comedy that Shakespeare writes and, like Twelfth Night that precedes it, involves a female character who must deal with the consequences of someone’s unwanted advances and the convention of disguise driving the dramatic action. It is the problems that the play exposes and their possible remedies that lead the characters to take unconventional actions in the hopes of a better future. In Godinez’s Cuban setting, these questions extend to the present day, suggesting perhaps the future will be led by those brave enough to challenge the rules and define justice for themselves.


Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s JOHN W. AND JEANNE M. ROWE INQUIRY AND EXPLORATION SERIES encompasses our varied audience enrichment programs—like this Scholar’s Perspective—introducing patrons to the rich world of ideas embodied in the productions on our stages. With the participation of scholars, theater artists and the Theater’s professional staff, they provide thoughtful points of entry for engagement by our many audiences. Those who wish to dig deeper will be offered another lens through which to understand these great plays and the breathtaking art-making behind them.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater dedicates this Scholar’s Perspective to the memory of John W. Rowe. A longtime board member, John, with his wife Jeanne, was a loyal supporter of the Theater’s work. His legacy lives on through this series dedicated to lifelong learning.


Back to Measure for Measure