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Tuis comedy was first printed in the folio collection of 1623. The original edition is divided into acts and scenes. It also gives the enumeration of characters as we have printed them, such a list of “ the names of the actors " being rarely presented in the early copies. It has been recently ascertained that “ Measure for Measure' was presented at Court by the King's players (the company to which Shakspere belonged) in 1604.
The general outline of the story upon which • Measure for Measure' is founded is presented to us in such different forms, and with reference to such distinct times and persons, that, whether historically true or not, we can have no doubt of its universal interest. It is told of an officer of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy; of Oliver le Diable, the wicked favourite of Louis XI. ; of Colonel Kirke, in our own country; of a captain of the Duke of Ferrara. In all these cases an unhappy woman sacrifices her own honour for the promised safety of one she loves; and in all, with the exception of the case of Colonel Kirke, the abuser of authority is punished with death. Whatever interest may attach to the narrative of such an event, it is manifest that the dramatic conduct of such a story is full of difficulty, especially in a scrupulous age. But the public opinion, which,
in this particular, would operate upon a dramatist in our own day, would not affect a writer for the stage in the times of Elizabeth and James; and, in point of fact, plots far more offensive became the subject of very popular dramas long after the times of Shakspere. It appears to us that, adopting such a subject in its general bearings, he has managed it with uncommon adroitness by his deviations from the accustomed story. By introducing a contrivance by which the heroine is not sacrificed, he preserves our respect for her, which would be involuntarily lost if she fell, even though against her own will; and by this management he is also enabled to spare the great offender without an unbearable violation of our sense of justice.
The leading idea of the character of Isabella is that of one who abides the direst temptation which can be presented to a youthful, innocent, unsuspecting, and affectionate woman—the temptation of saving the life of one most dear, by submitting to a shame which the sophistry of self-love might represent as scarcely criminal. All other writers who have treated the subject have conceived that the temptation could not be resisted. Shakspere alone has confidence enough in female virtue to make Isabella never for a moment eyen doubt of her proper course. But he has based this virtue, most unquestionably, upon the very highest principle upon which any virtue can be built. The foundation of Isabella's character is religion. The character of Angelo is the antagonist to that of Isabella. In a city of licentiousness he is
“ A man of stricture and firm abstinence."
« Precise ;
That his blood flows."
“ Doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
With profits of the mind, study and fast." But he wanted the one sustaining principle by which Isabella was upheld. After Shakspere had conceived the character of Isabella, and in that conception had made it certain that her virtue must pass unscathed through the fire, he had to contrive a series of incidents by which the catastrophe should proceed onward through all the stages of Angelo's guilt of intention, and terminate in his final exposure. Mr. Hallam says, “ There is great skill in the invention of Mariana, and without this the story could not have anything like a satisfactory termination.” But there is great skill also in the management of the incident in the Duke's hands, as well as in 'the invention; and this is produced by the wonderful propriety with which the character of the Duke is drawn. He is described by Hazlitt as a very imposing and mysterious stage character, absorbed in his own plots and gravity. This is said depreciatingly. But it is precisely this sort of character that Shakspere meant to put in action.
And here, then, as it appears to us, we have a key to the purpose of the poet in the introduction of what constitutes the most unpleasant portion of this play,—the exhibition of a very gross general profligacy. There is an atmosphere of impurity hanging like a dense fog
over the city of the poet. The philosophical ruler, the saintly votaress, and the sanctimonious deputy, appear to belong to another region to that in which they move. This, possibly, was not necessary for the higher dramatic effects of the comedy; but it was necessary for those lessons of political philosophy which we think Shakspere here meant to inculcate, and which he appears to us on many occasions to have kept in view in his later plays. In this play he manifests, as we apprehend, his philosophical view of a corrupt state of manners fostered by weak government: but the subject is scarcely dramatic, and it struggles with his own proper powers.
Vincentio, the Duke. Appears, Act I. sc. 1; sc. 4. Act II. sc. 3. Act III. sc 1; sc. 2.
Act IV. sc. l; sc. 2; sc. 3 ; sc. 5. Act V. sc. l.
Angelo, the deputy [in the Duke's absence). Appears, Act I, sc. 1. Act II. sc. 1 ; sc. 2; SC. 4. Act IV. sc. 4.
Act V. sc. 1.
Act IV. sc. 4. Act V. sc. 1.
Claudio, a young gentleman.
Act V. sc. 1.
Lucio, a fantastic. Appears, Act I. sc 2; sc. 3; sc. 5. Act II. sc. 2. Act III.
șc. 2; sc. 3.
Act V. sc. 1.
Provost. Appears, Act I. sc. 3. Act II. sc. 1; sc. 2; sc. 3. Act Ill. sc. 1; sc. 2. Act IV. sc. 2; sc. 3. Act 1'. sc. 1.
Thomas, a friar.
Peter, a friar.