“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
Instead of a linear world, where one measure leads to another, Shakespeare presents a world of chaos. Much of this chaos results from a lack of balance. Measure for Measure is a play full of dualities forced to confront each other--power and submission, church and state, men and women—but none so much as sex and death. Shakespeare shows us a fictional Vienna, a place that is not quite anywhere, so could be any place. And Vienna, we immediately learn, is not alright. The balance of power in Vienna is almost nonexistent, and it manifests most clearly in the issues of sex and death.
The Duke of Vienna, in an attempt to remedy some of the unruliness around him, implements a series of laws. His laws marry sex and death: notably making sex out of wedlock an offense punishable by death. The Duke possesses an extraordinary amount of power that he is unable to wield effectively as Vienna has fallen into dangerous disarray. Part of the Duke’s inability is that he cannot see the extent of his own power, as he has been privileged enough to live in an insulated world without consequences. Curious to experience his world as a more common man, as well as for more personal and political reasons, he pretends he is abroad, meanwhile disguising himself as a Friar to walk hidden among his people.
Mirroring the Duke is Lucio, also a nobleman with a great deal of influence. Like the Duke, Lucio has managed to avoid consequences for most of his life by virtue of being someone who inherited a great deal of money and power. The relationship between the Duke and Lucio is complicated, and there is no easy answer as to whether they truly like each other—or not. They do, however, perhaps know each other best of all the pairs of characters in the play. Lucio lives in the licentious underbelly of Vienna. His world is that of the brothels that the Duke is trying to close. Brazenly, Lucio never pretends to be anything he is not, and while the Duke might fear sex, Lucio might fear death. Both, however, fear female sexuality. It manifests differently in each man; the Duke seeks to control it while Lucio runs from really knowing any woman.
As demonstrated by these two men, the authorities in Vienna are corrupt and have too much power. The system of checks and balances is nonexistent, and the effects ripple throughout society. The extent of the Viennese authority is extreme to the point of trying to control peoples’ bodies, specifically women's. If a woman is pregnant she must remain so, regardless of circumstances. If a woman is propositioned for sex, she must say yes or reap the tremendous consequences of a scorned man in power. If a woman tries to navigate the underworld, she must face arrest and stigma.
The government has a great deal of control over individual freedoms, which can be interesting to watch play out on stage in our own social and political climate. All of the characters are faced with impossible situations; unfortunately, some are not too difficult to imagine ourselves in today. Every decision made has tremendous consequences, and no one decision can sit completely right with an audience. Who can we like in Vienna? Surely, we can find pieces of ourselves in every flawed character in Measure for Measure. We may even cringe as this play confronts us with the worst parts of ourselves.
The Duke has the most burdensome decisions to make in the play as he masquerades as Friar Lodowick in Lucio’s world of Vienna. His movements shielded by the cloth, allow him to brush up against many people who are negatively affected by his laws. The Duke has no choice but to open his eyes and learn that it’s one thing to have power, and another thing to see and experience its effects. But, ultimately, how much does the Duke learn? By the end of the play, is he ready to embrace the humanitarian side of leadership, or has he used his power to create a story in which he is the hero?