Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure at a historical juncture when England was rapidly changing, and was rather vulnerable because of it. Queen Elizabeth I had recently died, ending a 44-year long period of relative stability and prosperity, and one that would later be known as a golden era for arts and culture. Though several of his greatest tragedies were still to come, Shakespeare had made a name for himself as one of London’s most esteemed and prolific playwrights, and his Lord Chamberlain’s Men was one of the city’s two most popular theater companies.
In 1603 the London theaters were shut down in response to the plague, which was coincidentally the year that King James VI, King of Scotland and cousin to Elizabeth, ascended to the throne as King James I of Great Britain and Ireland, unifying the English and Scottish monarchies. In this transition James faced both a great deal of resistance and a plethora of English nobility flocking to him for patronage. He faced opposition from Catholics, critics of the English- Scottish union, and even small sects of Parliament who were eager to be rid of the monarchy altogether. He quickly set out to amass allies, and one of his earliest acts as king was to become the sole patron of all the major theaters in London. Whereas before the theaters were usually financed by a wealthy nobleman, James eliminated all private sponsorship and ensured that the Crown be made responsible for the financial health of the theaters. He did so not merely as a form of censorship, but because he felt the nourishment of culture was one of his primary duties as monarch. That being said, it didn’t hurt that these very public centers of entertainment and discourse were now under his direct supervision and largely indebted to him for their survival.
When the theaters reopened in 1604, a curious trend swept across the theatrical landscape: all the major dramatists of London were writing very similar stories in a unique genre that later critics would label the “absent ruler plays.” These plays usually featured a central character, a king or high-ranking nobleman of sorts, who took on a disguise to observe how his realm functioned in his absence. In every instance, deputies and surrogate leaders were put in charge. They made a mess of things and essentially brought ruin to society; order was only restored once the true ruler unmasked himself and set everything right. One can easily see how this type of play benefited James tremendously, and communicated to the masses the absolute need for monarchy.
Shakespeare was very much in alignment with his contemporaries when he wrote Measure for Measure. Although several of Duke Vincentio’s actions may seem puzzling to a contemporary audience, the play offers little solution for any of its social problems other than those he’s capable of providing. Though today Elizabeth and James seem towering figures of the English monarchy, the reality at the time was far more fragile. Consider that only one generation later, James’s son Charles I was deposed and beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionaries. James needed the English people to have faith in the absolutism of his position and the theaters provided a very effective outlet by which to reach them.
At the same time as the “absent ruler” phenomenon, there was a growing interest in “city comedy” as a genre, which differed significantly from Elizabethan comedy that had been largely pastoral in setting. In the last 50 years, London had begun to experience a major population boom and a concentration of people into cramped, urban settings that led to public health concerns, disastrous overcrowding and city management crises, and, perhaps most significantly, the notion of the “public” at all. As London was becoming a city of greater and greater diversity, so was it becoming a city of increasing strangerhood, where people judged each other not by prior-known reputation but instead by images and stereotypes. City comedies then featured diverse casts of characters from all walks of life, from prostitutes to laborers to clergy to merchants to nobility. Frequently plays in this genre made use of a substantial number of supporting characters playing bit parts in order to flesh out the larger world of the play’s setting. In order to accurately capture the spirit of the urban environment, one had to have the feeling that any type of character could walk onto the stage at any moment.
While Measure for Measure is not always classified as a city comedy, many critics have labeled it one of Shakespeare’s closest approximations of the genre. In his examination of the functions of law, order and justice in society, Shakespeare presents to us a complex portrait of that society, with its various strata of rank and privilege, and the various places from which disease can spring in the “body politic,” to use the buzzwords of the time.
As urban life became the norm for many Englishmen, they began to understand themselves as a unified whole that could only survive and function as a unified whole — one that required a central figure, or head, to direct its functions to reach maximum capability. The plays of the early Jacobean era maneuvered skillfully and consciously the lines between plurality and singularity, addressing arising concerns about the “publicity” of life by demonstrating the need for exceptional leadership, and encouraging absolute loyalty and blind faith in it. This may be a challenging narrative to engage in for a 21st-century audience inclined toward democratic ideals, but Measure for Measure still asks timely questions: what do we expect of our leaders, and how can we build a society that still manages to function fairly and dispense justice when our leadership isn’t up to the task?
– Ryan McRee, Dramaturg