It is almost a commonplace in Shakespearean criticism to isolate three of his comedies as a separate group and dub them as “dark comedies.” These three comedies are, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. When a play like Measure for Measure is called a dark comedy, the reference is at the atmosphere of vice and corruption that reigns in the play is dark, somber, grave, and even tragic. Shakespeare portrays a social world which is corrupt and rotten at the core. It is a society when morality is debased to the extreme and sexual incontinence and profligacy have an unhindered sway. The social atmosphere of Measure for Measure resembles that of Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
It is almost a claustrophobic world, festering with moral diseases, suffocating and foul. Even Angelo, a supposedly pure and a saintly man can easily stoop to fullest knavery and commits a heinous crime like violating an innocent virgin. Moreover, he goes back on his word and arranges for the chopping off of Claudio’s head. Although he had promised to give him life in exchange for Isabella’s chastity, one problem with the so-called dark comedies of Shakespeare; alleged weakness as works of art is there. Shakespeare in this play seems to have been more preoccupied with the conscious purpose of satirizing some social aspects than to achieve artistic excellence. As a result, intellect rather than imagination is dominant. The character of Angelo has been drawn in the darkest of colors; he is a dissembling villain, a breaker of vows, a sensualist etc. On the other hand, Isabella has been depicted as a pure virgin. But this virgin also does not have any qualm of conscience.
The epithet “dark comedy” has been almost universally accepted as a right description of Measure for Measure. This epithet is generally taken to mean not only the nasty side of life that is portrayed in this play but also means that the underlying mood of the dramatist is one of the bitter cynicisms. A dark comedy is pervaded by a general gloom. The comic elements in such a play are pushed into the background by the tone and atmosphere of seriousness and gravity. The underlying cynicism is surfaced in the characterization. There is a good general distaste of this seeming goodness in human beings.
One of the prominent themes in Measure for Measure is the evil in human nature. Many critics see a predominance of evil in this play, as a result of the spiritual exhortation of Jacobean Age, Measure for Measure is indeed a very depressing play. Although some amount of fun is provided by such seedy characters as Pompey, Barnardine, Elbow, Froth and Mistress Overdone, it is incapable of lifting the cloud of gloom. Moreover, their presence in the play is a grim remainder of the corrupted state of the society. All of them are the basest of the criminals, Pimps, Prostitutes, murderers, and thieves. The sentence of death overhangs Claudio’s head and creates unease and foreboding in the readers. The last part of the play is occupied with the problem of supplying Claudio’s several heads on a platter to Angelo. The way a dead thief’s head is cut and produced before, Angelo is nauseating and totally unsavory.
The very plot of Measure for Measure is grim and dark. It shows how sordid are the manifestations of human nature, especially as embodied in Angelo. The behavior of almost all the characters, with the exception of the Provost and Escalus, contributes to our impression of the atmosphere of gloom. Lucio is another despicable fellow who repeals us by his vulgarity.
Taken in all, Measure for Measure is a horrid play and an unpleasant, though an illumination thesis on human conduct.