Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare has variously been described as an allegory, a morality play, and a satire. But perhaps, the most satisfactory label for it is tragicomedy or a dark comedy or a bitter comedy. A tragicomedy is a play in which the action passes through a series of tragic situations but which ends in happiness. A tragicomedy swings between the two extremes of the serious (tragic) and the comic elements. This kind of play is regarded as the best type of drama as it represents a balanced condition of mind.
Measure for Measure is a tragicomedy which is full of serious and comic elements. The play begins seriously with the Duke’s entrusting the government of the country to Angelo and himself withdrawing from the scene. Then a comic scene comes with Lucio, two other gentlemen, besides Pompey and Mistress Overdone, providing amusement and mirth to us. This scene ends with a serious episode when Claudio entrusts Lucio to ask Isabella to try to save Claudio’s life by pleading with Angelo and obtaining a pardon. The next scene is again serious. Here the Duke explains to Friar Thomas for having temporary renouncement from his official duties and describes his desire to move about in the disguise of a Friar. The scene again follows a serious one. Here, Lucio contacts Isabella at the convent and communicates to her a message from her brother. Isabella is now deflected from her original purpose of joining the convent because she must strive to save her brother’s life by pleading his case to Angelo.
Act II opens on a serious note. Angelo is determined to stick to his original decision to have Claudio executed for having committed to execution. Angelo rejects Escalus’s recommendation on Claudio’s behalf. Then this opening scene of Act II takes a comic turn when Elbow, a police constable, produces Pompey and Froth before Escalus and Angelo for trial. Elbow amuses us by his ignorance and by his malapropisms; forth amuses us by his stupidity; while Pompey amuses us by his witty remarks.
Three very serious developments take place in the opening scene of Act III. They are the Duke’s sermon to Claudio on life and death, Isabella’s denunciation of Claudio who wants her to surrenders her virginity to Angelo in order to save Claudio’s life and the Duke’s scheme of substituting Mariana for Isabella to satisfy Angelo lust as the price for saving Claudio’s life. The second scene of this Act is a comic one with Pompey being once again ordered to be arrested for continuing as a professional pimp. Lucio also amuses us in this scene by his sarcastic comments on Angelo and on the Duke.
Act IV is again a mixture of comic and serious elements. In the opening scene of this Act, Mariana is produced to disguise herself as Isabella and to go to satisfy Angelo’s lustful desire. Here the situation becomes serious when fresh orders for the execution of Claudio are received from Angelo. In this Act, the situation becomes more serious when the Duke falsely tells Isabella that her brother has already been executed and that Claudio’s severed head has been sent to Angelo for Angelo’s satisfaction.
Act V is wholly serious except for the fact that the play has a happy ending. The charges brought against Angelo by Isabella and Mariana are highly dramatic and the situation becomes serious and grim when the Duke sentences Angelo to death saying that the law demands the life of Angelo against Claudio’s life that the law insists upon measure for measure. But when Claudio is produced before the Duke by the provost, the sentence of death against Angelo is withdrawn. Likewise, the sentence of death against Lucio is also withdrawn. Angelo has now become Mariana’s lawful husband; Lucio has been compulsorily married to the girl Kate; Claudio is called upon to compensate Juliet; Escalus and the Provost ate promoted to higher posts, and the Duke offers to get married to Isabella. Thus, Act V contains the reversal and the happy ending which are essential in a tragicomedy.
Considering all the above-mentioned evidence we are made to agree with the view that in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare has treated serious and comic elements very skilfully for which the play has rightly been considered by critics as a tragicomedy.