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Measure for Measure was first printed in the folio of 1623. No direct allusion to it in Shakespeare's time has been found, and we have nothing to fix the date of its composition but the style and versification, with some minor points of internal evidence. The critics, however, have generally agreed that the play was written in 1603 or early in 1604.
Tyrwhitt and Malone conjectured that the following passages offer “a courtly apology for King James I.'s stately and ungracious demeanour on his entry into England :"
“I'll privily away. I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes.
“The general, subject to a well-wish'd king,
Ward (Hist. of Dram. Lit. 1. 408) is “inclined to accept this conjecture, the more so that there is something in the sentiment of these passages not ill according with the tendency towards shrinking from an unnecessary publicity, which we may fairly suppose to have been an element in the poet's own character.”
Malone also saw historical allusions in i. 2. 4: “Heaven grant us its peace,” etc.; and in i. 2. " What with the war, what with the sweat,” etc. James had early announced his intention of ending the war with Spain which was in progress when he came to the throne, and peace was concluded in the autumn of 1604. The year before, as Capell pointed out, the “sweating-sickness,” or plague, had carried off more than thirty thousand people in London, about one fifth of the entire population of the city.
Tieck, followed by Ulrici and some other critics, was led by the peculiarities of style and sentiment to regard Measure for Measure as one of the very latest of the plays; but “the drama, in those very characteristics on which the theory is founded, most resembles Othello, Lear, the revised Hamlet, and in general those tragedies known to have been written between 1602 and 1607; while, on the contrary, its tone and fancy are entirely dissimilar from the pastoral beauties of the Winter's Tale, with the sprightliness of its gayer scènes, or the spirit of cheerful enjoyment which breathes in the mountain scenes of Cymbeline, both of them known to belong to a later period than that of Lear.” (Verplanck.)
THE SOURCES OF THE PLOT The story, like that of Othello, was originally from the Hecatommithi of Giraldi Cinthio, published in Venice in 1566. Whetstone's tragedy of Promos and Cassandra (1578) was founded on Cinthio's novel, and was probably known to Shakespeare, though he owed little to the English play or the Italian tale. Whetstone “ followed Cinthio very closely, in making the sister (the "woful Cassandra' of his play, the Epitia of Cinthio, and the Isabella of Shakespeare) yield to the governor's desires and her brother's pusillanimous sophistry degradation which Shakespeare has avoided by the introduction of Mariana, and the very venial artifice of Isabella, which Coleridge censures, but which is certainly, if a blemish at all, a very light one compared
with the intrinsic repulsiveness of making the heroine the wife of the guilty governor, and the supplicant for his life. The inferior characters of Whetstone are the same only in their habits and occupations — the painting of their character is Shakespeare's own as much as that of the nobler personages, and the high moral wisdom which overflows in their dialogue. Isabella, as a character, is entirely his own creation." Whetstone, some years after writing his play, ,
, translated the original story in his Heptameron of Civil Discourses (1582).
GENERAL COMMENTS ON THE PLAY Critics have objected to Shakespeare's plot as an improbable fiction, but it strangely happens that something much like it has occurred several times in different ages and countries. One of these is the story of Colonel Kirke, in the reign of James II., related by Pepys and Macaulay. Another occurred in Holland, in the time of Charles the Bold, a century before Shakespeare's birth. Another, which may have been the foundation of Cinthio's novel, is said to have taken place under one of the old Dukes of Ferrara.
The Angelo of the Netherlands, whose history is recorded by several of the old Dutch and Flemish chroniclers, was a brave and renowned knight, who was governor of Flushing; and it was the wife of a state criminal, confined on a charge of sedition, who is tempted to yield up her honour on condition of receiv
ing from the governor an order to the gaoler to deliver her husband up to her. In the meanwhile, a prior order had been sent; the husband was secretly beheaded ; and the wife received, on presenting her order, a chest containing the bloody corpse. Upon the duke's visiting his principality of Zealand, she appealed to him for justice. The governor confessed his guilt, and threw himself with confidence upon the duke's mercy, relying on his former services and favour. The duke commanded him to marry the widow, and endow her formally with all his wealth. She at first shrunk with horror from the alliance, but at last consented to the ceremony, on the prayers of her family, who thought their honour involved in it. When this was done, the governor returned to the duke, and informed him that the injured person was now satisfied. “So am not I,” replied the duke. He sent the guilty man to the prison where his victim had died. A confessor was sent with him ; and after the last rites of religion, without further delay, the governor was beheaded. His new wife and her friends had hurried to the prison, and arrived there only to receive the bloody trunk in the same manner that she had received the remains of her first husband. Overcome with horror, she fainted, and never recovered.
Measure for Measure, as Verplanck (whose criticisms are unfortunately out of print and not accessible in most of the libraries) remarks,“ bears the stamp of that period of the author's life, first noted by Hallam, when some sad influence weighed upon the poet's spirit, and