Measure for Measure: mock of ages

I’m currently writing a piece for submission to the New Orleans Review, for their special Shakespeare issue next year, focusing on my favorite subject (time) in my favorite piece (Romeo and Juliet). And it got me wondering about the ages of the major characters in Measure for Measure. In Romeo and Juliet, we know Juliet’s age to the week. In this play, however, we have very few clues.

Take the following questions and suppositions with about ten thousand grains of salt…

Yesterday, I floated the idea of Juliet (in this play) might being 19 years of age, with Claudio’s statement of Vienna’s sex laws having been unenforced for the past “nineteen zodiacs” (I.ii.167). But what about the other characters?


Let’s say for argument’s sake Juliet is 19. Conventionally, we would consider Claudio to be slightly older that his betrothed, but relatively equal in age, so would that make him early twenties. If he is a bawd as I’ve posited before, he would have needed to have worked his way up through the ranks of Mistress Overdone’s establishment (to become a man “worth five thousand” [I.ii.59] of mere customers). When did he begin to work at the brothel? How did this sit with his sister, the righteous Isabella? Are brother and sister estranged? Neither speaks of the other by name; the only time they use the other’s name is in conversation with that person (Act Three, Scene One), or when Isabella believes that he is dead (IV.iii.121 and V.i.70). If they are estranged, how long have they been estranged?


Claudio refers to Isabella’s “youth” (I.ii.181); this could be a relative comparative, making her younger than he. None of her clipped responses to Lucio (“Woe me, for what?” [I.iv.26], “O, let him marry her!” [I.iv.49], “My power, alas, I doubt” [I.iv.77], and “I’ll see what I can do” [I.iv.84]) speak to a sense of relative age or power. If Juliet is 19, is Isabella the same age? If so, their “adopted” (I.iv.47) “cousin”-ship would support this, or at least for them to be close to the same age. If Juliet did work at the brothel, how long has she be working there? Would this have estranged Isabella from Juliet as well? And if so, has she been estranged from Juliet longer or shorter than Claudio?

An age of 19 or 18 for Isabella would also make sense from a symbolic religious point of view. She is about to join the “votarists of Saint Clare” (I.ii.5), monastic order of nuns. The historical Saint Clare (Clare of Assisi) joined Francis of Assisi’s order at the age of 18.


This is where we begin to have fewer and fewer clues. I would argue, though, for a relatively young Angelo. First, neither the duke nor Claudio nor Isabella seem repulsed by any age difference between the deputy and the object of his lust (i.e. no “icky old dude” syndrome). Second, the provost seems sure enough of himself to ask Angelo if Claudio is to be spared–this even after the question had been asked before (“Why dost thou ask again?” [II.ii.9]). The provost fears being “too rash” (II.ii.9) himself, implying a certain level of rashness in a (youthful?) Angelo. Also of note in the provost/Angelo exchange: the provost uses the more subservient “you” while Angelo the superior “thou” in their speeches to each other; it’s obvious the provost is aware of rank, but he’s still asking the question…I’m thinking that’s because he feels that his age allows him that right. Does Angelo feel this as well? Is that why he asks that the provost “Stay a little while” (II.ii.26) when Isabella arrives.

There’s also the matter of his betrothal to Mariana. This occurred “five years since” (V.i.216). How young was he then? Young enough to be as callow as either Much Ado About Nothing’s Claudio (who tosses away Hero for the same kind of whispers of “discoveries of dishonor” [III.i.225]) or All’s Well That Ends Well’s “boy Bertram” (who runs away from his marriage)? This is not to absolve Angelo of his deeds, but might this youth be a contributing cause? A righteous young man, religious and strict, throws away a marriage over a lack of dowry and rumors of a “disvalued” (V.i.220) reputation, then goes back to an almost monk-like existence for five years with pent-up lust building until just the right and righteous kindred spirit walks into his life in the form of Isabella… could this be our Angelo? If so, then that would put him in his early to mid-twenties as well. Not much older than Claudio.


We assume the Duke to be older than the other characters because of his stature, but how much older? No other character refers to his youth or age. He says that “this fourteen years we have let slip” (I.iii.21) the morality laws of Vienna. If we take his pronoun as personal responsibility (rather than merely the “royal we”), then he’s been in power for at least fourteen years. Or did he inherit those laws? The dukes of Austria were a hereditary line for Shakespeare, so let’s work on that assumption: at what age did he inherit the throne? Has he been a Henry VI-style ruler, one put on the throne at too young an age? If he is a young ruler, uncomfortable with the public’s “loud applause and aves vehement” (I.i.70), that might explain why he wants to outsource the execution of the laws to Angelo. Or is he older, at least a decade older than the others on stage, but not so old that his age seems an impediment to a marriage with Isabella (or is it, and that‘s why she never says yes to his proposal?…especially now that I reread some of Lucio’s lines, and find his reference to the “old fantastical duke of dark corners” [IV.iii.156-7, emphasis mine])?

Oh, so many questions…

2 Replies to “Measure for Measure: mock of ages”

  1. Actually, there is just one line that backs up your idea of a fairly young Angelo – Isabella describes him to Claudio as ‘This outward sainted deputy, whose settled visage and deliberate word nips youth i’th’ head’. At a stretch the word ‘youth’ could refer to the youth of others, young people in general (Pompey uses the word in that sense – ‘Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?’). However, the more likely meaning here is that Angelo’s grim self-presentation makes him look older than he actually is – nips his own youth ‘i’th’head. I would cast him as early to mid 30s – any younger and he lacks the weight the part requires (if it were an opera, he’d be the leading-man baritone, Claudio the young tenor and the Duke the paternalistic Bass). It also makes him less formidable as Isabella’s adversary and unlikely to have yet earned his honorable reputation in the Viennese court. Too old isn’t plausible either, given his brand of harsh naivity and complete lack of self-knowledge.

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