Measure for Measure: Shakespeare at the merciful concordant crossroads

As my reading of Measure for Measure comes to a close in the next week or so, I find myself trying to look at the bigger picture, of Measure for Measure’s place in the Canon. With this play, we come to the end of the string of problem plays that precede the great tragedies (next fall’s Timon of Athens’ categorization as a problem play, is debatable… many [as I may in the future, like I did to Troilus and Cressida in this past summer] see it as a tragedy). We come to an end of the comedies most definitely. And so I look back on those problem plays and comedies to find connections.

The poster boy for problem plays, the king of dark comedies is The Merchant of Venice, and that’s where I see Measure for Measure‘s link to the past. If asked what the the most famous speech in that earlier play is, you’d be hard-pressed to choose between “Hath not a Jew eyes” and “The quality of mercy is not strained.”


  • Clemency and compassion shown to a person who is in a position of powerlessness or subjection, or to a person with no right or claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected, esp. in giving legal judgment or passing sentence
  • Forbearance, compassion, or forgiveness shown by God (or a god) to sinful humanity, or to a particular person or soul
  • Disposition to forgive or to show compassion (usually as a divine attribute)
  • To extend pardon to (a person who yields willingly)
  • “mercy, n.; A.I.1.a and b, A.I.2.a. A.I.4.c”
    Oxford English Dictionary Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    September 2015.
    Web. 17 November 2015.


Something in short supply in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock shows no mercy to Antonio, and if you can call what Portia dishes out to Shylock “mercy” (bankruptcy, forced religious conversion), then you’re a more generous soul than I am.

In Measure for Measure, Isabella, however, is completely different. Even under the impression that her brother is dead (a device created specifically by the duke), she shows true mercy to the man who personally wronged her.


Now you all know I love me a good deep dive into the ol’ concordance, an exhaustive listing of the uses of any word within a given body of work.

[Note: for the following discussion, like all ours for concordances, I owe a great debt to OpenSource Shakespeare]

If I’m mentioning this now, you know I’ve found something.

Well, here it is:

“Mercy” (and “merciful”) is used 19 times in 18 speeches in Measure for Measure. While it’s used in 17 speeches in Henry V (which didn’t really have a huge mercy component that I can recall, and nearly half the uses are all in the same scene–the uncovering of the Southampton Plot), the next most uses in a play is in–wait for it–you guessed it–The Merchant of Venice with just 11 speeches; no other play uses the word in double-digit speeches.

Mercy is a central subject of Measure for Measure, with the play looking back over its metaphorical shoulder at The Merchant of Venice, an example to inhuman lack of forgiveness. And ahead? After the great tragedies, up next are the tragicomedies or romances, plays (if I remember the ones I’ve read) that culminate with acts of total forgiveness, true mercy.

At the three-quarter point in the journey, have we reached a kind of thematic crossroads?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *