Angelo Smith Clock, photo by Keith Evans, available through Creative CommonsThe time scale within the play is an aspect of its structure which adds to its problematic nature. The late introduction of Mariana into the plot (see Structure > Mariana) and confusion over the timing of events both strain the audience's credulity. (For further comments on Measure for Measure as a ‘problem play', see Introduction.)

Claudio's execution

There are problems over the timing of arrangements for Claudio's execution:

  • In Act I sc ii, Mistress Overdone arrives with the news that Claudio is to be executed ‘within these three days'
  • Lucio goes straight to find Isabella, who presumably goes straight to see Angelo, but before she arrives (in Act II sc ii) Angelo tells the Provost (in Act II sc i) to ‘see that Claudio/ Be executed by nine tomorrow morning'
  • However, at the end of Act II sc i Angelo arranges that Isabella should ‘come to me tomorrow' to continue their discussion about whether Claudio may be spared
  • Angelo appears to give no instructions to delay the execution – though, if they wish, the audience can assume that the Provost, who is present throughout the interview, realises the implication that he should delay the execution until after Isabella's second meeting with Angelo.

Making sense of the time scale

If we call the day of Claudio's arrest ‘day one', he is initially doomed by Angelo to be executed at nine in the morning on ‘day two', as Angelo confirms to Isabella in their first interview (Act II sc ii): ‘He must die tomorrow.'

  • However, Claudio is not dead by the time Isabella has her second interview with Angelo, arranged for ‘day two' as she goes straight from this interview to see her brother in prison (in Act III sc i).
  • Later that same day (in Act IV sc i) the Provost tells the executioner to be ready ‘tomorrow four o'clock'
  • A few lines later the Provost tells Claudio, ‘Tis now dead midnight, and by eight tomorrow / thou must be made immortal'. So now it seems Claudio is to die at eight in the morning of ‘day three'.
  • Later in the same scene Angelo sends a reminder that Claudio is to be executed by four o'clock and his head sent to Angelo by five.

Overriding dramatic tension

The changes surrounding Claudio's execution are confusing in realistic terms, but for the audience watching the play, it is unlikely to pose a problem; dramatic tension is more significant than actual time (an audience frequently has to accept that several days are supposed to pass in the few hours they are in the theatre). The main dramatic impressions they will receive are:

  • Claudio's execution is imminent
  • Isabella must act swiftly
  • Angelo's messages to the prison bringing forward the time of Claudio's death indicate Angelo's duplicity.
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