There are five women in Measure for Measure:

  • a nun, Francisca
  • Mistress Overdone, who runs a brothel
  • Isabella, who is a sister in two senses of the word (novice nun and sibling) and who perhaps marries the Duke at the end of the play
  • Mariana, who is, as she agrees in Act V, ‘neither maid, widow, nor wife'
  • Juliet, who is married according to an exchange of vows, though not in a binding church ceremony (see also Social/political context > The Stuart monarchy) and who is pregnant.

It is clear that Shakespeare has carefully selected his characters to reflect different kinds of women with different attitudes and values. (He does the same in Othello, contrasting Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca.)

Juliet's social standing

Was mutually committed?
  • Juliet is first spoken of in Act I sc ii by Mistress Overdone, who describes her by the respectful title of Madam Julietta, revealing that she is ‘with child'.
  • When Claudio enters, being led to prison, he too stresses her respectable status:
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends…
  • Her social standing is confirmed when we learn from Isabella in Act I sc i that she and Juliet were affectionate school–friends (Isabella herself ‘had a most noble father' – the term ‘noble' implying both social status and fine character).

Juliet as ‘mutually' guilty

Juliet, photo by Angie BurkhardtClaudio tells Lucio in Act I sc ii that he and Juliet had enjoyed ‘mutual entertainment' – that is, their love-making had been a mutual decision. This clearly makes their behaviour much more moral than Angelo's attempt at what is, effectively, the rape of Isabella, and adds to the irony of Claudio's condemnation by the corrupt judge.
But it also adds an interesting depth to Juliet's character, in that she accepts the disguised Duke's judgement that, though a mutual sin, she must bear most blame:
Duke: So then it seems your most offenceful act
Was mutually committed?
Juliet: Mutually.
Duke: Then was your sin of heavier kind than his.
Juliet: I do confess it, and repent it, father….
I do repent me as it is an evil,
And take the shame with joy.

Although a contemporary audience may focus on the inequality of such a judgement, to do so misses the significance of the exchange: that Juliet's acknowledgement of sin, and her full repentance, are indications that she is ready to receive the grace – the undeserved forgiveness – of God, which can only come after acknowledgement of guilt. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.)

Juliet's awareness of life and death

The last words spoken by Juliet in Measure for Measure (in Act II sc iii) reflect the poignancy of her situation. She is not to be executed like her lover, because she is pregnant, but her very pregnancy is the evidence that has condemned him:

O injurious love,
That respites me a life, whose very comfort
Is still a dying horror!
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