Setting Measure for Measure within a Christian world view


Measure for Measure is noticeably set in a Christian universe, which strongly affects the ideas which permeate it.

  • Christians are followers of Jesus Christ, believed to be the Son of God (the word Christ means anointed) who, though divine, was born in human form to a virgin, Mary.
  • The New Testament (the second part of the Christian Bible) tells of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming into being of the Christian church. Christians believe that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, or Saviour, is foretold in the Old Testament (the Jewish writings which form the first part of the Christian Bible), so Christians draw upon both parts of the Bible. (The word Bible simply means a collection of books.)
  • Christianity began in the Middle East over two thousand years ago but, well before the time of Shakespeare, had spread throughout Europe – the area of its influence was known as Christendom.
  • A very important act of Christian worship is Holy Communion, or the Mass, during which they partake of bread and wine to commemorate the Last Supper which Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified. It is this act of worship to which Angelo is referring in Act II sc iv; when he speaks of misusing God's name in prayer he is also suggesting eating Communion bread without devout feeling: ‘Heaven in my mouth,/ As if I did but chew his name.'
  • From the early centuries of the church onward, some Christians have chosen to withdraw into a life devoted to prayer, living in enclosed communities known as monasteries (for men, known as monks) and nunneries (for women, known as nuns). In Measure for Measure Isabella is about to enter a nunnery at the start of the play and Shakespeare makes it obvious to the audience that her Christian faith is very important to her.

The faith setting of Shakespeare's plays

Although Shakespeare was writing in the context of a society where Christian belief was central, not all his plays are set in a Christian world.

Shakespeare's Roman plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are set in a world where people believe in ancient pagan gods such as Jupiter. The same pagan world is the background to King Lear. In these plays there is no suggestion of a life after death, whereas those set in a Christian universe strongly present the idea of Heaven and hell and judgement.

Some plays present a mixed set of beliefs, for example The Winter's Tale, where pagan gods are mentioned alongside a reference to Whitsun, a Christian festival.
  • It is very important that Shakespeare consciously chooses to set plays such as Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet in a Christian universe, because what may happen to characters after death is as much an issue in these plays as what happens to them in life.
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