Money and materialism

The significance of wealth

Since the play concentrates on the difference between spiritual and physical values, it is perhaps not surprising that Shakespeare also shows us characters who are very concerned about wealth and material success:

  • Most obvious, perhaps, is Angelo, who, as we discover halfway through the play (Act III sc i) has abandoned the virtuous and loving Mariana because her dowry was lost when her brother's ship was ‘wracked at sea'
  • There is a parallel to this in Claudio, who, while remaining faithful to Juliet, has nevertheless not married her because they are waiting for ‘propagation of a dower / remaining in the coffer of her friends.'

At the other end of the social scale, Pompey and Mistress Overdone are equally concerned with getting money:

  • As Pompey tells Escalus (Act II sc i), ‘I am a poor fellow that would live.' And we see that money is much more important to Pompey than morality
  • He also recognises that wealth can give status even to a fool such as Froth – he is ‘a man of fourscore pound a year', he tells Escalus, clearly expecting this to be taken into consideration.

In contrast, Isabella, who, in entering a nunnery would make a vow of poverty, scorns material wealth, and her offer of a ‘bribe' to Angelo (Act II sc ii) explicitly rejects the attraction of physical riches:

Not with fond sickles of the tested gold,
Or stones, whose rate are either rich or poor
As fancy values them: but with true prayers …
From fasting maids, whose minds are dedicate
To nothing temporal.

Coinage and forgery

Money in the era of Shakespeare

Throughout Measure for Measure there is a recurring image of coins. In Shakespeare's time, and for a couple of hundred years beyond, money was physically worth its nominal value; that is, a shilling coin had to contain a shilling's worth of silver. Forgers, or counterfeiters, would try to pass false coins, and it was also a common crime to clip round the edges of a coin to remove some of the metal: eventually coins had milled edges to prevent this. Coins were also stamped with an image of the ruler's head on one side, and another image on the reverse.


Henry VIII's Angel , copyright to Classical Numismatic Group, available through Creative CommonsA coin current in Shakespeare's time was the ‘angel' – a coin which bore the image of the Archangel Michael defeating the Devil or Satan in the form of a dragon; throughout Measure for Measure there is a verbal play on the name of this coin, and on false coinage, relating to Angelo:

  • In the first scene, the Duke asks Escalus about Angelo,
‘What figure of us, think you, he will bear?'
  • When the Duke tells Angelo that he is to be left in charge of Vienna, Angelo himself asks (with a pun on ‘mettle' as character and ‘metal' as gold):
Let there be some more test made of my mettle
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamp'd on it.
  • He uses the same pun and image in Act II sc iv, when arguing to Isabella that fornication is as bad as murder. Referring to the fact that the penalty for counterfeiting coins could be execution, Angelo compares creating a child through sexual intercourse outside marriage to making a false coin:
Ha? These filthy vices! It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid. ‘Tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made,
As to put mettle in restrained means
To make a false one.


A way of testing whether a coin was false was to weigh it, to see how much silver or gold it contained. Shakespeare links this idea to the biblical quotation which gives him the title of the play (see also Introduction):

‘With what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again' (Matthew 7:1-2)

– in other words, the weight you give to others will be apportioned to you. Hence ‘weighing' becomes another significant image in the play:

  • The disguised Duke is described by Lucio (Act III sc ii) as
‘a very superficial ... unweighing fellow'
  • Isabella tells Angelo that
‘We cannot weigh our brother with ourself.'
  • The Provost tells Abhorson that he and Pompey are equal (perhaps equally repellent) in his eyes:
‘Go to, sir, you weigh equally: a feather will turn the scale.'
  • The Duke, pretending to disbelieve Isabella in Act V sc i tells her that Angelo could not have behaved as she says:
‘He would have weigh'd thy brother by himself'
  • Angelo, using a more explicit image of false coinage, sneers at Isabella (Act II sc iv) that her story will not be believed: because of his position of trust,
‘My false o'erweighs your true.'
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.