The prison

Shakespeare often places at the centre of his plays a scene which reflects a significant theme:

  • In Hamlet, where acting – both as pretence and as getting something done – is a major idea, there is a ‘play within a play' performed by a group of players
  • In The Merchant of Venice, where, as in Measure for Measure, justice and mercy are central themes, there is at the heart of the play a scene set in a courtroom
  • In Measure for Measure some of the most significant moments take place in the gaol, where prisoners such as Claudio have to face the possibility of imminent death, and where Juliet has to confront her own sin.

The application of justice?

The Provost, or prison governor, is shown as a caring man who tries to do his best for his prisoners (see Characterisation) but we also discover (in Act IV sc ii) that prisoners wear ‘gyves' (chains), may receive ‘an unpitied whipping', and can be executed by beheading or hanging. Judging by the description of the inmates which Pompey gives in Act IV sc iii, and by what we hear of Ragozine and Barnardine, severe penalties may well be deserved.

Ironically, however, exemplifying the corruption in Vienna and the problem of how far earthly justice can reflect heavenly mercy, a wrong-doer such as Pompey can at first escape justice, and then, when eventually condemned to prison, be given the job of executing others – such as Claudio - far less guilty than himself. We also see Mistress Overdone taken to gaol, but she reveals that Lucio (who is not imprisioned), has promised marriage to a prostitute, made her pregnant and refused to support the child, which Mistress Overdone has cared for. In this way the prison becomes a microcosm reflecting the difficulties of dealing out justice fairly and of balancing mercy against too much leniency.

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