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Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and EthicsShakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics


Measure for Measure


Key characters

Duke Vincentio, the ruler of Vienna in Austria.

Angelo, his deputy.

Claudio, a young gentleman.

Isabella, Claudio’s sister and a novice nun.

Mariana, Angelo’s ex-fiancée.


Fun facts

  • The play was first shown at the Globe Theatre, London, in 1604.
  • The play's title comes from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount (see point 1 below)

 Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

The story

Vienna is a lawless and immoral city.

Its ruler, Duke Vincentio (Kenneth Colley, pictured right, in a 1979 production) leaves his strict, puritanical deputy, Angelo, in charge to re-introduce law and order. But really he wants to observe Angelo’s actions disguised as a friar.

Angelo immediately announces:

  • every brothel is to be destroyed.
  • the city’s laws (punishing sex outside marriage with death) are to be strictly applied.

So Claudio:

  • is arrested for getting his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant.
  • faces execution.

In desperation he sends his friend, Lucio, to ask his sister Isabella (who has just entered a convent) to plead his case with Angelo.

Initially Angelo is unmoved by her arguments but is gradually won over by her virtue, courage and beauty.

He says he will save her brother, only if he has sex with her. She is outraged and threatens to tell everyone but realizes that nobody will believe her.


  • visits Claudio in prison.
  • reluctantly tells him about Angelo’s proposition. Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics
  • refuses to save his life (despite Claudio's begging)

(Isabella, Andrea Riseborough, and Angleo, Richard Dormer, are pictured right in a 2006 production)

The Duke (in disguise) suggests a solution. Angelo must have sex with his ex-fiancée, Mariana, disguised as Isabella. This works but Angelo still wants Claudio executed.

The Duke (still in disguise) persuades the Provost (the prison chief) to:

  • execute another prisoner in his place.
  • send his head to Angelo (pretending it to be Claudio’s).

The Duke:

  • returns (no longer in disguise).
  • denounces Angelo for his duplicity.

Mariana then claims that she and Angelo must marry, because they’ve had sex.

The Duke re-appears in disguise confirming Mariana's story but is accidentally unmasked.

Angelo:Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

  • realizes the Duke knows everything he has done
  • begs to be executed.

After Mariana’s plea for mercy, the Duke pardons him on condition he marries Mariana.

The Duke:

  • supports the marriage of Claudio (who is still alive) to Juliet.
  • proposes to Isabella (who doesn’t reply).


Lessons on leadership and ethics

 Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

1. You often get what you deserve

The play’s title comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“With what measure you mete (i.e. give out), it shall be measured to you again” 

In other words, you reap what you sow.

For example, Angelo’s wrongdoings come back to haunt him when he realizes the Duke knows about them.

He is only saved by the Duke’s:

  • kindness.
  • concern for Mariana (who loves Angelo).

 Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

2. Don’t judge people

If you judge people (like Angelo did with Claudio and Juliet), you will also be judged for your wrongdoings.


3. Don’t be hypocritical

Angelo is a hypocrite, because he is outwardly moral but corrupt and unjust.

He has extra-marital sex, even though he’s prepared to execute Claudio for it!

 Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

4. Change quickly but fairly

Vienna was lawless and needed quick, harsh measures to bring back order. So the Duke let his tough guy deputy, Angelo, take over.

If people aren’t punished for their crimes, punishment is no longer a deterrent.

“In time the rod becomes more mocked than feared”, the Duke says.

But Angelo is an unsuccessful leader, because he is:Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

  • autocratic.
  • corrupt (see point 5)
  • unfair (ignoring the wishes of law abiding people like Claudio and banning extra-marital sex and the well established practice of prostitution).

“It is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant”, Isabella advises Angelo.


5. Be principled but pragmatic

Isabella wins the respect of Angelo and the Duke with her integrity and courage to defend her principles of:Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

  • love and forgiveness.
  • chastity (she isn’t prepared to give up her virginity to save her brother).

Angelo pays for his unprincipled behaviour, but what about the Duke?

His idea of swapping Mariana for Isabella is also deceitful and perhaps immoral. But he shrugs off any thought of wrongdoing by saying

“the offence pardons itself”

This suggests he is prepared to bend his principles, when it suits him.


6. Delegation can be dangerous

Giving Angelo the leader’s job was a disaster.

The Duke can also be criticized for:

  • giving Angelo his dirty work (to re-introduce law and order).
  • not taking full responsibility for Vienna’s problems.

 Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

7. Morality is about people

Ethics and the law must serve people.

Angelo says to Isabella that you can’t “condemn the fault [i.e. the crime] and not the actor [i.e. the perpetrator] of it”.

In response she attacks the

  • injustice of the law.
  • arrogance of its enforcer (Angelo) that “makes the angels weep”.

 Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

8. People need hope and love

“The miserable have no other medicine, but only hope”, Claudio says about his chances of a pardon.

Love and forgiveness are also continual themes throughout the play.

For example, Mariana accepts and forgives Angelo’s faults, seeing him as a better person for his repentance and remorse.


9. Accept people's weaknesses

 Accept people's weaknesses and forgive, if they're penitent (as the Duke forgave Angelo).

 Shakespeare's Measure for Measure - Leadership and Ethics

10.  Know that you know nothing

Like the Greek philosopher, Socrates (pictured right), Isabella suggests that accepting your ignorance is the cause of wisdom:

“Let me be ignorant and in nothing good, but graciously to know I am no better”, she says.


Key quotes on leadership

It is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant, Isabella.


Key quote on motivation

In time the rod becomes more mocked than feared, the Duke.


Key quote on death

The sense of death is most in apprehension, Isabella.


Key quotes on success

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt, Lucio.

They say, best men are moulded out of faults, Mariana.


Key quote on positive thinking

The miserable have no other medicine, but only hope, Claudio.


Key quotes on ethics

Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful, the Duke.

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall, Escalus (Angelo’s wise adviser).


Key quote on learning and wisdom

Let me be ignorant and in nothing good, but graciously to know I am no better, Isabella.

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