Shakespeare’s Sources – Measure for Measure

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Mariana (by Millais) Shakespeare's solution to saving Isabella's virtue

Continuing my series of blogs about Shakespeare’s sources for his plays, we now take a look at one which is currently being staged at the RSC, Measure for Measure. You may recall that in this story the corrupt Angelo offers the innocent Isabella a chance to save her brother’s life if she will sleep with him. Shakespeare manages to find a way for this situation to be resolved without any of the victims having to seriously compromise their morals. In other words Isabella does not have to sleep with Angelo and her brother’s life is also saved. Neither Shakespeare’s first source for the play George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra (1578) nor the tale it was based of Epitia and Juriste by Giraldi Cinthio, (1566).  spare Isabella’s virtue. Here is a summary of Whetstone’s play.

Promos is appointed to rule over the city of Julio, where he sentences Andrugio to death for incontinence. Andrugio’s sister, Cassandra, weeps over the hard fate of her young brother, who appeals to her to plead with Promos. She therefore meets Promos and obtains a postponement of the execution. After she has left, Promos reveals in a soliloquy that he has fallen in love with her but is determined to overcome the temptation. However, having been encouraged by his corrupt servant, Phallax, to believe that Cassandra might be overcome, he is unable to subdue his desire for her. When she meets him again to know his final decision, he first defends the law and then, when she pleads for mercy, makes his infamous proposal.

Amazed and horrified, Cassandra refuses. Promos promises to make her his wife and gives her two days in which to think it over. She goes to her brother’s cell to inform him of Promos’ vile condition and to prepare him for death. Andrugio, taken aback that a judge of Angelo’s supposed integrity has been corrupted by the same lust for which he would condemn another, appeals to his sister to accept the proposed terms and thereby save his life.

Brother and sister argue, but finally Cassandra is won over.

After satisfying his desire, Promos decides to break his word, since no one knows of his promise and Cassandra cannot reveal her own shame. He orders that Andrugio should be executed secretly and his head sent to Cassandra.In fact Andrugio is freed by the jailer and goes into hiding later to be reunited with Cassandra when Angelo is caught and punished by the King.

For whatever reason Shakespeare seems to have wanted to find a resolution to the story in which he could save his Isabella’s virtue. And he does so by introducing another character and another sub plot. That of the jilted Mariana, whom Duke Vincentio (In disguise) describes to Isabella



Let me hear you speak farther. I have spirit to do
anything that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit.


Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful. Have
you not heard speak of Mariana, the sister of
Frederick the great soldier who miscarried at sea?


I have heard of the lady, and good words went with her name.


She should this Angelo have married; was affianced
to her by oath, and the nuptial appointed: between
which time of the contract and limit of the
solemnity, her brother Frederick was wrecked at sea,
having in that perished vessel the dowry of his
sister. But mark how heavily this befell to the
poor gentlewoman: there she lost a noble and
renowned brother, in his love toward her ever most
kind and natural; with him, the portion and sinew of
her fortune, her marriage-dowry; with both, her
combinate husband, this well-seeming Angelo.

So Shakespeare manages to write into his retelling of Whetstone’s play a bed trick in which Marianna is substituted for Isabella thus sparing her virtue and insuring Mariana makes the match she desires with Angelo. A rather happier happy ending than Whetstone’s had been. Curious then that Shakespeare adds to his own version a proposal of marriage from the duke to Isabella but does not tell us how she responds to that, so having preserved Isabella’s innocence he leaves her (and us) with an unanswered question as to her future.



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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Shane Egan

    The fact that Isabella favors her “honor” over her brother’s life is annoying enough(to me, anyway), without the added frustration of thinking that she wasn’t “even” a virgin at the time. As for the bed trick, I’m guessing Will simply found it to be more theatrical. It certainly adds an extra layer or two of tasty dramatic irony. 

  • Elizabeth Woledge

    I should think it’s been done (after all didn’t girls sometimes become nuns because they had been jilted by a lover or their exploits had become public knowledge or they got pregnant out of wedlock. Having said that I have never personally seen this played on stage. I think it could work though

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  • Wayne Myers

    This may seem like a strange question, but is Isabella really a virgin? I know the text appears to make it very clear that she is, but does anyone know of a production where it was implied that maybe…she’s not? 

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