The poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) regarded Measure for Measure as ‘the most painful’ or ‘rather, the only painful’ work by Shakespeare. Coleridge's responses are recorded in handwritten notes crammed onto the title page of the play, in his personal copy of The Works of Shakespeare edited by Lewis Theobald (1688–1744).
What does Coleridge say about Measure for Measure?
Coleridge sees both the ‘comic and tragic’ aspects of the play as hateful, ‘disgusting’ and ‘horrible’. He is particularly baffled by Shakespeare’s treatment of Angelo, the hypocritical deputy to the Duke of Vienna. Coleridge finds Angelo’s ‘cruelty ... lust and damnable Baseness’ morally unforgiveable and contrary to justice. This makes the play’s conclusion – Angelo’s marriage to Mariana and the Duke’s willingness to pardon him – deeply problematic. Moreover, Angelo’s behaviour towards Isabella and Mariana is ‘degrading to the character of Woman’.
Coleridge compares Measure for Measure to John Fletcher’s The Night-Walker (1640), which he finds even more ‘loathsome’. He says little about the ‘counterbalancing beauties’ of Shakespeare’s play, since we can take these for granted.
In his Table Talk of 24 June 1827, Coleridge repeated these criticisms and laid into other characters, saying ‘Our feelings of justice are grossly wounded in Angelo’s escape. Isabella herself contrives to be unamiable, and Claudio is detestable’.
Coleridge made famous notes on other plays in another edition of Shakespeare held in the British Library.
Lewis Theobald’s illustrated edition of Shakespeare
Theobald’s 8-volume edition first appeared in 1733, and was reprinted several times with illustrations by the Frenchman, Hubert Gravelot. The frontispiece for Measure for Measure in this 1773 edition shows Act 5, Scene 1 of the play. The Duke, dressed in his normal clothing and no longer disguised as a friar, meets Angelo and Escalus near the city gates. Isabella, prompted by Friar Peter, exposes Angelo as a ‘virgin-violator’ (5.1.41).
 Extracts from Table Talk were edited by H N Coleridge, Coleridge’s son-in-law and nephew, and printed in Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and other English Poets by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, collected by T Ashe (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), pp. 531–32.
- Full title:
- The Works of Shakespeare ... With notes ... by Mr. Theobald. Printed verbatim from the octavo edition. MS. notes [by S. T. Coleridge].
- 1773, London
- early 19th century [Coleridge's manuscript notes], London
- Book / Duodecimo / Engraving / Illustration / Image / Manuscript annotation
- William Shakespeare, Lewis Theobald [editor], Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hubert Gravelot [pseudonym for the illustrator]
- Usage terms
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Kate Chedzgoy
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Comedies
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays": it sits uneasily between tragedy and comedy. Kate Chedzgoy discusses how the play combines the two genres and, in doing so, raises questions about morality, justice, mercy and closure.