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Lydia Sophia Christensen, 2024 1st Place Critical Analysis

Submissions for the Critical Analysis category should critically evaluate or analyze a piece of literature, a theatrical performance, a work of visual art, a historical moment, a philosophical argument, a social movement, etc. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Lydia Sophia Christensen wrote the 1st place submission in the Critical Analysis Category for the 2024 President’s Writing Awards.

About Lydia

Lydia Sophia smiles at the camera in front of a blue background

Lydia Sophia Christensen is a recent graduate of Boise State University, having earned her BA in both English Literature and Spanish in December 2023. She is deeply passionate about Shakespearean interpretation and performance, with special focus on its power to encourage social progress and collective empathy. Since graduating in the fall, Lydia has had the pleasure of working as a professional actor with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, bringing the joy of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to schools all across the state of Idaho. In the fall, she will further her study and love of the Bard at Mary Baldwin University, as a graduate student in their Shakespeare and Performance MLitt/MFA program. She is honored to be selected for the President’s Award and thanks you for reading her work.

Winning Manuscript – Progress and The Shakespearean Problem Play: The Prescience of Measure for Measure in a Modern America

In the modern age of the global economy, with its nearly omnipresent, at times seemingly omniscient, media stream, the line between comedy and tragedy is in a constant state of fluctuation. These two diametrically opposed genres have become strange and seemingly inseparable bedfellows, as humanity learns to navigate a world where constant exposure to devastation, in the form of 24/7 coverage of climate change, mass shootings, political corruption, and neocolonialism, has become blase, forging a cultural dynamic where one is just as likely to stumble upon dark, macabre jokes about world events, as a news story on the tragedy itself. Considering this complex social climate, where everything from art to activism feels impermanent and commodified, there arises one genre, powerful in its longevity, prescient in its applicability, begging the question: could there be a more apt or resonant art form for understanding and reckoning with our modern injustices than that of the Shakespearean problem play?

A term first coined and defined by early modern drama scholar, Frederick S. Boas in his 1896 publication Shakespeare and his Predecessors, the “problem play” exists outside of the confines of traditional dramatic categorization, and instead is applied to works that tackle contemporary social issues which are “-So singular in theme and temper [that they] cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies”, specifically defining Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure as his problem plays (345). Boas expounds upon the power of such works which, unlike their more clear-cut contemporaries, close leaving their audience with a feeling of “neither simple joy nor pain” but rather feeling “excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome” (345). Neil Rhodes, a contemporary expert on English Renaissance Literature highlights this necessary element of equivocality within a problem play, writing in his work “The Controversial Plot: Declamation and the Concept of the ‘Problem Play’”, that this genre is particularly powerful for the manner in which it faces societal issues through “the dramatic construction of ambiguity” (610). These plays, unlike much of early English literature centered on societal critique, are not saturated in moralism or persuasion, but actively invite their audience to dwell in uncertainty, to question their own notions of morality, judgment, innocence, and justice through the immersive and impactful nature of Shakespeare’s playwriting. The introspective and complex reflection which Shakespeare’s problem plays evoke is an experience that is becoming both increasingly rare and progressively dire in the modern era of algorithm and isolation.

While there is irrefutably a powerful benefit to the decentralization of media and news coverage, as sources and stories are made more accessible and diverse through the ubiquity of the internet, there is also evidence pointing to the ever-increasing polarization of public opinion as perpetuated by algorithm-based information. In 2017, the Pew Research Center published a seven-point exploration of the effects of the “algorithm age” in the United States, the fifth point centered on the ways in which the algorithmic dispersal of news and media “deepens divides” on a political, economic, and ideological level. Pew researchers, Lee Rainie and Janna Anderson write on the matter of algorithms increasing “political and social divides” that “algorithm-driven insights encourage people to live in echo chambers of repeated and reinforced media and political content” (14). While the sheer power and presence of algorithmic media consumption may make hopes for a more complex and reflective cultural mindset seem obsolete or ignorantly optimistic, modern reports on narrative and character appeal amongst contemporary audiences point to a growing increase in the morally ambiguous.

Published in Scientific Reports in 2023, the study “People are curious about immoral and morally ambiguous others” conducted by Jordan Wylie and Ana Gantman showcases that while a predilection for media showcasing moral extremes is gaining popularity, modern American audiences are also significantly drawn to explanations of morally ambiguous figures and scenarios, the evidence of the study suggesting that “ambiguity, which is cognitively taxing and sometimes avoided, preferentially engenders information seeking in the moral domain” (1). This open interest in morally ambiguous stories, despite the state of extreme ideological division in American mainstream society, opens the door for thoughtful media to encourage true, earnest reflection on current issues, which are so often presented through the filter of over-simplistic political divides. Thus, the time for the return of the Shakespearean problem play, in all its ambiguity and social commentary, is nigh.

One might question the modern relevance of even the most adroit and advanced writing of a figure from more than six centuries past. Afterall, how can a commentary on Elizabethan England hold any wisdom, insight, or breakthrough for a modern America riddled with division? As the old English proverb attests, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” or perhaps more fittingly for this scenario is Hamlet’s declaration “The play’s the thing”, as a historical, textual, and performance analysis of what Rhodes terms, Shakespeare’s “Quintessential Problem Play”, Measure for Measure, showcases the work’s unique insight upon modern matters of contention and injustice (610).

Complex, darkly poignant, and fiercely critical, Measure for Measure, is a thriving testament to the ever-renewed prescience of Shakespeare’s work, a problem play which has only blossomed in relevancy and power through the cultural context of the #MeToo Movement and the modern movement for criminal justice reform, providing a compelling landscape by which the complexity and nuance of sexual exploitation, inequality, and predatory notions of justice can be navigated.

There are two methods of literary analysis which illuminate Measure for Measure’s fierce appositeness for modern American issues, particularly surrounding sexuality and notions of virtue and justice. The first of these is a historical exploration of the cultural and religious influences that shaped the play’s creation. While there is substantial evidence that the structural elements of the story originated from Hecatommithi, the same story collection by Italian poet, “Cinthio”/Giovanni Battista Giraldi, that inspired Othello, it is the societal influence behind why and how the tale came to serve as the basis for Shakespeare’s play that truly reveal the ideological and thematic power of the work (Royal Shakespeare Company 1). Like any of Shakespeare’s works, there is a vast sea of supported theories pertaining to the original intention or inspiration for Measure for Measure. As explored in Russ McDonald’s The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, some scholars interpret the play’s representation of Vienna as a literal representation and cultural critique of Austria’s capital, while others interpret this geographical decision as a way to address issues of their contemporary London without “overtly meddling in local or national politics” thus “arous[ing] the ire of the Master of the Recels or London’s city officials” (321).

However, regardless of the true identity of Shakespeare’s Vienna, McDonald illustrates that in all interpretations, religious conflict and consequent anxiety regarding national identity inform the primary themes of this cutting play, whether that be English tensions surrounding the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe, anxiety regarding Islamic dispersal throughout Europe, or the contentious and increasing presence of Puritan sects and ideology throughout the United Kingdom (324-329).

It is no far reach to see the clear line of applicability between the cases of religious anxiety which serve as the historical influences behind Measure for Measure, and a modern day America, where secularization and measures of inclusivity often make headlines as perceived threats to a Christian, national identity and where Islamophobia has been a staple of national dialogue amongst everything from state security to immigration. Additionally, if Shakespeare truly was making an “implicit commentary on religion” with Puritanism in mind, as McDonald points to through an analysis of the play’s attitude towards law, virtue, and vice, there could be no more fitting environment to resonate with the dynamics of the play than that of the country largely established by English Puritans seeking the liberty to practice without restriction (329). These similarities between the issues scholarship ties to Measure for Measure’s creation and the current cultural dynamic of the US demonstrate the text’s powerful prescience in addressing modern issues.

Yet, it is not only through a historical lens that Measure for Measure illustrates its current relevance, but additionally through what Hugh Grady and Terrence Hawkes have termed as “Presentist” Shakespearean interpretation, the play gains immense power and relevancy in adjacency with contemporary American issues. As developed in their work, Presentist Shakespeares, the critical, literary analysis practice of “presentism” examines the ways in which “the ironies generated by our involvement in time are a fruitful, necessary and an unavoidable aspect of any text’s being” and that this modern perspective “allows us to engage with [Shakespeare’s works] more fully and productively”. It is crucial to note that this method does not discount nor disregard the historical forces at play in Shakespeare’s work, but instead advocates for the added study of how these aspects intersect with the cultural influences of the current time of performance, resulting in new life, nuance, and interpretation of the play (Flaherty). Unlike traditional literary works, such as prose and poetry, so much of theater is created and reformed through each and every performance. Considering the profound ways in which interpretation and representation can reshape a play’s meaning, it is crucial to integrate and meaningfully navigate how contemporary perspective is projected on plays of the past. Following in the footsteps of this presentist practice, Measure for Measure becomes, not only a relatable work, but a deeply crucial, strikingly impactful source for change in a post-#MeToo America.

Like the US that fateful day in 2017 when Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times hard-hitting expose on the elaborate, extensive, and grossly excused network of sexual exploitation and abuse Harvey Weinstein perpetrated upon women in Hollywood for decades, the Vienna of Measure for Measure is in for an awakening. However, it is not the voices of the oppressed which will be raised up, but those perpetuating injustice. After nearly two decades of a listless and looming slumber, the law emerges in Shakespeare’s salaciously sinful and lasciviously lax Vienna. As the city’s Duke Vincentio temporarily passes his reign over to the all-virtuous and supremely “moral” Angelo in hopes of restoring order to his kingdom, justice, integrity, and the almighty law itself begin to unravel with ravenous rapidity.

Under Angelo’s exacting order, the life of a moral man, young Claudio, is on the line. Having been accused of consensual, premarital sex with his betrothed, Angelo declares that “within these three days his head to be chopped off” for the dark crime of “lechery” (1:2:65-66). Just like a pre-movement American society, which filled its tabloids with damning tales of “loose women” and “playboy heartthrobs”, open sexual pleasure, even within the confines of a relationship, is among the greatest offenses possible.

The parallels continue to become increasingly more clear and striking when Angelo is approached by Claudio’s pleading, righteous sister, Isabella in Act 2, Scene 4 of the play. In these moments, the “filthy vices” Angelo mortally condemns in others begin to consume him, and audience members experience a moment of shock and horror, as Isabella, a woman promised to chastity in the name of her faith, is subjected to blatant quid pro quo harassment at the hands of the “righteous” and “dutiful” interim duke (2:4:44). Power and lust seizing him, Angelo offers Isabella a chance for her brother’s survival, on the singular condition that she allow him to sexually assault her as payment for his charity, posing to her the question, or more aptly, threat, “Which had you rather, that the most just law/ Now took your brother’s life, or, to redeem him,/ Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness/ As she that he hath stained?” (2:4:54-57). When Isabella vehemently rejects Angelo’s abuse, telling him she will speak of Angelo’s threat, he says the line that reverberates poignantly in our modern age, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?/ My unsoiled name, th’ austereness of my life,/ My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state/ Will so your accusation overweigh/ That you shall stifle in your own report…Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true” (2.4.168-171, 184).

This scene hauntingly, almost too acutely, mirrors the dozens of women who stepped forward speaking of Weinstein’s abuse and exploitation, which he leveraged under the guise of “career advancement”, tied neatly in a bow with extensive non-disclosure agreements that forbade women from coming forward with their “truth” allowing his “false” in the form of public adoration and material success to perpetuate (Kantor and Twohey). However, the #MeToo movement extends far beyond the cases of Weinstein’s abuse, as “within the first twenty-four hours” of Actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet calling for women to share their experiences of sexual assault or standing in solidarity “had been retweeted half a million times” (Tambe 197). Ashwini Tambe writes in her publication “Reckoning with the Silences of #MeToo” that according to social media company, Facebook, “Nearly fifty percent of US users are friends with someone who posted a message about experiences of assault or harassment” (197). While sexual assault can occur in a vast manner of ways and dynamics, a truly significant number of these accounts of sexual abuse look just as described by Shakespeare in 1606, the dominant, male figure holding material, political, and social power over a vulnerable woman in exchange for sexual favors. In regard to the silence demanded of Isabella, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 90% of adult rape victims are female with nearly half a million estimated unreported cases of rape in the US alone each year. Her experience and her silence continue to be heartbreakingly common.

However, it is not only the experience of sexual assault itself that connects Measure for Measure with the #MeToo movement, but also the overarching sense of injustice and faulty notions of progress that accompanied the aftershock of the initial action. While its true that several high-status, sexually predatory men, Weinstein being one, faced criminal charges and professional repercussions in the peak of #MeToo, as more cases were left untried due to power imbalances and sexual abusers quickly found their ways back into extremely privileged positions of power, many women and feminists found themselves disillusioned. Additionally, the potency of the movement led to severe misogynistic backlash, labeling the movement as a “witch hunt” or “mob rule” by angry opposers (Burgess 343). Andrea Prothero writes of the cases which created this sense of injustice in her piece, “#MeToo and beyond: Inequality and Injustice in

Marketing Practice and Academia” stating, “As the case of Trump shows, a windfall of evidence regarding his views on women and willingness to violate social norms, high profile books on the topic, and challenges in the courts can be stunted – to some extent – by powerful political connections and wealth” (2). Measure for Measure both critiques and showcases this same sense of injustice as the play transforms in the end to a tale of totalitarian, hypocritical, and zero-sum penal systems, the notion of justice nothing but a simile for vengeance, gain, and the preservation of power, as seen through the fates of nearly all primary characters: Claudio, Lucio, Angelo, and Isabella.

As the central plot device for justice and punishment in the play, Claudio’s fate at the end of the tale is more clear and simplistic than the more morally complex characters which color Shakespeare’s Vienna. Though his life is ultimately saved by Duke Vincentio, the motive for this act of salvation is ambiguous at best. In fact the grand revelation that Claudio has been spared from execution is not used by the Duke as a public declaration of justice, innocence, or merciful benevolence, but rather as a means to justify the execution of Angelo and to emotionally manipulate Isabella into a marital agreement with him. Fabricating the truth to serve his means, the Duke affirms that Claudio is in fact dead, using the sympathies of the people to inspire judgment upon Angelo saying, “ The very mercy of the law cries out/ Most audible, even from his proper tongue,/ ‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death’” (5.1.463-465). However, it is not for Claudio’s sake, nor for the condemnation of Angelo’s use of excessive force that the Duke inspires a call for punishment, but rather for Angelo’s “Being criminal in double violation/ Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach” (5.1.460-461). It is a problem of ego and public opinion that stirs the duke to action, similar to the false promises of accountability made on behalf of many CEOs and high power executives across America.

In terms of traditional, punitive “justice”, Angelo and Lucio are the two characters in the play who receive a semblance of consequences for their actions, yet these consequences are rooted in misogyny with no real thought towards the real women wronged. Duke Vincentio mandates that each must marry the women they have slept with to provide these wronged maidens with a form of property, then promptly be put to death. In the end, neither Angelo nor Lucio are executed, their marriage to “undesirable” women acting as the ultimate punishment for their transgressions. In fact Lucio expresses the deeply misogynistic burden of this sentencing saying, “I beseech your Highness do not marry me to a/ whore…Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death,/ whipping, and hanging (5.1.588-599, 596-597). Notwithstanding the significant lack of thoughtful consideration for the wellbeing of the women who must marry these two “criminals”, the sheer absence of justice comes from the allocation of the same punishment to two men of greatly differentiating transgressions.

Angelo, a man who sexually manipulated a woman at the hands of his reign, and who carelessly demanded the death of his subjects through a crass and excessive enforcement of the law, is held to the same measure of accountability as Lucio whose only crime was speaking of Duke Vincentio in a way he disliked. The only justification offered for this decision is the Duke’s assertion that Lucio has earned a fate he deems worse than death because “Slandering a prince deserves it” (5.1.598). Again, the personal extortion of punishment and law enforcement to satisfy the personal desires of the Duke creates a gross misuse of the idea of justice in the play’s concluding lines.

Perhaps the most egregious and haunting example of injustice, and a continued representation of the widespread problem of sexual-assault in the US post #MeToo, is the fate of Isabella. After an entire storyline in which Isabella fights against violent misogyny and disproportionate sentencing to protect both her chastity and the life of her brother, the ending she is offered is little different than her predicament at the play’s opening. Having saved the life of her brother, Duke Vincentio now desires her hand, an arrangement almost identical to that of Angelo’s, except with the offer of marriage. However, considering the power differential between the Duke and Isabella, in addition to the “debt” of him having saved Claudio, the Duke never even waits for Isabella’s answer, telling her “What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.—/ So, bring us to our palace” implying that there is little possibility for Isabella to refuse. Though Isabella would be materially comfortable, a fate far better than the few other women in the text, the sacrifice of her religious beliefs, moral purity, and sexual chastity is equivalent is one she associates as worse than death.

When asked to give her chastity for Claudio’s life, Isabella deeply grapples with the implications of both outcomes eventually concluding, “Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die./ More than our brother is our chastity” (2.4.198-199). This sentiment is again reaffirmed when Angelo attempts to coerce her compliance to which she responds, “That is, were I under the terms of death,/ Th’ impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies/ And strip myself to death as to a bed/ That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield/ My body up to shame “(2.4.106-111). After a play of desperate protection of her values, Isabella is again faced with the demand for her body, for the sacrifice of her soul, this time with no avenue, no matter how undesirable, for rejection. Even in a state of restored justice, Isabella is left as prey to the deeply ingrained misogyny of Vienna’s patriarchy, a fate reminiscent of the backlash of misogynistic hatred that arose amongst the rising awareness of sexual assault and the perpetuation of these kings of violence despite increased awareness of its occurrence.

These portrayals of sexual exploitation, gendered violence, and false systems of accountability not only act as a potent representation of the issues raised in the #MeToo movement, but offers a nuanced and balanced approach to these topics considered so controversial by the American public. Sarah K. Burgess speaks on the way in which the ideological division within American culture has stifled the progress of the #MeToo movement, writing, “Unfortunately, the politics of our time, in no time at all, has turned this question into a call for judgment and, consequently, yet another occasion for tribalism and polarized thought” (343). Measure for Measure crosses this ideological divide, with nuanced characters and an ambiguous ending regarding who is truly deemed morally reprehensible. Even the painful scene of sexual exploitation in Act 2 Scene 4 is structured in three parts of differing perspectives, beginning with a soliloquy from Angelo where he ponders his dark desires, the visceral encounter between him and Isabella, and then closing with a soliloquy from Isabella where she painstakingly decides how to proceed, revealing the intricacies and depths of these character’s souls, and their respective suffering.

Rife with nearly every form of injustice and the corruption of power and desire, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a darkly ironic play with a plot endlessly centered on the principles of justice and legality, yet failing to provide authentic examples of either of these ideals throughout the play’s entirety. From both a historical and contemporary analysis, this problem play holds particular power to simultaneously represent, support, question, and spark dialogue surrounding the societal issues addressed by the #MeToo movement, acting as a fierce testament to the idea that justice cannot bloom where power and personal gain have taken root, a sentiment as necessary and relevant today as it was in both 1604 and 2017.

Works Cited

Boas, Frederick S. Shakespeare and His Predecessors. Greenwood Press, 1969.

Burgess, Sarah K. “Between the Desire for Law and the Law of Desire: #MeToo and the Cost of Telling the Truth Today.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 51, no. 4, 2018, pp. 342–67. JSTOR,

Royal Shakespeare Company. “Dates and Sources: Measure for Measure.” RSC,

Flaherty, Kate. Ours As We Play It: Australia Plays Shakespeare, Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing (2011).

Grady, Hugh, and Terence Hawkes. Presentist Shakespeares. Routledge, 2007.

Kantor, Jodi, and Megan Twohey. “Harvey Weinstein Paid off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2017,

Prothero, Andrea & Tadajewski, Mark (2021) #MeToo and beyond: inequality and injustice in marketing practice and academia, Journal of Marketing Management, 37:1-2, 1-20, DOI: 10.1080/0267257X.2021.1889140.

Rainie, Lee. “Theme 5: Algorithmic Categorizations Deepen Divides.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 8 Feb. 2017,

Rhodes, Neil. “The Controversial Plot: Declamation and the Concept of the ‘Problem Play.’” The Modern Language Review, vol. 95, no. 3, 2000, pp. 609–22. JSTOR,

Shakespeare, William. “Measure for Measure .” Folger Shakespeare Library,

Tambe, Ashwini. “Reckoning with the Silences of #MeToo.” Feminist Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, 2018, pp. 197–203. JSTOR,

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare’s Problem Plays. University of Toronto Press, 1950. JSTOR,

“Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN,

Wylie, Jordan, and Ana Gantman. “People are curious about immoral and morally ambiguous others.” Scientific reports vol. 13,1 7355. 5 May. 2023, doi:10.1038/s41598-023-30312-9