The Role of Minor Characters in
Measure for Measure
Minor characters in Shakespeare’s
plays are often dismissed as merely providing comic relief. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, however, the minor
characters serve as first-hand examples of some of the main aspects of society
that Duke Vincentio intends to change, which are the moral corruption of the
people of Vienna, the disregard of religion, and the lack of proper education.
Pompey is the “major” minor
character of the play, his crucial role that of a commentator on the state of
affairs among the citizens of Vienna. Although he holds no position of power,
he is clever and manages to find loopholes in the law. As Duke Vincentio puts
his plan in motion to go undercover to see how things can change with Angelo in
charge, Pompey is one of the characters who highlights why simply replacing the
person in charge is not the best solution.
In Act 1,
Scene 2, Pompey speaks to Mistress Overdone, his employer, about the new laws which will take down all
brothels in the suburbs of Vienna. She shows concern about what will happen to
her brothel, in which Pompey reassures her,
Pompey: Come; fear you not. Good counselors lack no clients.
Though you change your place, you need not
trade. I’ll be your
tapster still. Courage! There will be
pity taken on you.
You that have worn your eyes almost
out in service, you
will be considered.
(Act 1, Scene 2, lines 93-97)
This portrays how citizens like
Pompey and Mistress Overdone view the law; it is not strict and never will be,
in fact, it is a law to be mocked, as Pompey’s language suggests when he says
“I’ll be your tapster still. Courage!”. Therefore Pompey and Mistress Overdone
are confident that they are going to keep their jobs, or at the very least be
taken pity on because of their old age.
The title of this play is of
interest of itself, which comes from the King James bible. “For with what
judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall
be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Christianity is embedded in Viennan
society, but as corruption worsened over the years, religion becomes a mere
culture that is taken lightly and used for laughs. In the opening lines of
scene two of the play, two gentlemen appear speaking with Lucio on the street,
making remarks such as the following:
First Gentleman: Heaven grant us its
peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”
First Gentleman: Why,’twas a commandment to command the
and all the rest
from their functions: they put forth
to steal. There’s
not a soldier of us all, that, in the
meat, do relish the petition well that
prays for peace.
(Act 1, Scene 2, lines 3, 11-15)
These lines set the scene for the
play, portraying the priorities and standards of the people of Vienna, which is
that personal gain and satisfaction comes first, then come all trivial things,
ones of which becomes religion. They are aware of the religious obligation to
follow the commandments of the Bible in order to prosper as a society, but, as
the second gentleman states, pirates and soldiers-and other mundane
individuals-leave out the commandments that clash with their personal business.
Pompey is seen participating in the
mocking and disregard of Christian morals. When the Provost asks Pompey if he
can cut off a man’s head, his reply is as follows:
he be a married
man, he’s his wife’s head, and I can never
cut off a
4, Scene 2, lines 2-4)
Pompey is making a joke in reference
to a verse from the Bible, as Ephesians 5:23 is the idea of the husband as the
head of the wife, and Pompey uses this verse as a double-entendre meaning a
husband also owning his wife’s maidenhead. This further depicts how
Christianity is common knowledge among citizens, even brothel citizens, yet
very few choose to properly follow it. In another instant, Pompey uses
grounding language to demonstrate that he does not regret his choice of
lifestyle, despite it clashing with both the law of the land and the religion.
do find your hangman is a
more penitent trade than your bawd; he doth
(Act 4, Scene 2, lines 41-43)
According to the customs of the
society in Measure for Measure, an
executioner typically asks the condemned person to forgive him right before he
has to cut off his head. Pompey, being a pimp at a brothel, admits that he does
not care to ask for implied forgiveness from the Lord as he compares himself to
an executioner who is obliged to do so so often.
Pompey: Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.
(Act 2, Scene 1, line
As Pompey speaks to Escalus about
the nature of his job and why he chooses to live as a pimp, Pompey explains
that he simply is trying to earn a living. This minor detail in the play sheds
light on how poor education is in Vienna; that in order to make a living, many
citizens such as Pompey have to resort to such professions so that they can
survive. Escalus warns Pompey that beheadings and hangings will be initiated in
order to reduce such crimes, in which Pompey bluntly explains,
Pompey: If you head and hang all that offend that way but
year together, you’ll be glad to give out a
(Act 2, Scene 2, lines 219-221)
Corruption has run so deep in the
veins of Vienna that in ten years, the government will have to repopulate the
city. Pompey repeating the word “head” in accordance with both decapitation,
and the head, highlights the dark humor of the play. He continues to use a tone
of mockery when referring to the new laws, which gives a sense of more urgency
of the subject at play, which is how deep the corruption of society is, so much
so that it seems irreversible.
Furthermore, Pompey is an example of
the extreme difficulties of change, and that the people of Vienna-including
himself-will not change, just because the law has. Mockingly, he says,
Pompey: I thank your Worship for your good counsel:
(aside) But I shall follow it as the flesh
shall better determine. Whip me? No, no; let
whip his jade: The valiant heart is not
whipt out of
(Act 2, Scene
1, lines 231-235)
In the opening 18 lines Act 4, Scene
3, Pompey expresses his amusement at the fact that most of the clients he used
to see at Mistress Overdone’s brothel, are now with him in jail. He lists the
names and jobs of many of them, showing that vice and corruption have reached
all the social classes. There is young Master Rash, a man in debt; Marry, an
unwanted prostitute; Master Three-pile the mercer, a textile merchant; young
Drop-heir the murderer; and brave Master Shooty the world-traveler.
Elbow is another significant minor
character in the play. He is a cop, yet cannot enforce the law properly. In
fact, he is constantly being taken advantage of by other officers in his
precinct, and attests to their abuse of power—if a criminal is in the presence
of a deputy, he would be better off being anywhere but there.
Escalus: …They do you wrong
to put you so oft
upon’t. Are there not men in your ward
sufficient to serve
Elbow: Faith, sir, few of any wit in such matters. As they
Chosen, they are glad to choose me for them. I do it for
some piece of money, and go through with all.
2, Scene 1, lines 243-248)
Duke Vincentio: …Take him to prison, officer.
instruction must both work
Ere this rude beast
Elbow: He must before the deputy, sir; he has given him a
The deputy cannot abide a whoremaster: if he be a
whoremonger, and comes before him, he were as good go
a mile on his errand.
3, Scene 2, lines 28-34).
It is important to note that Elbow
refers to his fellow officers as being not as bright as himself. Elbow, despite
being a law man, his language shows that his education is sub-par to his
position. In Act 2, Scene 1, he mixes his words multiple times while speaking
do lean upon justice, sir,
and do bring in here before your honor two
Angelo: Benefactors? Well, what benefactors are they? Are
(Act 2, Scene 1, lines 49-52)
Elbow’s inability to use precise
words in speech results in Angelo’s annoyance in which he leaves the whole
ordeal for Escalus to deal with. And while addressing Escalus, Elbow confuses
the words “attest” and “suspected” with “detest” and “respected,” consecutively.
Elbow: My wife, sir, whom I detest before heaven and
Escalus: How? Thy wife?
Elbow: First, an it like you, the house is a respected
Next, this is a respected fellow; and his mistress is a
This is a crucial point considering
that such terms are common use for cops in their investigations, yet Elbow
cannot accurately choose which words are appropriate. These lines depict the
standard of education in Vienna. As in Pompey’s case mentioned earlier, the
less education there is, the more difficult it is to find a decent job to keep
one out of places like whorehouses which are the greatest contributions of
corruption in the play.
has chosen to give many of the minor characters in Measure for Measure unique names that are directly related to who
they are as people. Most remarkable of these names are Mistress Overdone and
the Justice seen with Escalus in the early pages of the play.
In Scene 1
of Act 2, Escalus questions Pompey about his employer, who is Mistress
Overdone. Pompey clarifies that she earned her name when she married her ninth
husband, thus becoming an “overdone” woman. This paints her as a woman who has
no regard for a reputation of chastity and loyalty to one man only, which was
the custom in the Christian society. Her main concern is her business of
running the brothel in which Pompey is an employee.
Mistress Overdone’s most significant scenes in the play, is when she is getting
arrested for running her whorehouse after Lucio’s accusation of her to Escalus.
Mistress Overdone: Good
my lord, be good to me; your Honor is accounted a
merciful man; good my lord.
Escalus: Double and
treble admonition, and still forfeit in the
same kind! This would make mercy swear and
Mistress Overdone: My
lord, this is one Lucio’s information against me.
Mistress Kate Keepdown was with child
by him in the
Duke’s time; he promised her marriage.
His child is a
year and a quarter old, come Philip
and Jacob. I have kept
it myself; and see how he goes about
to abuse me!
3, Scene 2, lines 174-178, 181-185)
In these lines, Mistress Overdone
portrays a prime example of the morality of the common citizen. After outing
her accuser with a sin supposedly worse than hers, she also mentions a good
deed she has committed so that it she could perhaps take advantage of the mercy
of the law, and having a positive replace a negative in her favor. This further
emphasizes the ineffectiveness of the law due to the many years it has been
nothing but lenient. Although in this particular scene her tone is not comical,
there is irony and mockery in the request she makes, further highlighting the
dark theme in which Measure for Measure
Although Justice only appears for a
total of three lines in Act 2, Scene 1, he declares an important statement in
which Escalus fully supports him on.
Lord Angelo is severe.
Escalus: It is but
Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so;
is still the nurse of second woe.
Having a character named “Justice”
say “Lord Angelo is severe” serves as an affirmation that sometimes justice
needs to be severe in order to be effective. Escalus backs up this statement by
explaining that oftentimes mercy isn’t the best solution because it often leads
to more pain and problems, such as the case of pardoning too many crimes under
the pretense of mercy. Such mercy is the main factor in the corruption in the
streets of Vienna, and therefore justice must be served severely in order to
bring about any potential change.
Overall, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure uses its minor
characters as first-person commentary to the vices of Vienna that the Duke had
set out to fix. While Duke Vincentio actively tries to change the state of
affairs, all the minor characters prove to the audience why such change is not
possible, therefore contributing largely to the “problem play” element of Measure for Measure. Despite the minor
characters’ interactions with each other and with major characters being in
mostly comedic language, there is a dark undertone to the comic relief they
bring, thus bringing to light the darkness and seriousness of the issues at
hand in the play.