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English Linguistics

If? What if? Hypothesis as a Leitmotif in Measure for Measure

Estelle Rivier and Anne-Marie Santin-Guettier
p. 88-103


Measure for Measure est une pièce éminemment “problématique” dans le canon shakespearien, non seulement d’un point de vue éthique, mais aussi narratif et performatif pour ne citer que quelques-uns de ses traits équivoques. Sur le dernier aspect nommé, Stéphane Braunschweig, metteur en scène ayant dirigé l’œuvre en 1998 avec la Nottingham Playhouse, confiait dans un récent entretien que le foisonnement de « if », « what if » et « as if » donnerait lieu à une étude pertinente, notamment dans le cadre du concours de l’agrégation où la pièce figure.2 Qu’à cela ne tienne, il fallait le prendre au mot ! Combien existe-t-il d’occurrences hypothétiques dans la pièce ? Quelle(s) incidence(s) ont-elles sur sa rhétorique, sur sa poésie, sur les rapports entre personnages, sur les enjeux de la mise en scène ? La surabondance d’occurrences est-elle courante dans les autres pièces de Shakespeare et à quelles fins ? Autant de questions auxquelles seule l’étude littéraire ne pouvait répondre. Le lecteur ne sera donc pas surpris de voir en cette étude un dialogue entre linguistique et littérature, entre texte et scène, pour tenter de lever le voile (ou le rideau) sur quelques questions laissées en suspens à l’égard de cette pièce.

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“If a man will begin in certainties, he shall end in doubts;
But if he will be content to begin with doubts,
He shall end in certainties.”
Bacon, Advancement of Learning, I, 1605, p. 147.

  • 3 All the quotations are taken from William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, J. W. Lever (ed.), Lond (...)
  • 4 J. Chuquet, p. 49 : « Il s’agit ici d’un jeu sur l’assertion dans la mesure où l’énonciateur, par l (...)

1As Francis Bacon’s acknowledgment quoted above implies, if things were all clearly settled in advance, there would be no space for self-awareness or pardon. This is particularly revealing in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, contemporary to this quotation, where, from the beginning, nothing is obvious and considered at face value. The Duke’s question to Escalus, while he is about to appoint Angelo as the deputy of Vienna in his absence, “What think you of it?” (I.1.21), sets the tone, showing that despite decisions made, doubts remain. In his answer, Escalus voices the first hypothetic clause of the play: If any in Vienna be of worth, () It is Angelo.” (I.1.22-4).3 Present-Day English offers a fairly wide range of means in order to express hypothesis, i.e.: WHETHER... OR... / IF X, Y / Inversion + ED. An enunciator chooses WHETHER X OR Y when X and Y are balanced in his mind; X and Y weigh the same weight. WHETHER stems from the combination of WH- and EITHER. The operator IF leads him to hold X as true, should it be only for a few seconds. If the IF-clause is true, the main clause Y holds true as well and the utterer can warrant it.4 In this case, a modal such as WILL occurs in Y, proving that the enunciator endorses Y: “If it is warm enough, (then) I will leave tomorrow morning.”

2In such a light, we read Escalus’ lines (above quoted) as such: there is indeed somebody in Vienna who can worthily replace the Duke for a while, and that is Angelo.

3A sentence such as Had I known, I would have told you provides a structure devoid of IF or WHETHER; yet an hypothetical value prevails. Indeed, the regular order “noun group + verbal operator” has been inverted, which results in a restructuration of the main items in the sentence. Such a restructuration is due to the utterer’s reinforced presence in his/her utterance. As he/she is the one who builds up his/her sentence, such a “reshuffled” strsucture testifies to the fact that he/she is a real puppet master in the way he collocates his words. All in all, the set WHETHER... OR... / IF... / inversion + ED illustrates the enunciator’s growing interference in his speech.

  • 5 The Cambridge History of the English Language.

4Early Modern English had its own logic and the various ways of expressing hypothesis could differ in contemporary English. Firstly, in the third person singular, verbs in the present tense never ended with -th in IF-clauses. This does not invalidate our analysis of IF-clauses, but the regular occurrence of the verbal base means that validating the predicative relation itself remained hypothetical. It follows that such occurrences in Shakespeare’s works necessarily seem more fictional. Secondly, AND could introduce conditional or concessive clauses in Early Modern English, but this and was less common than in Middle English. It was particularly favoured by dramatists, and often combined with it (an’t); this implies that it was regarded as a colloquial feature. The accepted spelling an (while regarded as vulgar with the copulative conjunction and) is probably due to an attempt to mark the conditional/concessive use as separate from the simple copulative one. “An’t be any way, it must be with valour.” (Shakespeare Twelfth Night, III.ii.; the folio edition reads and’t). “He shall go without his and (= even if) he were my brother.”((HC) Udall I.ii)5

5Through Escalus’ words, the plot, built on the Duke’s project, is immediately, though implicitly, presented as unsure or “problematic”. Problems and unanswered questions knowingly lie at the heart of Measure for Measure. Shakespeare exemplifies the vicissitude embedded in life where everything changes so fast that men have to adapt themselves constantly. No determinism governs their choices but the protagonists of the play are often overwhelmed by misunderstandings and by events they can hardly control, and as pilgrims looking for God’s illuminating teaching, they travel towards edification. The accumulation of “ifs”, “what ifs” and “as ifs” is another way of highlighting man’s wandering and hesitation. Such clauses offer alternative situations and invite us to weigh, or “measure”, the truth and its opposite, the pros and the cons of a given situation. As the Folio version of the play is the main authority on which we can base our analysis, we can provide a rather fair assessment of the hypothetic forms used there, namely:

  • 6 Please, see further down in the conclusion an assessment of “Ifs” in other Shakespearean plays.

Number of occurrences6





6Our intent is however not to mention and analyse all the hypothetic forms used in the play for some of them have neither linguistic nor literary relevance (for example polite formulations such as “if it like your honour”, Provost II.1.33, or “If it please your honour”, Elbow II.1.47). We shall rather focus our attention on key literary and linguistic occurrences, ranging over three thematic approaches: the structural hypotheses involving comic relief, plot-variations and prolepsis. What is the value of repeated IF-clauses in II.1 for instance in the confrontation between Pompey and Escalus? From another respect, what does the Duke’s inverted clause in I.3.53-54 (“Hence shall we see,/If power change purpose, what our seemers be”) reveal of the risky situation he has engaged his realm in when naming Angelo as the new deputy? And by extension, how has the playwright built the whole scenario on expectancy and experimentation? Furthermore, hypotheses always lead us to consider the two scales of the balance, and to account for confronting values and opposite points of view. This is particularly true during the two scenes in Act II where Isabella and Angelo are face to face. Not surprisingly there, “ifs” accumulate, showing the characters’ discord, and endangering the benefiting evolution of their situation. Yet, as Measure for Measure is definitely an edifying comedy, more moralistic hypotheses also permeate the text of the play. They invite us to question our own behaviour, either from a religious perspective or simply from a social and human one.

Structural hypotheses

  • 7 For example, AND could introduce conditional or concessive clauses in Early Modern English, but thi (...)

7As remarked above, in Early Modern English ways of expressing hypothesis could differ from contemporary English just as other linguistic items could be used to serve other aims.7 In addition, we cannot assume for certain that Shakespeare used IF-clauses, inversions and WHETHER….OR in a deliberate linguistic progression. However it is rather puzzling to note that as early as the first act, hypothetic clauses reveal to what extent the plot is resting on risky foundations that will condition the forthcoming peripeteia. For example, in the double hypothetic structure found in I.3.53-54 (“Hence shall we see,/If power change purpose, what our seemers be”) in which an inversion is immediately followed by IF+SP, the Duke who is confessing his intentions to the friar, implies that the order in his realm will be restored if only Angelo is able to have the law be respected (power/change purpose). Hence the welfare of Vienna is submitted to the capacity of one man to restore justice. If he fails, the “seemers” won’t be unmasked and disorder will prevail. If he succeeds, the “seemers” will be unveiled and justice will be applied. The play’s action is thus conditioned by this alternative. Depending on the scale of the balance that will weigh the most, the plot will vary. As early as the first act, the topicality of measurement is illustrated.

8But what one may venture to call structural hypotheses are also, paradoxically, a means by which we can anticipate what will occur next. In III.1, Isabella’s lines are proleptic insofar as they foreshadow what will happen in the last act. In her line, “If ever he (Vincentio) return and I can speak to him, I will open my lips in vain, or discover his government” (191-193), although IF is followed by EVER that reinforces the dubious validation of the predicative relation he/return, the modal WILL used in the apodosis clearly implies that in the case it were validated, Isabella would not hesitate to “open her lips in vain”, which will reveal to be true indeed. “Hear me! O here me, hear”, she repeats in V.1.34. But even more strikingly does she use an inversion just after “but yet most truly will I speak(39) to denounce Angelo as “a forsworn”, “a murderer”, “an adulterous thief, an hypocrite, a virgin-violator” (41; 42; 43). Thus we can retrospectively assert that the inversion and IF-clause found in III.1 have indeed prepared our ears and eyes to witness what occurs in V.1. Linguistic and lexical constructions are in harmony, and hypotheses come true. Likewise the Duke’s answer to the afflicted Isabella in III.1 ― I do make myself believe that you may most uprighteously [] do no stain to your own gracious person; and much please the absent duke, if peradventure he shall ever return to have hearing of this business.” (198; 201-204) ― prefigures what will be performed in Act V. The juxtaposition of two hypothetic items, the marker “IF” and the adverb “peradventure”, make it particularly improbable that the two predicative relations he/return and he/hear this business shall be validated. Yet, as we have pointed out in the introduction, when the enunciator uses an “IF-clause” (If X, Y is/will be), he holds X as true, even for a brief interval. In III.1, the Duke is still disguised as a friar but Isabella is unaware of his stratagem. Through the Duke’s cue (lines 198-204), Shakespeare sprinkles several aspects of the ending like the Duke’s proclaiming his love for Isabella. Such an anticipated (yet implicit) revelation probably goes unnoticed at that point in the play (although the actor’s performance might have already partly unveiled the character’s feelings) and this is again the final act which clearly validates what has been partly disclosed in III.1, i.e. that Isabella will “much please the […] duke”(202) and will consequently be offered his hand.

9There are other numerous structural and “proleptic” hypotheses in the play. They are not only uttered by the main and authoritarian characters such as Isabella or the Duke, but also by the clowns, which may be analysed as another feature showing that hypothesis is woven in the canvas of the play to enable the reader/spectator to anticipate further events or at least to imagine the variations that will be later displayed under his/her eyes. After the long discussion between the provost, Pompey and Abhorson in IV.2 where hypotheses are mostly used as a means to value the possibility of appointing Pompey as Abhorson’s helper, we attend a rather comic interlude in Barnardine’s prison cell. The decision to hang the latter and present his head to Angelo as a proof of Claudio’s death has been taken by the Duke and Provost. In IV.3, the plan is changed due to Barnardine’s refusing to be executed.



Not a word: if you have any thing to say to me, come to my ward; for thence will not I to-day.



Here in the prison, father,
There died this morning of a cruel fever/
One Ragozine, a most notorious pirate,/
A man of Claudio’s years; his beard and head/
Just of his colour.
What if we do omit/
This reprobate till he were well inclined;/
And satisfy the deputy with the visage/
Of Ragozine, more like to Claudio?


This shall be done, good father, presently./
But Barnardine must die this afternoon;/
And how shall we continue Claudio,/
To save me from the danger that might come/
If he were known alive?


The Duke

The tongue of Isabel. She’s come to know/
If yet her brother’s pardon be come hither;/

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,/

To make her heavenly comforts of despair,/
When it is least expected.


[to Isabella] If you can, pace your wisdom/

In that good path that I would wish it go,/

And you shall have your bosom on this wretch,/
Grace of the duke, revenges to your heart,/
And general honour. (…)


Command these fretting waters from your eyes/
With a light heart; trust not my holy order,/
If I pervert your course.— Who’s here?


  • 8 Pompey “(…) he that drinks all night, and is hanged betimes in the morning, may sleep the sounder a (...)

10These quotations taken from IV.3 highlight two issues: first death cannot be controlled and administered arbitrarily. Even if it is treated with irony here (Barnardine, who is drunk and wants to sleep it off, is told that death will provide him for a deeper and better sleep), death escapes human scheduling.8 Only Providence decides. Hence, Ragozine’s death, serving as a subterfuge, will indeed be considered as a divine grace by the Duke who immediately claims: “O, ‘tis an accident that heaven provides” (76). Thus the provost’s suggestion in WHAT IF line 72 may already hint at the validation of the two predicative relations We/Omit this reprobate (72) and We/satisfy the deputy with the visage of Ragozine (74) that will prove to be true in Act V by the physical presence of Claudio who has evidently been spared (Provost “This is another prisoner that I sav’d”, 485). If Barnardine’s incongruous intervention is first and foremost meant to provoke laughter, it is also a device that will influence future events and make the ending more rejoicing.

  • 9 It must be reminded here that the dramatic illusion and the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” ar (...)

11The second issue revealed through the hypotheses in this scene can be read in the Duke’s intention not to tell the truth to Isabella but to make her believe that her brother has been hanged. In “She’s come to know/If yet her brother’s pardon be come hither” (106-107), the predicative relation her brother’s pardon/ be come hither is as much possible as it is improbable. Isabella is totally ignorant about her brother’s fate and rightly fears that Angelo has not respected his word. The Duke will take advantage of her ignorance and will leave the two scales of the balance at equal level, thus creating suspense until the final Act where Isabella will be revealed the truth.9 The final revelation of Claudio’s survival will sound even more miraculous. Because the public is informed of the friar-Duke’s plan and can easily understand the hypothesis as a theatrical trick (almost a rhetorical question), the scene is not pathetic, even though Isabella cries. Besides the latter unhesitatingly consents to follow the Duke’s advice formulated in the next two hypotheses and so she will “pace her wisdom” (132) and “trust his holy order” (147).

12As this last remark implies, in hypotheses ― and particularly in a play called Measure for Measure ― the protasis and the apodosis momentarily have equal chance to be validated. Only circumstances will tip the balance on one side, and it is particularly clear in the two key scenes opposing Angelo and Isabella in II.2 and II.4 where hypotheses permeate the lines. These hypotheses bear witness to the fragility of the dramatic composition to the point that they may warp its genre. Indeed if the darker stakes imagined by the characters come true, the play will be tragic; conversely, if the happier hypothesis is validated, it will result in a comedy.

Counter-balanced hypotheses



and line


Tools for interpretation





if you should need a pin, /

You could not with more tame a tongue desire it.

If X Modal, X modal

Isabella, 51

But can you, if you would?

Question X, if X Modal

Isabella, 53-55

But might you do’t, and do the world no wrong/

If so your heart were touch’d with that remorse/

As mine is to him?

Question = modal X Verb,/

If +SN+ hypothetic past

Isabella, 64

If he had been as you, and you as he,/

You would have slipp’d like him;

If X plu-perfect/comparison,/

Y + modal+past

Isabella, 76-77

How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should/
But judge you as you are?

Question= Interrogative pronoun +modal+X/

If God (inserted relative clause) modal /identification

Biblical source for comparison

Angelo, 81-82

Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,/

It should be thus with him.

hypothetic past X/

impersonal pronoun+modal

Angelo, 92-94

Those many had not dared to do that evil,
If the first that did the edict infringe/

Had answer’d for his deed.


If + universal subject+past relative subordinate clause/ plu-perfect

Isabella, 111-112

Could great men thunder/

As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,

Modal+inverted clause (having an assertive value)/

Mythological reference

Isabella, 139

if it confess/
A natural guiltiness such as is his,/
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue/
Against my brother’s life.

If + impersonal subject (referent = “bosom”, l. 137)/

verb base



and line


Tools for analysis



Angelo, 4-5

Heaven in my mouth,/
As if I did but only chew his name

As if+ S/P (hypothetic past)

Can-ED+I+ P monologue

Angelo, 11

Could I with boot change for an idle plume

Angelo, 35

Yet may he live a while (…)

Modal+he (=Claudio) +BV

Isabella, 69-73

That I do beg his life, if it be sin, /
Heaven let me bear it! you granting of my suit,/
If that be sin, I’ll make it my morn prayer/
To have it added to the faults of mine,/
And nothing of your answer.

If + it + verb base

If + that + verb base

Isabella, 100

Were I under the terms of death, (…)

Hypothetic past + I (=Isabella)

Isabella, 121-23

Else let my brother die/ 
If not a feodary, but only he/
Owe and succeed thy weakness.

If + not + SN (no verb)

Angelo, 134-137

Be that you are,
That is, a woman;
if you be more, you’re none./
If you be one, (…), show it now (…)

If + you (Isabel)+ verb base used twice + pun on none/nun/one

Angelo, 143

He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.

If + you (Isabel) + BV-give (simple present)

13Let us first point out that in this scene a majority of hypotheses with “IF” are used by Isabella. Her speech could be divided into three parts showing the evolution of her involvement in the process of persuasion: on a comparative mode, she first demands Angelo’s self-identification, encouraging his introspection. In questions raised lines 53 and 55, “you” is repeated: Angelo is put face to himself and then face to the fraternal pair in a triangular relationship that opposes him to Isabella and Claudio (“You”, 54 vs “As mine is to him”, 55). Lots of modals are used (“can/would/might”) in a crescendo which may first translate Isabella’s hesitation and reserve. Yet, surprisingly enough, in the occurrence line 51, “But can you, if you would?”, the modal “can” is used while one would expect the phrasing “But could you, if you would?” The clause “if you would” should logically occur with another modal preterit in the main clause in order to refer to the counterfactual plane. The use of the present tense implies that despite the modal preterit, Isabella considers the IF-clause as real enough to function with CAN in the present tense. Does it mean that intrinsically, at that point already, Isabella is convinced that Angelo will be influenced either by her speech or by his own capacity for compassion? Isabella is described as being a persuasive character. Even though she summons the heart as a trustful adviser (If so your heart were touch’d with that remorse”, 54), she shows she is able to think cleverly: “She speaks, and ‘tis such sense, that my sense breeds with it”, Angelo remarks lines 142-143. Hence the use of CAN would be a rhetorical item indicating her persuasion scheme.

14The second stage of her speech in II.2 is to ask Angelo to identify himself to Claudio. The perspective no longer involves a one-to-one relationship, it requires a direct comparison between the judge and the convict. The hypothesis line 64, “If he had been as you, and you as he,/ You would have slipp’d like him;[]juxtaposes Angelo and Claudio. From a dramatic angle, roles can be swapped. From an ethical one, compassion is stimulated. This new example shows how cunning Isabella’s discourse is in that she is able to intermingle references (play-role and moral) and resort to various faculties (heart and reason). The third stage of her defence (or plea for Claudio’s release) resorts to a more religious vocabulary. In the hypotheses she formulates (lines 76-77 and 111-112), Isabella refers to the Bible. First in the ‘IF-clause’, she implies that God is in a position to judge Angelo just like Angelo judges Claudio (II, 2 (76): “How would you be/ if He […] should but judge you as you are ?[…]). The dimension is twofold here: on the one hand, Isabella uses IF so as to set down a postulate. On the other hand, however, this postulate is basically contradictory: the predicative relation He/but judge you as you are cannot hold, hence the occurrence of should. Indeed, God is mercy (II, 2 115: “Merciful heaven”) unlike Angelo, so that Isabella cannot conceive of such a predicative relation although she hopes she could (“O, think on that,/And mercy then will breathe within your lips/[…]”, 78). Once again, SHOULD points to a highly unlikely context.

15Yet, the novice’s moralizing language sounds more incisive. She seems to master the art of rhetoric even more so as Lucio congratulates her. The density of her arguments increases, reducing Angelo to utter only brief answers. The religious lexicon merges into more subjective considerations, morphing the language into an act of seduction. As Angelo is being more and more puzzled by Isabella’s words, she appeals to his “bosom” (137), to his “heart” (138), even to his “tongue” (141) which is one of the most erotic anatomic items but also the means by which one becomes rhetorically powerful. Just as these words (‘bosom/heart/tongue’) are semantically connoted and prove Isabella’s deep implication in the discourse, it is worth noticing retrospectively that in the second biblical reference she uses (Could great men thunder […]”, 111), she proves to be increasingly involved. Indeed, as she places the subject after the modal, she restructures the basic order S/Modal. This way of endorsing her utterance makes the operator IF needless to advance the hypothesis. Let us remark that after this tirade Angelo begins to yield and “relent” as Lucio states line 125. Up to that point Angelo has had a more assertive mode of expression which has progressively confined him to the state of a listener more than that of a speaker.

16In the second exchange between Isabella and Angelo, the number of hypotheses used by both characters is rather well-balanced, which is a linguistic clue showing that in-between the two encounters, Angelo’s mind has changed. Now he voices his thoughts and intentions more precisely. Of course as early as the end of II.2, the audience is well aware of such a transformation confessed by Angelo himself ([…] this virtuous maid/Subdues me quite.” 185-186) but the narrative construction is here, in II.4, another device proving this moral conversion. We could even go so far as to state that the linguistic inversions Angelo uses in his monologue at the beginning of the scene (l. 11 and 35), are iconic signs indicating the reverse situation in which he, the would-be virtuous man, is now. Indeed he prepares himself to blackmail a virgin for his guilty pleasure, which is an act he has previously condemned and publicly sentenced. The dialogue between him and Isabella multiplies references to religious considerations mingled with sexual innuendoes. On the one hand, Angelo is failing to serve fairly the moral he advocates, and on the other hand, Isabella proves her incorruptible uprightness. For example, the first two hypotheses uttered by Angelo (“Heaven in my mouth,/ As if I did but only chew his name” (4-5) and Could I with boot change for an idle plume” (11), obviously express his unfit relation to the Divine. In the comparison (AS IF), he clearly implies that heaven is absent from his own soul. He would like to pray but he is unable to do so when his thoughts are obstructed by sinful prospects (“When I would pray and think, I think and pray/ To several subject: heaven hath my empty words, […] 1-2). Maybe it is worth drawing here a parallel between this linguistic composition and another one taken from Hamlet. The situation is similar: Claudius is unable to pray as he is also overwhelmed by his human and consequently sinful condition.

[…] Pray
can I not.
Though inclination be
as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt
defeats my strong intent, […].
Hamlet, III.3.38-40.

17Likewise, the character uses inversion and comparison in this introspective passage where his unreliability is confirmed. As stated before, the inverted clause “Can I” or “Could I” in Measure for Measure (11), proves the utterer’s deep implication in the predicative relation. Angelo’s confession definitely categorizes him as an evil protagonist whose name “Angel-o” will henceforth prove to be another linguistic twist to highlight his intrinsic perversion, and the moral antagonistic agent he is compared to the chaste Isabella.

Moralizing hypothesis

18 Moral concerns permeate Isabella’s language. It is not surprising as she is bound to become a nun and belongs to Saint Clare’s Order which is known to be strict just as the name “the Poor Clares”, designating the white-habited nuns, also implies. In the hypotheses she formulates in II.4 for instance, she almost permanently links the factual to the religious. Linguistic analysis makes it even more obvious that her arguments do not result merely from empathy and fraternal love, but from a deep feeling that Angelo’s justice towards Claudio is unfair in the Christian world she inhabits. Although Claudio is indeed guilty of illegal sexual intercourse, he does not deserve death, which she tries to prove through well-thought syntax. Let us consider II, 4, lines 69 and 71:


If it be sin that I do beg his life, heaven let me bear it.


If that be sin you granting of my suit, I’ll make it my morn-prayer to […]

19In (a), the anaphoric neutral pronoun it occurs in the same utterance as the ‘subjunctive’, the mode of disconnection with the actual situation. In (b), the deictic that is more deeply rooted in the concrete situation and occurs in the same utterance as a modal which of course shows that Isabella endorses the predicative relation I/make it my morn-prayer to […]. Thus in II, 4, 123, “Else let my brother die,/ If not a feodary, but only he,/ Owe and succeed thy weakness”, the unlikely frame he/not (be) a feodary justifies the still more unlikely let my brother die.

20Isabella is not the only wise and fair character of the tale. As his name proves it, Escalus is also the voice of reason, although from a judicial angle more than from a religious one. At the beginning of Act II, his words try to soften Angelo’s urge to restore virtue and justice in Vienna. He calls for the deputy’s introspection, telling him:

Let but your honour know ― […]
That in the working of your own affections,
Had time coher’d with place, or place with wishing,
Or that the resolute acting of your blood
Could have attain’d th’effect of your own purpose,
Whether you had not sometime in your life
Err’d in this point, which now you censure him,
And pull’d the law upon you. (II.1.8/10-16)

  • 10 C. Delmas et alia, 1993; Skeat, 1978; A.-M.Santin-Guettier, 1996.
  • 11 Indeed, in Act V, the audience witnesses Angelo’s confessing that he is a sinner :

21Although there is no possibility for Angelo to change his mind about Claudio’s fate, Escalus, in using WHETHER, restores the reverse choice. Indeed, although it does not occur with OR in this case, WHETHER in itself (WH-+EITHER) paves the way for some choice; linguistically speaking, WHETHER leads to an open choice, all the more so as it also stems from a comparative form.10 Furthermore the inverted clause line 11 indicates Escalus’ deep implication in the desire to see Angelo follow his advice and evaluate the situation more deeply. Using OR repeatedly (11-12), Escalus piles up arguments if only to nourish Angelo’s reflection and show that both scales of the balance must be taken into consideration. Just as his name, Escalus’ language is almost performative, at least it is proleptic: envisaging Angelo’s fall is indeed a hypothesis that will soon be a reality.11

  • 12 It is well-known that Angelo’s name is contradicting his own self as his deeds rather present him a (...)

22Finally the last act of the play is obviously the instant when the moral of the tale is climactically revealed. There, because of his sententious language denouncing everyone’s fault, the Duke creates a climate of discomfort. The ambivalence of the scene is fuelled by oppositions and conflicts that both set a tragic tone, apparently leading the plot to a dark denouement. And yet, one should not take things for granted as the very structure of the unique scene of the act shows: illusion, make-belief and hypotheses prevail over a feeling of implacable justice or irreversibility. At the end, the Duke appears as a benevolent character more than as a tyrannous prince if only to value a Christian moral and mankind’s natural sympathy. Hypotheses accumulate lines 443, 489, 504, and 433; questions find no answers; silence is disconcerting. However these uncertainties impel the audience’s imagination and reassert the theatrical illusion whereby what seems cannot be. Hence some assumptions are soon contradicted. For example, Isabella harshly condemns Angelo at the beginning of the scene but is able to forgive him some four hundred lines later: […] If he [Angelo] be less, he’s nothing; but he’s more,/ Had I more name for badness.” (V.1.61-62); “Most bounteous sir:/ Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d/ As if my brother lived. I partly think/ A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,/ Till he did look on me.” (V.1.441-445). In the second occurrence, the syntax clearly states that the S/P my brother/live is pure fictional data: AS IF induces mock identification (from a metaoperational point of view, the main value of AS is identification but IF antagonizes its validation). In other words, AS shows my brother/live as a circumstance to be considered, while IF hinders identification. From a moral point of view, these two hypotheses (mingled with inverted syntactic constructions) are a means for the playwright to highlight Isabella’s capacity for pardon and benevolent conversion. As she pities her female counterpart, Mariana, who is pleading for her help, she quite unhesitatingly agrees to change her mind regarding the dark ‘Angel-o’.12 It is further evidence showing her Christian propensity for forgiveness as it may be here an echo to the Pater Noster “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

23Two final moral remarks come from the other “providential” figure of the tale, that is, the Duke. They partly complete the hypotheses previously uttered by Isabella and partly reflect each other. Lines 488-489, the Duke says: If he be like your brother, for his sake Is he pardon’d; […], thus echoing Isabella’s words in II.2.64 (see our second part). But by using an inverted clause, he also subjectively includes the notion of compassion which can lead to redemption. Unlike Claudio, Angelo shall be spared and given a new chance to prove his honesty and Christian morality. The Duke gets personally involved in this prospect. Then in 533, he adds: “Whereto if you [Isabella]’ll a willing ear incline,/ What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine.” These words echo those of lines 489-490 “and, for your lovely sake,/ Give me your hand and say you will be mine.” The hypothetic redemption he has granted Angelo is immediately followed by the quasi certainty that the S/P Isabella/be mine will be validated. Indeed, as the Duke does not even modalize the main clause, but uses the present tense instead, he presents fiction or mere eventuality as reality. Thus by a rather unexpected and swift linguistic twist, such a construction subtly reinforces the feeling that all’s well that ends well in the very last lines of the tale.

* * *

  • 13 Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare, chapter III, “Measure for Measure. 1963, p. 71.
  • 14 Diehl, Huston (Winter, 1998). “’Infinite Space’: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Meas (...)
  • 15 Ibid.
  • 16 Ibid.
  • 17 Measure for Measure, New Shakespeare Edition, pp. xxix-xxx, in Ernest Schanzer. Ibid., p. 96.

24As Ernest Schanzer remarks in his introductive lines about Measure for Measure, “[t]here is probably no other play by Shakespeare which has so much perplexed critics as Measure for Measure, nor one which has aroused such violent, eccentric, and mutually opposed responses.”13 These remarks are sustained by a detailed analysis showing that the five most important characters of the play ―Claudio, Lucio, Angelo, Isabella and the Duke ― are so complex that neither stage history nor criticism has ever agreed on the essence of their nature and on their private motivations, which inevitably reverberates on the plot itself. But this complexity, which is a source of puzzlement, is also highly motivating as Huston Diehl highlights in his own analysis. Diehl explains that up until the end, when the Duke presents Claudio, the mysterious prisoner “as like (almost) to Claudio as himself” (Provost, V.1.487, emphasis mine), he “withholds any assurance of certainty, telling Isabella that ‘if he be like [her] brother, for his sake/ Is he pardoned’ (V.1.488-89) […]”.14 This artifice or “comic resolution” as Diehl names it, “denies [Shakespeare]’s audiences the pleasure of believing, even for a moment, that the image and the thing are one.”15 It is a reminder that the play cannot escape from its own representation. As a consequence, the audience may be disappointed because the truth they were expecting all through the performance is not given. To put it differently, their questions find no clear-cut answers. Diehl adds that “the trial scene arouses (their) deepest desire for completion and revelation, direct knowledge and certainty” but it is frustrated, which encourages them “to view both the world they inhabit and the fictional world of the play as representations, which are inadequate, to be sure, but also potentially significant and powerful.”16 The dramatic illusion reasserts the fact that nothing can be more realistic than reality itself. If a play is full of uncertainties and contradictions, which hypothetic structures can best linguistically illustrate, it is but natural or quintessential. It is up to the audience to “suspend their judgment” so as better to accept the right and the wrong sides of these hypothetic situations. Hypothesis ― under the disguise of inversions, unanswered questions, and IF-clauses ― enables us to see the black and the white, the good and the evil, the measure and the non-measure of the story-line. Just as Quiller-Couch who implies that the dispute opposing the critics’ analyses of the play’s characters means that Shakespeare had “miss[ed] clearness in portraying [them]”, we could state that the profusion of hypotheses leading to an approximate resolved ending was part of the playwright’s strategy. Shakespeare questioned the major issues of his time (illegal sexuality, chastity, justice, power and fraud, etc.) but left the public make his/her own ‘identify-education’.17 One would have liked acknowledging that such a linguistic leitmotiv was what is meant by problem plays, for All’s Well That Ends Well counts 106 “ifs” and Troilus and Cressida 95 (depending on editions), which are fair numbers ― but as Hamlet holds 114 occurrences, such a suggestion would alas sound like a pure hypothesis…

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Main sources

Shakespeare, William (1965). Measure for Measure. J.W. Lever (ed.). London: The Arden Shakespeare

Shakespeare, William (2008). Mesure pour mesure. André Markowicz (trad.). Besançon: Les Solitaires intempestifs.

Shakespeare, William (2004). Hamlet. Jean-Michel Déprats (trad.). Paris: Gallimard. Coll. Bilingue Folio theatre.


William, B. Bache (1969). Measure for Measure as Dialectical Art. Lafayette (Ind.): Purdue University Studies.

Diehl, Huston (Winter, 1998). “’Infinite Space’: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4.

Chappuit, Jean-François (2012). Measure for Measure. Paris: Atlande. Coll. Clefs concours.

Kamps, Ivo & Raber, Karen (2004). Measure for Measure. Texts and Contexts. Boston/New-York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Nicholls, Graham (1986). Measure for Measure: Text and Performance, Palgrave/Macmillan.

Schanzer, Ernest (1963). The Problem Plays of Shakespeare. Routledge/Schocken Books.


Chuquet, Jean (1984). “IF…”, Cahiers de recherche en grammaire anglaise, 2. Paris : Ophrys.

Culioli, Antoine (1999). Pour une linguistique de l’énonciation. Formalisation et opérations de repérage, 2, Paris and Gap : Ophrys.

Delmas, Claude (1985). Structuration abstraite et chaîne linéaire en anglais contemporain. Thèse d’Etat. CEDEL.

Delmas, Claude, et alia (1993). Faits de langue en anglais. Paris : Dunod.

Ducrot, Oswald (1972). Dire et ne pas dire, Paris : Hermann.

Lapaire, Jean-Rémi, et Rotge, Wilfrid (1991). Linguistique et grammaire de l’anglais. Toulouse : PUM.

Santin-guettier, Anne-Marie (1996).  « On each side ? ou On either side ? ». Publications de l’Université du Maine.

Skeat, W.W. (1978). An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford : O.U.P.

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3 All the quotations are taken from William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, J. W. Lever (ed.), London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005 (1965).

4 J. Chuquet, p. 49 : « Il s’agit ici d’un jeu sur l’assertion dans la mesure où l’énonciateur, par le biais d’une hypothèse, place la proposition P (et la validation de la relation prédicative qu’elle contient) sur un plan « imaginaire » […]. Le fait de poser cette « situation à un moment donné » (pour reprendre la définition du Robert) permet de comprendre que l’énonciateur a besoin, pour énoncer Q, de se poser non plus en tant qu’énonciateur « actuel », à l’origine des repérages effectués pour poser la relation prédicative dans P comme validée, mais en tant qu’énonciateur FICTIF, sur un autre plan, dont il pose lui-même les coordonnées. »

5 The Cambridge History of the English Language.

6 Please, see further down in the conclusion an assessment of “Ifs” in other Shakespearean plays.

7 For example, AND could introduce conditional or concessive clauses in Early Modern English, but this AND is less common than in Middle English. It is particularly favoured by dramatists, and often combined with IT (AN’T); this implies that it was regarded as a colloquial feature.

8 Pompey “(…) he that drinks all night, and is hanged betimes in the morning, may sleep the sounder all the next day”, IV. 3.44-46.

9 It must be reminded here that the dramatic illusion and the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” are part of the trick as the audience knows what one of the play’s major characters (i.e. Isabella) ignores.

10 C. Delmas et alia, 1993; Skeat, 1978; A.-M.Santin-Guettier, 1996.

11 Indeed, in Act V, the audience witnesses Angelo’s confessing that he is a sinner :

“O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness,
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your grace, like power divine,
Hath look’d upon my passes. Then, good prince,
No longer session hold upon my shame,
But let my trial be mine own confession:
Immediate sentence then and sequent death
Is all the grace I beg.” (V.1.364-372)

12 It is well-known that Angelo’s name is contradicting his own self as his deeds rather present him as a devilish creature more than an angelic one. For a thorough analysis of the character, see for instance Graham Nicholls, Measure for Measure: Text and Performance, Palgrave/Macmillan, 1986, p.16-21.

13 Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare, chapter III, “Measure for Measure. 1963, p. 71.

14 Diehl, Huston (Winter, 1998). “’Infinite Space’: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, p. 403.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Measure for Measure, New Shakespeare Edition, pp. xxix-xxx, in Ernest Schanzer. Ibid., p. 96.

2 Ref. entretien : Jean-Michel Déprats, Estelle Rivier et Stéphane Braunschweig, « Chez Shakespeare, il y a toujours du monstre dans l’humain. », Sillages critiques. URL :

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Bibliographical reference

Estelle Rivier and Anne-Marie Santin-Guettier, « If? What if? Hypothesis as a Leitmotif in Measure for Measure », Anglophonia/Sigma, 17 (34) | 2013, 88-103.

Electronic reference

Estelle Rivier and Anne-Marie Santin-Guettier, « If? What if? Hypothesis as a Leitmotif in Measure for Measure », Anglophonia/Sigma [Online], 17 (34) | 2013, Online since 10 December 2013, connection on 25 May 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/anglophonia.113

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About the authors

Estelle Rivier

Université de Maine

Anne-Marie Santin-Guettier

Université de Maine

By this author

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Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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