The Duke of Vienna, having decided to re-implement the city's harsh laws against fornication - pretends to absent himself and appoints the stern Angelo as deputy, knowing Angelo will enforce the full rigor of the law. First to fall victim to the revitalized statute is Claudio, who has gotten his own betrothed with child. Claudio's brother Isabella pleads before Angelo, who is so overcome with the hornies for this novice Carmelite that he proposes to spare her brother in return for a nocturnal rendezvous.
Among the comic characters are the rake Lucio and the pimp Pompey Bum. Lucio is similar to Parolles, the braggart character from Shakespeare's previous play All's Well That Ends Well, while Pompey is a retread of the Dogberry character from Much Ado About Nothing; even some of Dogberry's individucal gags are recycled.
The main source of the play is George Whetstone's 1578 two-part closet drama "Promos and Cassandra." Whetstone took the story from Cinthio's Hecatommithi, and Shakespeare seems to have consulted the Cinthio story as well.
The title may be related to the Bible, Matthew 7:2: For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. However, the phrase 'measure for measure' is used within the play by the Duke, and the similarity to the biblical passage may be coincidence.