Sunday, January 30, 2011

Discussion: Measure for Measure

The play: Measure for Measure

The plot tweet: The duke leaves Angelo in charge, becomes behind-the-scenes puppet master of marriages that are definitely not happily-ever-after material.

My favorite line:
Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.


Here we are, at the last of Shakespeare's comedies -- and the last of the so-called "problem plays." With comedies like this one, who needs tragedies? The characters are just shy of insane, the plot makes almost no sense, and the tone is utterly rancid. This is not an LOL sort of play.

When I first read Measure for Measure, back in my undergraduate introductory Shakespeare course, I made myself a note on the final page: "What the hell is going on?!"

A sampling of my questions: Why does the duke temporarily abdicate? Why does he leave Angelo in charge, rather than the obviously more qualified Escalus? Why does he disguise himself as a friar? Why does he tell Claudio that he must die, when he knows perfectly well that he can fix the problem? Why is Angelo so suddenly and swiftly tempted by Isabella? Why is Isabella so violently angry when Claudio begs her to accept Angelo's deal? Why is Barnardine able to simply refuse his own execution? Why does the virtuous Isabella consent to a bed trick that creates the same scenario for which her brother is imprisoned? Why does the duke tell her that Claudio is dead, why does he force Isabella to beg for Angelo's life, and why on earth does the duke propose to Isabella?

And, perhaps most intriguing, does Isabella accept the duke's proposal? Shakespeare gives us no words from Isabella and no stage direction, so this question must be answered in production. I'd be fascinated to see a production in which she refuses him.

A play like Hamlet produces a similar slew of questions, but it's different. In Hamlet, each question generates multiple perspectives, so it's possible to interpret the play in many different ways. That is endlessly fascinating. But, in Measure for Measure, it's difficult to generate even one reasonable, satisfactory answer to any given question.

The duke in particular is enigmatic. He's been compared to a playwright, casting the characters in his kingdom and providing them with scripts. He's also been compared to God. As himself, however, he is selfish, irresponsible and cruel. His speeches are mostly bombast. His solutions are complicated and contrived. He deliberately causes pain in situations where he could instead bring relief. What a horrid guy. Perhaps Shakespeare was already thinking of Iago, and a bit of that character crept into this play.

And don't even get me started on Isabella, who wishes that her strict convent had more rules. She gives up on her brother without a fight, until Lucio urges her to continue her pleas, and she values her virginity over the life of her own brother, a tragedy not just for Claudio but also for his fiancee and unborn child. Perhaps we are supposed to see her as a paragon of virtue, but -- let's face it -- she's a selfish and self-righteous prude.

We have to look pretty hard for a likable character in Measure for Measure. Even Lucio, who charms us throughout the play, loses us at the end by begging not to marry the woman he has impregnated.

In the last scene of his last comedy, Shakespeare gives us four (or possibly three) marriages that are very unlikely to be happy ones. He gives us a rancid, corrupt setting peopled with hateful characters -- essentially, a tragedy that is manhandled to fit the conventions of comedy.

It doesn't work, and perhaps Shakespeare knew it. His next plays were the great tragedies: Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. Whatever Shakespeare learned while writing the "problem plays" is about to emerge, full force, in the greatest plays of his career.


  1. Hello!

    Congratulations on making so much progress toward your goal.

    I'm a huge fan of this play, and so I've tackled some of your questions about it on my own site:

    We may have to agree to disagree on this one, but I'm looking forward to getting your take on the Great Tragedies.

  2. I'm a bit behind again, so just finishing this play... which I admit I also like very much. And the discussion of it on the two blogs is fascinating!
    I think that is one of the reasons I like it - there are questions, everything is not tied up and answered neatly - it gives us so much to explore.
    I can acknowledge that it has some dramaturgical weaknesses - most plays do. Even seeing it in performance it has felt to me that Shakespeare had questions that he wanted to wrestle with and simply created a scenario to contain the material. And it's fascinating material - it seems to me this is some of his most direct work on ethical problems, in this case authority, sexuality, mercy. (Mostly, I think, authority.) And the conclusion is that those problems don't have neat, cut-and-dried answers. Should Isabella be willing to submit to Angelo in order to save Claudio? It's an impossible dilemma - either response is justifiable.