Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, and it’s not hard to see why. Many of the hijinks in the play are done in more captivating a manner in some of his other plays, and by comparison Measure for Measure falls by the wayside. However, that’s not to say that it isn’t an endearing or enjoyable play to experience.
Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
We begin in Vienna, where the Duke has gone off for a mission leaving Lord Angelo temporary leader of the city. A young man, Claudio, is arrested for impregnating his lover, Juliet, before marriage. His sister Isabella goes to Angelo begging for her brother’s freedom. The Lord sexually propositions the would-be nun and she turns him down. However, whilst her brother first respects her decision, it becomes clear eventually would like her to sleep with Angelo if this means he can be free. The rest of the play has us explore what she decides to do, as well as what happens with the Duke returns in disguise and decides to sort out this tangle of predicaments.
I find I can enjoy Measure for Measure, but that its heavy focus on morality, sexuality, purity and justice makes for a play that might alienate others. The centering of the action around the case of Claudio makes the message of crime and punishment impossible to escape and therefore makes its message less effective than other Shakespeare plays with the same themes but different settings. What I do find most interesting about Measure for Measure is the way this provides the audience insights into the time period and many of the social sensibilities.
Angelo, not being the true Duke, assumes position and power higher than his station: his grave mistake is to let it go to his head. He passes justice and tries to persuade others to do his bidding more than he has the right to do. By contrast the true Duke, even when in disguise, is able to excersise better judgement and righteousness than the one he has put temporarily in his place. Succession of rulers and who truly has the right to rule (via divine or hereditary means), was a topic that dominated the 15th and 16th Centuries across Europe far more than it does today. If anything, too much dynastic continuation of power raises eyebrows. Not so back then. Moving too far from bloodlines and the status quo would have been potentially risky, especially if this lead to problems in the country afterwards. That’s not the say great dynastic shifts did not happen, but just by following the Anglo-Saxon/English/British line of monarchy we can see the efforts some people will undertake to keep it in the family.
Another interesting character study also lies in Isabella. She is a model of virtue and purity throughout the play, acceptably clever (though not ludicrously so), devoted to her faith as well as her family. Isabella ticks many of the right boxes. She does not need to spit in the face of ‘womanly perfection’ in order to succeed. Though she is indeed enabled by the Duke, she makes proactive choices in order to save her brother: even though by the end you suspect he does not deserve. Isabella is by no means as autonomous as a Viola or Beatrice. An interesting point would be made about her course of life chosen at the end of the play (which I will not reveal), and what you might feel this means by way of how much independence she truly has.
I feel that because of many of these scenarios, that is why Measure for Measure is not a play that can be easily translated for a large modern audience, unlike the famous Midsummer Nights’ Dream or Hamlet. If I were to adapt it, I would think most carefully about the social and historical construct I were to use to make the situations and hijinks more relatable to todays audience whilst staying true to the source material. But as I said, if there’s anything I enjoy about the play, it’s what it tells me about Shakespeare’s world, and I hope you give this lesser known play a try too.
They say, best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad.
(photo credit: theoldglobe.com)