William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

there is so great a fever on goodness, that the dissolution of it must cure it: novelty is only in request; and it is as dangerous to be aged in any kind of course, as it is virtuous to be constant in any undertaking. There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure; but security enough to make fellowships accurst: much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world. This news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news.”

– William Shakespeare

Three things amaze me each time I watch a Shakespeare play performed:

First, I am always stunned by how well the humour comes across. That Shakespeare’s great poetry still works is hardly surprising – it’s not just that the words are timeless and the ideas universal, it’s also that long years of use has made Shakespeare’s fine phrases an inherent part of the language, so that to hear the great monologues delivered is to revisit the English tongue in its essence. It’s the jokes that surprise me, the silly little puns, many of them employing meanings no longer familiar to modern ears; the sly little witticisms that on the page seem dull and cloying, but erupt on the stage in cheerful spontaneity. Every time I hear an audience laughing at Shakespeare’s jokes, every time the genius of his comedy forces a loud chuckle from my throat, I wonder at the greatness of the gift that can still connect to its audience four hundred years after the lines were written.

Second, and this is particularly true of the ‘lesser’ comedies, I’m always amazed by the sheer baroque richness of Shakespeare – the way that, even though you may have read the play half a dozen times before, some phrase or speech that had escaped your attention thus far will ambush you, catch you by the ear. How lines that you may have glanced over without really paying attention to, will suddenly take on a new significance. The quote above is a good example – it’s a line spoken by the Duke in Act 3 Scene 2 of the play, a line that I, for one, had no memory of, until the performance I attended last night (it’s coming, it’s coming) brought it alive for me. It’s such an apt comment about the times we live in, yet it’s a throwaway line in the play, one of the thousands of mini-speeches that Shakespeare intersperses his dialogue with.

The third thing that always impresses me about Shakespeare is how flexible his plays are, how open to interpretation. It’s not just the psychological richness of his characters allows for wider exploration, it’s also the magical way in which the words themselves manage to be interpretable without being ambiguous or indecipherable. This is one of the reasons that I’m so wary of ‘experimental’ Shakespeare – it’s no so much that I’m a purist (though there’s that too) it’s more that I fundamentally believe that Shakespeare is protean enough so that every performance of his plays is an experiment in itself. You don’t need to change settings or alter dialogues, even if you stuck rigidly to the text there are a myriad different interpretations you could try out.

And so to last night’s performance. The Globe Theatre Company is down in Philadelphia, and performed Measure for Measure at the Annenberg Centre last night. It was a very ‘proper’, traditional performance – complete with live music from authentic 16th century instruments (jew’s harps, bagpipes, dulcimers, hautboys), all male performers, and Elizabethan dancing. And yet, it managed, despite sticking strictly to the text, to make me see the play in a way I never had before.

But first, the play itself. Measure for Measure has always been, and continues to be, one of the least impressive of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve always thought of it as half a good play – the first two acts are exceedingly well done, and the third has promise, but by the fourth act it feels like the play is already over, and the finale goes on and on beyond the point of tedium. This is extraordinarily uncharacteristic for Shakespeare – it’s possibly the only play of his where the dramatic intensity peters out so swiftly, leaving you impatient for the play to end. The problem is, I think, that Measure for Measure is a play stuck in limbo between the serious and the comic. It’s not really light-hearted enough to sparkle as a comedy and carry you along in the sheer exuberance of its prose, nor is it grim or threatening enough to be taken seriously. There is no real tension in the end of the play, you know already what is going to happen, and so the drawn out machinations by which the Duke finally brings the play to its final (inevitable) close seem contrived and overdone, like the ending to a Brahms symphony. It’s nice enough, but you wish he’d get on with it.

Much has been said about the themes of sexuality that the play explores. Personally, I find this the least interesting part of the play. For one, the exploration of sexuality here seems too explicit, too overblown. Admittedly, Shakespeare lays out the central issues well, and much of the speech making on either side has the shock of the familiar. But that’s precisely the trouble – it’s all speech making – this is the kind of preachiness one expects from Marlowe, not from Shakespeare. The other problem, of course, is that in many ways the ‘debate’ itself seems dated, almost irrelevant. Granted there are still people around in our world who cling to the ridiculous idea of chastity, but how many of them spend their free time reading Shakespeare? My other, larger point, however, is that in my own reading of the play the issue is not so much sex as justice. Shakespeare makes no real claims for either repression or liberation, his key point is simply the problem of consistency, the great battle between justice and mercy, between compassion and logic. In many ways, the bulk of the second Act of Measure for Measure feels like a dress rehearsal for the courtroom scene in Merchant of Venice, except that Portia and Shylock are much richer characters than Isabella and Angelo, and the language in Merchant of Venice is sharper, more acute.

This, I think, is the more interesting theme of Measure for Measure – this principle of things balancing, things cancelling out (it’s ironic that the play that tries to lay this out is dramatically the most unbalanced of Shakespeare’s plays – with an exciting opening and a tedious end). A large part of the action in the play is motivated by the Duke’s desire to given Angelo every benefit of doubt, so that the entire play becomes, in some sense, a thrilling exercise in falsification, a study of analytics and evidence unparalleled in Shakespeare’s other work. That the Duke goes to such lengths to allow Angelo leniency is, of course, the key contrast of the play, and becomes the cornerstone of a deeper meditation on government, authority and the use of power. Shakespeare’s great insight in Measure for Measure is that the use of power is best ceded to those who do not desire it, and it is this that lies at the heart of the play – the sexuality is just a red herring.

The Duke himself is, by far, the most interesting character in the play, the most difficult to get a hold of. The reason for this, I think, is that at there is a flaw in the heart of the Duke’s character, whether placed there intentionally or otherwise I would not presume to say. The flaw is this – in a play that claims to set tyranny against compassion, the Duke is, in some sense, the coldest and least humane of all the characters. Even Angelo, for all his barbarism, is motivated by his own weaknesses, his own appetites. But what is it that motivates the duke, other than a whimsical self-absorption? This is a man who subjects all the others in the play (not to mention the audience) to protracted sequence of accusation and suffering, merely so he can, in the end, make it all come out ‘right’ with the glee of a schoolyard conjuror. The Duke’s own explanation for this is that he is testing the others, but that in itself is hardly the picture of compassion we would like to believe in, and besides it is a hard explanation to swallow. The truth, I think, is that the Duke is entirely self-obssessed, and shows mercy to others only as a way of glorifying himself, of creating an effect (it is instructive that the one man the Duke finds himself unable to forgive is the one man he claims slanders him – yet is this really slander? Is it not likely that Lucio is telling the truth, and it is the Duke who is not willing to hear this of himself). The Duke would like us to believe, no doubt, that in sparing Angelo’s life he is being merciful, yet did not he almost knowingly set up Angelo for the fall that Angelo takes. Did he not, in fact, select Angelo to replace him for a while, precisely so that Angelo would take the letter of the law too literally and allow the Duke to return to show off his ‘wisdom’. The best that can be said of the Duke, I think, is that he has no truly malafide intent. He does not mean to actively harm anyone, would prefer to leave others better off if he can, but is primarily concerned only with himself.

What was Shakespeare trying to suggest here? At one level, the Duke is a stand-in for the writer himself – certainly he shares with many of Shakespeare’s great characters a considerable level of self-awareness. And equally he is very much the orchestrator of the whole play, the others being little more than puppets who he shamelessly manipulates into the contrived ‘glory’ of his self-celebrating ending. At another level, it has always seemed to me (though this might be more my own perspective than anything else) that the Duke exemplifies a vision of God as a self-important though ultimately well-meaning overlord. Religion is a constant presence in the play – from Isabella’s incipient sisterhood, to Angelo’s soliloquy about prayer, to the notion of Claudio as a sort of inverted Christ figure (it is hardly coincidence that two men – a murderer and a man who most believe to be innocent are to be executed on the same day; and that Angelo – as Pilate – makes the choice that Claudio be executed first; only this time the Duke intervenes – giving us Shakespeare’s version of how the Passion of Christ should have played out if God were truly merciful). Reading the play with this lens makes for a fascinating interpretation – the idea of a dispossessed God, ineffectual and pompous, roaming the world trying to set things right, but jealous of his own reputation, and concerned more with the impression he makes than with the people he is trying to help.

(This is not, of course, the only such figure that Shakespeare created. Again, there is much about the Duke that seems like a preliminary sketch of that greatest of all God-figures – Prospero; the key differences are that Prospero is both sterner in execution and less selfish in design – if that last Act of the Tempest is one of the finest things Shakespeare ever wrote, it is because Prospero himself is sacrificed, foresworn, forced to give up his powers in order to make the happy ending come truly alive. As a metaphor for what it takes out of a writer to write a really good play I can think of nothing better. It is a lesson Shakespeare clearly hadn’t learnt in Measure for Measure)

Yesterday’s performance did an excellent job of exploring the Duke’s character. As played by Mark Rylance, the Duke is an ineffectual, petty and fumbling man, his greatest speeches turned to the ramblings of a self-important yet nervous pedant. That such a man, so clearly opposed to our idea of a great leader, should turn out to be the one to make the things come out right, is a wonderful insight – and an interpretation of the Duke that I’d honestly never considered before.

The other character in the play who didn’t agree with my own image of her was Isabella. In my mind, Isabella has always been a meek, shy and withdrawn person, an innocent and pure being who is plunged into the intrigues of Angelo’s lust and the politics of the time by the need to rescue her brother. As such she is a fragile, grieving figure, eminently sensible and strong in virtue, but with nowhere near the liveliness or confidence of Shakespeare’s great heroines – Viola, Rosalind, Portia, Katherine. That’s not how Edward Hogg played her though. In the performance last night, Isabella was haughty and proud, a puritan in the truest sense of the word. If anything troubles this Isabella, it is not so much grief as frustration at her own powerlessness. This is not an interpretation of Isabella I agree with. It seems to me to fit fairly dubiously with either Isabella’s own lines in the play or the action surrounding her, and it further sterilises a play that is already fairly hollow emotionally. It would have been better, I think, if Isabella had been a gentler, more waif-like creature.

Overall, it was a wonderful performance of the play though – one that supplied new insight while still managing to satisfy the purist in me. Measure for Measure is still not a play I care for much (at least as Shakespeare plays go) but yesterday’s performance made me appreciate it more than I had before.

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