Measure for Measure is among the most passionately discussed of Shakespeare’s plays. In it, a duke temporarily removes himself from governing his city-state, deputizing a member of his administration, Angelo, to enforce the laws more rigorously. Angelo chooses as his first victim Claudio, condemning him to death because he impregnated Juliet before their marriage.
Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is entering a convent, pleads for her brother’s life. Angelo attempts to extort sex from her, but Isabella preserves her chastity. The duke, in disguise, eavesdrops as she tells her brother about Angelo’s behavior, then offers to ally himself with her against Angelo.
The last of Shakespeare’s comedies and I get the distinct impression that he was already done with that genre and somehow got convinced to do “just one more.” As part of my goal to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed, I attended a screening of Measure for Measure, filmed in Stratford, England. If you struggle with Shakespeare, I can’t recommend highly enough that you see performances of his works, rather than try to read them. In this production, I appreciated how well they used the stage, the scenery, costumes, dance, and music. The actor who played Elbow and Barnardine was shaped like a cannonball, but was remarkably light on his feet and extremely agile. At one point, he amazed the audience by tumbling across the stage (as Elbow). The actor who played the Duke took some cues from John Cleese, who he reminded me forcibly of while “blessing” people and reciting religious invocations while pretending to be a friar.
Why do I think that Shakespeare was done with comedies? Well, the ending is happy, as required, but it felt artificial and contrived. The marriage between the Duke and Isabella just feels wrong—what happened to her strong religious vocation? Same issue with the marriage of Angelo & Mariana. Why would an eligible woman want to marry a man who rejected her when her dowry went missing and was so cold and unfeeling? Why on earth would she want to sleep with him, fooling him into thinking that she is Isabella? And yet, she happily complies with the Duke/Friar’s subterfuge and then willingly marries the man.
But the part of the play that resonated the most strongly with me was the point where Angelo has tried to make a bargain with Isabella, her virginity for the life of her brother. When she threatens to reveal his true nature to the world, he turns to her and says:
“Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, th’ austereness of my life, My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state, Will so your accusation overweight, That you shall stifle in your own report, And smell of calumny.”
A cold shiver went down my back, and I couldn’t help but see Jian Ghomeshi in my mind’s eye, telling the women who he punched and mistreated, “I’m a celebrity. Do you think that anyone will believe you?” My God, this play was first performed at court in 1604 and here we are in 2016, and men are still saying this to the women whom they abuse! Its still “he said, she said” even in courts of law, as we continue to watch men get away with these crimes.
Anyone who thinks that Shakespeare is out of date hasn’t ever attended his plays. He deals with universal human issues that everyone can identify with.