A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A play about justice, the limits of the law and mercy, there are many ways of interpreting the text: human frailty versus fanaticism? The corrupting nature of power? Regulation versus liberalism? Hypocrisy, prudery and prurience – All these themes and more makes Measure for Measure still relevant – and these themes seem particularly pertinent for our times.
Quickly, the plot: The Duke of Vienna leaves suddenly and with no reason. Before he goes he assigns all his powers and authority to his deputy, Angelo, an unbending and apparently pure man, untouched by any sexual failings and with a clean reputation.
Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.
The city, we are told, has become lax and for 19 years the law has been so lenient, that people have begun to disregard it and brothals abound.
We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.
Angelo starts decisively. A young man, Claudio, has impregnated his bride-to-be. Despite the fact they love each other and the sex was consensual, they are not yet married and the baby is practically upon them. Fornication outside marriage is a crime and Angelo brings down the full crushing weight of the law on Claudio’s head – who is told he will lose it to an executioner the following morning.
Enter Isabella, a novice nun and sister of Claudio who gains an audience with Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. At first, Angelo is unmoved, but then he finds himself attracted to the young woman and offers her a deal: her virginity for Claudio’s release.
Isabella – horrified – declares her brother must die and kindly trots off to tell him so.
On twenty bloody blocks, he’ld yield them up,
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr’d pollution.
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.
She is horrified to find that Claudio is rather less happy to yield himself up to the bloody block than she anticipated. Instead, he begs her to sleep with Angelo and save his life.
At this point, the Duke (conveniently disguised as a Friar) turns up and, through a very elaborate and unbelievable plan involving a bed swap (Angelo’s betrothed but jilted would-be wife for Isabella) and a head swap (that of a prisoner who conveniently dropped dead who was the spit of Claudio, for Claudio’s own), everything is – sort of – sorted out.
A rather interesting ending sees Isabella holding sway over Angelo’s fate and everything tied up with a load of marriages –in the traditional “comedy” ending. Only there is a sting in the tail as most of these marriages are anything but love matches. More on this later.
A Problem Play or a Play about Real Problems?
Measure for Measure has traditionally been seen as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” – partly because it doesn’t fit neatly into either the comic or the tragic bracket and partly (like The Taming of the Shrew) because of its ambiguous conclusion.
Reading it again, things do happen rather perfunctorily. The character of the Duke is largely ambigious and the character of Isabella is less than attractive. But it’s a fascinating play on so many levels and its liberal tolerant heart which gives it a real sense of character underneath the schematic set-up.
Whilst justice versus mercy remains the central theme of this play, what struck me most, re-reading the play this time, was the theme of sex: about sex in society, about how society attempts to control sex and about how that so often fails; about the societal problems of sex in terms of sexually-transmitted diseases and illegitimate children; about the problem of men having sex with women and then abandoning them to their fate (and those children too); about poverty and people trying to survive through prostitution or pimping; about the problem of sexual power-relations between men and women; about sex and morality, sex and the law, sex and religion…
In all the versions of the play I’ve seen, the “vice” of the city has been presented as a dark and menacing thing – a threat in itself. Modern audiences are used to images of seedy strip clubs, of exploitative pimps and of glazed-eyed girls…. But Measure offers something different. Mistress Overdone (the brothel-owner and prostitute) has taken in and is caring for the child of a prostitute, Kate Keepsake. Pompey the Pimp is employed by Overdone, not the other way round, and is presented as a clownish fool, with the relationship between them affectionate rather than exploitative. These “bawdy” people are all kindly presented. Indeed, when questioned about how he makes his living Pompey says this:
Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.
How would you live, Pompey? by being a bawd? What
do you think of the trade, Pompey? is it a lawful trade?
If the law would allow it, sir.
But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall
not be allowed in Vienna.
Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the
youth of the city?
Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to’t then.
If your worship will take order for the drabs and
the knaves, you need not to fear the bawds.
It is a debate that continues today – is the law the best tool when it comes to prostitution? Should prostitution be outlawed or legalised?
It is apt, that the main female character should be a novice nun – hence very attached indeed to the idea of purity, morality and – of course – her own virginity.
Isabella is a hard character to like. She is prudish, puritanical and absolutist. Indeed, in many ways, she is very like the uncompromising Angelo we first meet in Act One. Unlike most characters in the play who view Claudio’s misdemeanour as forgivable and who feel sympathy for the couple, Isabella is adament that the crime is a crime and that her brother has committed a sin.
The play is almost at pains to point out (several times) that Claudio and Juliet love each other. But, of course, we have to remember that this “crime” is also about the producing of an illegitimate baby. The play is riddled with women who have been shagged and dumped (as it were) and left without money, protection or with a child in tow. Shakespeare is not unaware of the problem…At a time of no contraception and little protection for women outside marriage, perhaps Isabella is right that it isn’t such a negligible trespass after all. The law – cold and unfeeling though it is – is there to protect as well as punish.
Which brings us to that problematic ending.
The great set-piece at the end of Measure for Measure includes the famous moment where all power over whether Angelo lives or dies is handed to Isabella – the pure unbending Isabella who has shown so little understanding of any sexual failings of others, who chose her virginity over her brother’s life, who has chosen a life renouncing sex and men for the vow of silence at the monastery. That great choice between justice and mercy. We must remember that at this point Isabella believes her brother is dead, executed at the order of Angelo, and herself cruelly betrayed. Will she chose Measure for Measure – or will she choose mercy?
In all the performances I’ve seen, the moment is drawn out as long as the Big Brother elimination results before Isabella finally comes to her decision.
Reading the play itself, there is no such stage direction, so we can interpret as we choose. Mercy, of course, wins out, after which the Duke ties everything up with a series of marriages. Angelo is ordered to marry Mariana – the woman he cruelly dumped and whose good name and chances he ruined because she lost her dowry; Lucia the liar ordered to marry Kate Keepsake – the prostitute he abandoned because he got her pregnant; and the Duke himself announces he will marry Isabella. He’ll chat to her about this later, he says, casually. (We never get to hear what she makes of this announcement.)
It is a curiously casual ending and one that troubles modern audiences. Even if we put the famous question of the relationship between Isabella and the Duke onto one side - do we actually want poor Marianna to end up shackled to a nasty piece of work like Angelo? And poor Kate Keepsake to be stuck with Lucio, a liar who despises her? It hardly touches the romantic in us to see marriage used as a punishment by the Duke as a replacement for execution. We can only hope, for the sake of Mariana and Kate, that Mariana’s words will be born out:
They say, best men are moulded out of faults;
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad: so may my husband.
But schematic and unrealistic as this ending is, there is a certain practical realism at the heart of Measure when it comes to love/sex/man/woman matters that makes this play not just an interesting social document for its time, but more keen-eyed and human than many more romantic offerings.
Love is not the theme Shakespeare is exploring here, but sex and how we manage it as a society, and about the power relations between men and women. As a modern audience, we are probably more used to thinking of marriage as part of the patriarchy, rather than also as a tool or protection for women. But, in Measure, these women wreck their revenge (and gain their power and money) through marriage. Marriage gives them status, money, protection, legitimisation of their children and some power over their men. Marriage is the only tool that can be afforded them by the law. If love flourishes too, on top of such a bargain, that’s just a bonus.
That this play has historically been seen to be about power, politics and corruption is perhaps missing part of the point. It does explore those themes, making it a fascinating choice for our times and giving it a curiously modern feel.
But what is interesting is that the subject-matter of this play is NOT politics, or war, diplomacy, kingly power or the struggles and compromises involved in climbing that greasy pole – those are subjects and themes of other great Shakespeare plays. Measure is unique in its subject-matter. It explores the interaction of the personal – the human, the messy and the frail and all the good and bad that goes with that – with the impersonal: the law. The fact that the play is ambiguous and bittersweet in its conclusion, is perhaps less to do with the fact that Measure for Measure is a problem play, and more to do with the fact that it is a play exploring ongoing problems that ARE messy, need humanity and negotiation and that can never be perfectly resolved.
And this, for me, is the point the play is making.