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Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt. (‘Measure for Measure’ Act1 Sc4 )
With these words in mind I will strive to win your interest in this play which I believe to be a neglected work which deserves a wider audience. Written in the same year as ‘Hamlet’ and at the beginning of the period which saw Shakespeare produce his greatest tragedies, ‘Measure for Measure’ includes many resonant lines, and speeches every bit as powerful as the more famous and oft-quoted lines from ‘Macbeth’, ‘Othello’ ‘Hamlet’ or ‘King Lear’. From its opening until midway through the Third Act, ‘Measure for Measure’ belongs in the same company as these great works : its plot is serious and its themes – power and corruption, justice and mercy, hypocrisy and truth, the many forms of love, are explored lyrically and memorably. Half way through the play everything changes: the brilliant blank verse gives way to prose, the serious tone is replaced by levity, and a potential tragedy is transformed into a farcical comedy. For me this is fascinating and makes this play unique in the Shakespearian canon.
‘Measure for Measure’ is set in Vienna where corruption and promiscuity are rife as the ruling Duke has allowed the rule of law to slip for some nineteen years. The Duke himself explains ,
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. (‘Measure for Measure’ Act1 Sc3)
The Duke hands over the reins of power to Lord Angelo, ‘a man of stricture and firm abstinence’. Telling everyone that he is going abroad, in reality the duke remains in Vienna and asks a monastery to disguise him as a friar.
Angelo’s first act as ruler is to arrest and condemn to death a young man named Claudio, accusing him of fornication. Julietta, Claudio’s fiancee, is pregnant with his child and, technically, this makes Claudio guilty as charged. In Shakespeare’s day an engagement, or pre-contract, was legally binding, and it was not uncommon for a marital relationship to begin then rather than with a wedding. Claudio himself regards Julietta as ‘fast my wife’ and is profoundly shocked by his arrest, As he is paraded through the streets to his shame he wonders ‘whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness’
that this new governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
Which have, like unscour’d armour, hung by the wall
So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round
And none of them been worn; and, for a name,
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me: ’tis surely for a name. (‘Measure for Measure’ Act1 Sc2 )
The condemned Claudio asks his friend Lucio to visit Isabella, Claudio’s sister who has just entered a convent as a novice, and to plead with her to intercede for her brother with Lord Angelo.
We meet Isabella as she is about to join an extremely strict religious order where, on learning that her brother is condemned to die, she agrees to visit Lord Angelo. Her opening words to him
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must
are followed by a plea for clemency which Angelo rejects. Isabella reasons with the new governor, but soon accepts defeat. Only when Angelo says ‘your brother must die tomorrow’ does Isabella speak with passion and urgency, stunned by the imminence of Claudio’s fate. In words reminiscent of Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ when she confronts Shylock, Isabella claims
No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe,
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does. (‘Measure for Measure’ Act2 Sc2 )
This scene alone makes ‘Measure for Measure’ a remarkable play; its eloquence is breathtaking and its messages powerful. How can we not be moved by
O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant. (‘Measure for Measure’ Act2 Sc2 )
man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep (‘Measure for Measure’ Act2 Sc2 )
Despite himself, Angelo is touched by Isabella and invites her to return the next day. When she does he shockingly invites her to save her brother’s life by allowing Angelo to sleep with her. He asks
Might there not be a charity in sin
To save this brother’s life? (‘Measure for Measure’ Act2 Sc4 )
It is in breathtaking verse that Shakespeare conveys Angelo’s anguish, even as he falls prey to temptation, and communicates Isabella’s despair and horror following the proposal.
The scene, Act3, Scene1, in which Isabella visits Claudio and tells him what has been asked of her is, I would dare to suggest, one of the most powerful and brilliant anywhere in Shakespeare. Claudio’s humanity and dignity, Isabella’s eloquence and passion combine to create stunning drama. Claudio’s love of life is encapsulated in his horror at the thought of imminent execution:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. (‘Measure for Measure’ Act3 Sc1)
Isabella’s despair is compounded when her conviction that her brother would share her horror and forbid her to return to Angelo is not met. Her words are chilling in their extremity:
O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister’s shame? . Take my defiance!
Die, perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed:
I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee. (‘Measure for Measure’ Act3 Sc1)
This exchange between Claudio and Isabella is witnessed by the Duke in his disguise as a Friar. From this point, we enter a different play. The Duke becomes omnipresent and operates like a Deus ex Machina from here to the play’s conclusion. All of the classic conventions of comedy are exploited from this point: convoluted twists and turns of plot, abundant coincidences, disguises and tricks – all contrived by the Friar/Duke. Inevitably, in this comic world, Claudio is spared, Angelo is exposed and is repentant, and Isabella’s virtue is recognised by the Duke who offers her his hand in marriage. Interestingly, the text does not include her response! Although the play offers a comedy ending, the sense of completeness and joy we feel at the end of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or ‘Twelfth Night’ is absent here. Too many questions remain.
The audience or reader have much to ponder. Can we, in the twenty-first century understand the puritanical values of an Isabella? Who deserves the greatest sympathy or condemnation in this complex moral dilemma? Timeless questions about authority, the effects of power, the nature of compromise and love are vividly provoked. This is a play that will make you think and will certainly intrigue you. I hope you will read it!
Marie is an avid reader and player of online games, along with enjoying crosswords, travel and riddles and puns. She lives in the U.K.