Why This Play?:
I am chugging along on this project – this marks my 17th completed play in 6 months thus far. Not quite the pace I originally hoped of 39 plays + poems done in a year (because, you know, life) so time to step it up! I realized, just in the plays alone, remaining on my to-read list are 3 romances, 4 tragedies, 7 histories, and 9 comedies. Well, on to a comedy then! Measure for Measure won the selection as polled by my 2 Twitter followers.
And boy, did I discover something special with this play! This is juicy and feels like cutting-edge satire even after 400 years. We have characters who believe and live by their morality (Isabella), and we have characters who bend their morals to suit their actions (Claudio, Angelo…basically any character who offers an excuse as to why they engage in behavior that they know is not in accordance with the law). The vast majority of us fall into the latter category in our daily lives. Whether we break laws (speeding through traffic?) or go against our religious/moral ones (adultery?), what makes us still maintain that moral guidance even when we don’t exactly put it into practice?
So What Happens?:
The scene is Vienna, where Duke Vincentio has let his realm get way out of hand in the last 14 years. They have laws only to be broken by all the citizens. So the Duke decides it’s time to get cracking. He brings in Angelo and deputizes him to act as governor while the Duke claims he’s going off to get some R&R. The audience sees that Angelo quickly enforces the laws a bit too forcefully. The local bawd (she who runs a brothel), Mistress Overdone, reports that a man has been arrested and sentenced to death in 3 days for fornication. A gentleman, Claudio, is on his way to prison when he runs into his pal, Lucio (a “fantastic” – essentially, one who shoots his mouth off spinning yarns). He reveals that his lover, Juliet, is pregnant by him as they intend to marry. But since they aren’t yet, this is illegal. Claudio thinks the harsh Angelo is making an example of him through punishment of death, and he begs Lucio to find his sister, Isabella, before she enters life at the convent. Isabella must be induced to speak with Angelo to plead for Claudio’s life. Mistress Overdone frets over Angelo’s reign shutting down her business as well.
The Duke visits a friary, where he tells Friar Thomas that Vienna is in a bad way due to his failure to enforce his laws for over a decade. He wants to see what will happen now that he’s tasked Angelo with policing the place. He’ll be disguised as a friar so he can move about Vienna and freely observe. Isabella is over at St. Clare’s nunnery, wishing that their rules were stricter, when Lucio arrives to tell of her brother’s imprisonment. Shaken, Isabella agrees to intercede if she can with Angelo.
Lord Escalus doesn’t agree with Angelo’s ruling; he thinks death is too harsh a punishment for Claudio’s crime. Angelo coldly points out the difference between being tempted and actually acting on temptation. His decision still stands, and Claudio’s going to be offed the next day. In the meantime, the two head to court to hear witnesses to various offences. Constable Elbow brings charges that gentleman Froth has been fooling around with Elbow’s wife at the brothel. Elbow’s linguistic mix-ups are straight out of Dogberry’s book. Clown Pompey is there to try to smooth things over, guiding Froth through the conversation to assure everyone that nothing illegal occurred (*wink, wink*). Angelo leaves the whole mess to Escalus to hear out, and the lenient lord lets everyone off with a warning (even though he acknowledges Pompey as a pimp).
Isabella (Lucio in tow) seeks an audience with Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo is steadfast in his decision, and Isabella nearly accepts that statement until Lucio urges her on to argue. She takes it up a notch and passionately argues Angelo down to agreeing to think his decision over for the night. They set on meeting tomorrow for his final verdict. Once she’s gone, Angelo is befuddled to discover that he is infatuated with Isabella. Duke Vincentio, disguised as “Friar Ludowick”, visits prisoners to talk through their crimes/repentance (and mostly to just spy and see how his law-enforcing experiment is going). Juliet (Claudio’s pregnant girlfriend) is residing there for her crime, and she is horrified to hear that her baby daddy is scheduled to die the next day.
Angelo is so sick with love for Isabella, he starts blowing off his job responsibilities. They hold their morning meeting, and Angelo claims his decision for Claudio’s execution stands…but, for conversation’s sake, he wonders if a lady would give up her virginity to save her brother’s life in a case such as this. Isabella insists that she never would – such a sin would commit one’s soul to hell, which far outweighs the horror of her brother’s death (in her mind, he did commit the sin of sex out of wedlock, so there should be some sort of punishment…just maybe not death). Angelo goes for broke and changes the hypothetical conversation to an actual offer – if Isabella sleeps with Angelo, then Claudio can go live. Horrified, Isabella refuses and says she will tell all of Vienna of his hypocrisy and sin. Angelo insists that no one will believe her word against his. Isabella is left to wonder what else she can do for Claudio (while she convinces herself that he would rather die to protect her honor than have her commit the sin to save his life).
The “Friar” visits Claudio to console him, giving an interesting speech about accepting the inevitability of death (and how men seldom fully appreciate life). Isabella comes to visit, and the “Friar” eavesdrops on the exchange. Isabella confirms that Claudio’s execution order still stands. She confesses her horror over Angelo’s conditional offer to revoke the execution. Claudio admits how much he fears death (great little speech), and argues that her sin would be seen as a virtue if done to save his life. Despite his begging, infuriated Isabella rejects her brother and his plea to commit such a sin. As she tries to leave, the “Friar” stops her with a solution to the problem. It seems that Angelo was once engaged to a lady called Mariana. She had a sizable dowry, but it sank to the bottom of the sea along with her sailor brother – upon which the feckless Angelo called off the marriage. Despite all that, Mariana still pines for him. The “Friar” suggests that Isabella agree to Angelo’s proposal (under condition that the bedroom is completely dark), and that Mariana goes in her place to sleep with Angelo. This would free Claudio, and they could let Angelo know of the switcheroo afterward, perhaps inducing him to finally marry Mariana. Not seeing any other way around it, Isabella agrees to the scheme.
Elsewhere, constable Elbow has arraigned Pompey again for pimping. Lucio sees this, and Pompey tries to get him to help with bail. Lucio laughingly denies help. The “Friar” is passing by, and Lucio inquires on news of the Duke (“Friar” has none). Lucio starts railing against the Duke, claiming he’s a pitiful leader and a generally silly man. He also willingly tells the “Friar” his name, and insults the Duke once more before leaving. Mistress Overdone is arrested for running the brothel, and she calls out that Lucio informed on her, but that’s he’s a hypocrite who impregnated one of her ladies. Escalus commends the “Friar” on his kind words to the condemned Claudio. Finally alone, the Duke swears to expose Angelo’s hypocrisy.
Lovesick Mariana listens to a break-up song, when Isabella and the “Friar” approach. Isabella confirms that the date with Angelo is on; they’re scheduled to meet in a secluded and dark garden that very night. The “Friar” introduces the two ladies and has them retire for a moment so Isabella can rely the bed-trick plan to Mariana. Mariana is hesitant to seduce her former fiancé under guise of another woman, but the “Friar” convinces her that since she and Angelo were under “pre-contract” to be married, it’s hardly a sin. [I guess this is good enough logic for Isabella as well, who seems to have no qualms about the state of another woman’s soul after committing fornication to help out her family? Hmmm.]. Sex will be had that very night, so Claudio will be saved in the nick of time!
…or so we thought. Later that night at the prison, the Provost offers Pompey a deal: reduced jail time if he aids with executions of condemned prisoners. This doesn’t seem to bother Pompey too much, and there’s a glorious darkly comic exchange between Pompey and Abhorson the lead executioner (in which they compare the skill and craft of their respective trades, pimping and death). The “Friar” comes to offer services to the prisoners, and in comes a messenger from Angelo – Vincentio is secretly sure that the letter is to confirm Claudio’s release. Angelo’s letter, however, instructs the Provost to bump up Claudio’s execution even earlier; he’s to be killed by 4am with his head sent to Angelo, and fellow prisoner Barnardine (long-time incarcerated) will be killed later that morning. The shocked Vincentio reveals his true identity to the Provost, instructing him to execute Barnardine (as planned) by 4am and send his head to Angelo, passing it off as Claudio’s.
Abhorson and Pompey try to ready Barnardine for execution, but the prisoner is not having it. [It’s kind of amazing – he flat-out refuses on the grounds of having drunk too much the night before to properly ready his soul for death.] Luckily, the Provost checks in with news that a separate pirate prisoner died of a fever in jail earlier that evening. And wouldn’t you know it – he looks a lot like Claudio. Barnardine gets a few hours’ stay of execution, Claudio lives, and the Provost now has a head to send to Angelo. The Duke sends a letter to Angelo saying that he will return to Vienna the following day to reclaim day-to-day rule. Isabella comes to the prison to check in on Claudio, and the “Friar” says that he was already put to death. Distraught Isabella wants revenge on Angelo for not keeping his word, but the “Friar” convinces her to publically condemn Angelo the next day upon the Duke’s return to Vienna. Loudmouth Lucio inserts himself to do some more smack-talk about the Duke in front of the “Friar”. Escalus and Angelo receive word that Duke Vincentio will return, and they need to meet him at the city gates the next day. His instructions claim that any citizen may petition “redress of justice” to him. Angelo reasons to himself that Claudio had to die in case he would have sought revenge for Angelo’s treatment toward Isabella. As for Isabella, Angelo is convinced that she wouldn’t dare to speak of what transpired between them.
The following morning, Angelo and Escalus greet Duke Vincentio at the city gates. Isabella swoops down on them with Friar Peter in tow, loudly requesting that the Duke listen to her and grant justice. The Duke allows her audience, and says Angelo will dole out any justice to be delivered. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with Isabella, who refers to Angelo as “the devil”. Angelo tries to pass Isabella off as crazy. Isabella boldly tells her tale: Claudio’s sin and punishment, her plea for his life, Angelo’s condition to spare his life for her body, and how Claudio was executed anyway once their deal was fulfilled – also, “Friar Ludowick” can back up her story, only he’s totally not here right now. Lucio tries to be “helpful” (i.e. nosy) by interjecting, which does not exactly make the Duke warm to him. The Duke has her arrested and led off, and everyone wonders where “Ludowick” is.
Friar Peter introduces another witness to this story. Mariana arrives, wearing a veil, and only removes it to reveal herself as true wife to Angelo. Angelo recounts that their engagement was broken years ago. Mariana confirms that she was the one who had sex with Angelo, not Isabella. Angelo wants to get to the bottom of this – the Duke leaves to allow him to handle the situation, while “Friar Ludowick” is summoned. The Duke returns dressed as the “Friar”, along with the Provost and Isabella. The “Friar” thinks it’s hardly fair that the accused party (Angelo) is the one meting out justice, and Escalus blames the “Friar” for tricking the women into telling tales. Saucy Lucio pulls back the “Friar’s” hood, revealing (gasp) the Duke. The Duke swings into action: arresting Lucio, pardoning Escalus, and hearing Angelo’s confession of his villainy (for punishment, he asks to be put to death). The Duke instructs Angelo is marry Mariana instantly (they literally go offstage to be married by Friar Peter to return a few minutes later), and then be sentenced to the same fate as Claudio.
Mariana begs for her new husband’s life and implores Isabella to aid her. Isabella opts to join her, stating that Angelo’s lecherous intentions were evil but, ultimately, his actions were not. The Duke’s not convinced – why was Claudio executed, huh? Behold, the Provost, who brings Bernardine and Claudio (masked). He unmasks Claudio, whom the Duke pardons. Duke Vincentio doesn’t even pause for breath before he proposes marriage to Isabella…and without waiting for an answer, proceeds to order Lucio to marry the prostitute he previously impregnated. Unluckily for Lucio, he’ll afterwards be whipped and hanged (for slander against the Duke). We then wrap up the play with the Duke ordering Claudio and Juliet to be married, special shout-outs of thanks to Escalus and the Provost for being generally awesome worker-bees, and (oh, yeah) reiterating his proposal to Isabella. Curtain before she can voice any sort of response. Which is either the least fulfilling or the most entertaining ending ever, depending on how the actors play it.
Check This Out:
I watched the only version easily available to me (Amazon Prime streaming!): a strange, low-budget version of the play set within the modern-day British army. It was hard to watch at times, just due to bad camera angles and overly dramatic and misused background music. It was also greatly shortened (a little over 1 hour) – no Elbow or Pompey, and Lucio reduced to a simple messenger to summon Isabella into the action!! This was a comedy that was played primarily as a tragedy. Plus, there’s this added bit in the beginning (with borrowed dialogue from Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet), showing the Duke involved in sexual misconduct (with Mistress Overdone in a bar bathroom!)…thus giving reason for the Duke's years of sideways glances at the misconduct of his troops.
Really interesting (short) interview with director Roxanna Silbert about the abundant sexual content of Measure for Measure, and how it’s all about control.
How well do you know Measure for Measure’s plot? Take the quiz!
Modern feminists love Isabella if only for this line: “Women! Help Heaven! men their creation mar in profiting by them.” ALL THE APPLAUSE!
Thoughts and Themes:
There is SO MUCH going on in this play; it makes my head spin (delightfully so). It’s rife with commentary on the restrictions of morality – does sin beget sin?...is sin worth committing if it has noble intent?...if intent is evil without evil action, does that constitute as sin? It’s a no-brainer to point out that sex is one of the major motifs. It acts as a measure of control throughout the play, which is an issue society still deals with 400 years later. We also look at political power works as a form of morality and the way the Duke wields it. Is he downright Machiavellian or just trying to set right all his prior years of lax leadership? So many ways to interpret and portray this work!
I’m a bit scatter-brained with all the thoughts I had regarding this show. I have so many half-formed ideas about Measure for Measure’s themes, the intentions of the characters, and our modern-day experiences that tie back to this satire. No wonder it’s deemed a “problem play”. And no wonder it’s really come into itself through modern theatre – it’s a satire that is deeply ahead of its time. So rather than try to corral my flighty notions into one semi-coherent stream (thus forgetting fun bits I’d be loathe to leave out), I’ll just touch on several bullets of thoughts/experiences regarding the play at large.
- Two topics fascinate humans more than any other – sex and death. In this play, sex and death are in a constant state of trade. Primary point: Angelo will exchange Claudio’s death sentence for sex with Isabella. Even in the clown story, Pompey gets to trade in his job as a pimp to become assistant executioner. Several characters repeat that ultimately, while sex may be more fun, death is far more preferable in terms of honor (Isabella’s argument for refusing Angelo to save Claudio, Pompey & Abhorson arguing over their respective trades, Angelo’s preference to be punished via death rather than marriage, even Lucio’s horror at being married to a prostitute at the end). I suppose since death comes to absolutely everyone, there’s no real dishonor in it?
- So, what about the characters who actually want marriage? Well let’s examine – Mariana gets the joy of finally being hitched to the guy she’s pining for who snubbed her 5 years earlier (at least she’s entitled to his property if she’s ever widowed), Claudio and Juliet are finally allowed to marry (even though they were purposely waiting until they had any sort of property/household to do so), and the Duke decides he wants Isabella as his wife (but we never hear any textual thoughts of the almost-nun’s on this matter). Marriage is either doled out as punishment, or is another way (beyond sex) to try to force control. Not the best portrait of wedded bliss. Or, hell, even as a partnership.
- I think it’s almost too easy to play Isabella as shrill, stern, and prudish. I’d be most interested to see an Isabella that struggles with her absolute view on morality. The key to this is how the scene between Isabella and Claudio plays out when she relays to him her inability to save his life by giving up her virginity. Her words to him are harsh, but it’s a much more interesting choice to play it as though she is deeply hurt that her own brother would allow her virtue and soul to be taken so lightly. I believe she hugely struggles to do everything she can to save her brother, but that it’s outside her moral power/ability to sexually succumb to Angelo. I like to think it’s her pain (over losing her brother, over Angelo’s assault on her honor) that leads to her rage and desire to be revenged on Angelo.
- I find it fascinating that both Angelo and Isabella are so strict – on everyone else and on themselves. Angelo even initially manages to convince Isabella that her brother’s crime is unpardonable. Angelo is strict to the interpretation of Vienna’s laws and Isabella to her Catholic beliefs. This is something that cannot be dismissed by modern audiences, especially in her case – Isabella firmly, truly believes that her eternal soul is in jeopardy if she gives her virginity to Angelo. The Duke, despite his machinations and the punishments he doles out in the final scene, still manages to view both law and morality as completely fluid depending on how they suit his needs. [It makes me feel pretty disgusted when he poses as a Friar and hears confession or counsels death row inmates.] But I believe that this is how most of us work. Laws/morals are there for guidance, but we break/bend them every single day.
The personal experience that came to mind the most through this play was not a specific instance. Mostly, it made me think of my Catholic upbringing. I grew up attending mass nearly every Sunday morning, going to CCD classes (basically Catholicism 101 for kids), and skipping meat every Friday of Lent. I went to Catholic school for 5 years. But of course there came a point when I questioned many of the dictates of the church’s teachings and beliefs. I don’t think any organization (a nation, a church, a non-profit or corporation, a union, whatever) can have numerous followers/participants and have them ALL blindly agree to every facet of the organization. And, boy, did I have some issues with my church.
I was seventeen years old when I saw the film Dogma with my mother. We both found it to be hilarious and surprisingly thoughtful. I loved this movie that openly and angrily called out my church for confusing Old vs. New Testament rhetoric, its violent and greedy past (and present), and its conscious exclusion and condemnation of many groups. This was a movie for the Catholic girl who thought Purgatory was a crock and that homosexuality, abortion, and premarital sex were not sins that would doom anyone to eternal hell fire. Mama and I had some great conversations spurred on by this movie, in which we both acknowledged our deep misgivings about our religion. “If you had so many issues with the church, then why would you raise us (my brother and myself) in it?” I asked Mama. We talked for a bit about the importance of community and (my favorite) the fact that it was good training for teaching unruly little kids how to be still and quiet for an hour at a time. But these words from my mama are what really stuck with me: “Honestly, baby girl? I think religion is mostly a security blanket. Catholicism’s just the blanket I chose.”
We don’t absolutely know all the answers, and no one religion can provide them all. We’re all floundering in the dark. But sometimes that community, those rituals, and that acknowledgement that we’re growing and changing and trying to learn from our (horrid) mistakes…that can be all it takes to grow faith. Sure, faith in a higher being, but mostly just faith in one another. Morals and laws adapt alongside the humans who believe in them. As our worlds widen to include differing groups and societies, it’s natural that debate would occur and that viewpoints are expanded as well. Our world is not static, and our beliefs should likewise be openly compassionate. We have our guidelines, but its ok that we challenge them with an open heart and mind. Perhaps through showing a series of characters who believe in absolutes and how problematic their lives can turn as a result, Shakespeare was trying to show that flexibility might not be such a bad thing.