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measure for measure

11 february 2015

Measure for Measure is famously a "problem play," and it has a lot of problems, quite apart from the darkness and ambiguity that place it in that category.

I don't think that Measure for Measure is "meanly written" (as John Dryden put it; see p.1 in the Introduction to this edition). It's really fairly grand. But it does suffer from intensely-wrought, at times crabbed, expression of the simplest ideas – part of what we value in Shakespeare, of course, his verbal genius; but one can't imagine any audience, however high-verbal, knowing what people are on about most of the time. The plot is tetchy and preposterous. The whole thing lacks dramatic exigence. The humor is half-hearted. It's never been popular on stage.

Yet the play grows on you in the reading, and the latter acts are better than the earlier ones. To really get into the spirit of the play, you have to identify with the central character, the Duke, who sets everybody else up and makes sure they act exactly in accordance with his plans. He's a type of Prospero, and much of the anti-dramatic quality of The Tempest obtains here, too. Watching both plays is like watching a fixed game.

You have to buy into the joy of fixed games to appreciate Measure for Measure. It's a critical commonplace that the Duke of Dark Corners represents the Christian God, or at least one of his earthly stewards, dispensing providence in mysterious ways. The Duke keeps hammering the theme that we all deserve whipping, if not hanging, and that only his (His?) mercy stands between us and the proverbial thrilling regions of thick-ribbéd ice. When he unmasks himself in the final act and unveils that mercy, the experience can be wonderfully consoling.

It ain't progressive, though. The play is sex-negative, cynical, and above all patriarchal. The female lead, Isabella, has many of the play's best lines; but dramatically speaking, she is manipulated by the male characters – first the impertinent Lucio, later the Duke himself. She seems to want nothing except to enter a convent, and she famously gets no voice in her eventual destiny as a Duchess. One wants to imagine her resisting that destiny, and some stage productions have imagined her doing that, by dropping the Duke's hand or turning her back on him (4).

I remember once being slapped down by a senior scholar who asserted that Shakespeare intended Isabella to reject the Duke. I said that there was no evidence of that; his opinion was that his own professorial ethos amounted to evidence. One can stage the play any number of ways, naturally, but all I was really saying was that Shakespeare gives Isabella nothing to say, and the safest assumption is that he intended for her simply to acquiesce, as she does in most other things in the play. The second female lead, Mariana of "moated grange" fame, is similarly a pawn in the dispositions of men.

Women themselves may be the problem of the play. If it weren't for them there would be no fornication: Shakespeare is unusually hetero in Measure for Measure, without even the kind of "bawdy" play on homoerotic themes that crops up in other plays, let alone the serious gay love of the Sonnets. Since there have to be women, they have to be safely tied down in marriage or filed away in nunneries.

We so wish that Shakespeare weren't like that, that we often try our best to recuperate him and enlist him into our own worldview. I don't think he shares it, though. I think that people and emotions and urges are much the same 400 years later, but I think that Shakespeare's ideology is extremely conservative, probably even for his own time. Authority – consisting of the right to dictate "mortality and mercy" – is his solution to everything. Authority must enforced by whipping, imprisonment, and capital punishment.

And even at that reactionary core, it's a lovely play. The English language would be poorer without Isabella arguing that

Man, proud man
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep (Act 2, Scene 2)
Or without the debate (much admired by T.S. Eliot) between the Duke and Claudio on the worth of earthly life, or the irreverent byplay between Lucio and the Duke, who seem to admire each other more (and be more alike) than either lets on. (Though here again, I'm probably projecting, and the play and Shakespeare actually want us to root for the snarky Lucio to get a beating, or at least get married off to a whore.)

As Shakespeare has the Duke say (though ironically) of something else, the play

deserves with characters of brass
A forted residence 'gainst the tooth of time
And razure of oblivion. (Act 5, Scene 1)
Or at least a special place on your cloud server.

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. 1623. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's, 2004. [Texts and Contexts]