Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare

I read Measure for Measure, and watched the 1979 BBC production.

The play is a cut above all the other Shakespeare plays I’ve read so far (or perhaps it was just that I read it predominantly in the morning, whereas the others I largely read in the evening). The production is good too. It’s a comedy like All’s Well That Ends Well, in that it isn’t a comedy in the least – it’s not certainly played for laughs, the humour is at best dark and macabre (which is pretty much how we like humour anyway) – for instance, the scene in which the prisoner refuses to be hanged because he is too hung-over and claims not to be in the right frame of mind. It is a comedy then insofar as it has a happy ending.

The play has a lot more in common with All’s Well That Ends Well, not least in the second half two large parts of the plot: the switching of a woman at an assignation, thus making a man believe he has slept with someone else; and the unwillingness of the man to marry a woman, and his entrapment in a plot to achieve the same. Shakespeare appears to be re-working the same material, but this play is far better shaped than All’s Well That Ends Well; and its underlying theme is (I found) more interesting. If All’s Well was largely about that tiresome English joke, the class system, then Measure for Measure is about sin (fornication, in particular) and purity – and more particularly the state’s [the text is here indecipherable].

Imagine, if you can, a society which has thrown aware strictures on morality, where people sleep with one another as suits their fancy. This is Austria (yes, it’s set in Austria!) in the somethingth century. Then imagine a Savonarola-type figure takes power and decides to reform society – to tear down all the whore-houses – and make an example of one particular aristocrat by executing him based on a lapsed statute etc. etc. It’s all good and interesting background stuff, and includes a surprisingly large amount on the world of prostitution.

I was going to write about the plot too (for I haven’t really mentioned it – that summary above covers about the first two scenes), but I shan’t, save to say that there’s a fair bit of emotion and humanity involved; people die or don’t die as necessary; and a man wears a disguise and engages in a conversation about himself.

Perhaps though, one doesn’t want these things in a play, but merely relevance. Well, for the English among us at least, how about a tale of an innocent young woman being entrapped into the sexual gratification of an older man, and unable to protest or speak up because, on account of his position, he is protected by the society around him and his good reputation. (A good job that, back then, TV documentaries didn’t need so much publicity).

Himandri’s piece on this is very good; and certainly I was often inclined to wonder about the Duke’s motivations and actions – why does he tell Isabella her brother’s dead when he isn’t (this seemed to me almost insanely and needlessly cruel); why does he consider it ok to kill one man to save another (but, as usual, after a time I just shrugged my shoulders and thought about it no more). Oh, and Himandri reminds me that the reason I thought it was a cut above at the beginning was really the writing, which is just a different quality from the plays heretofore.

Next up: Love’s Labour’s Lost (a classic of alliteration). I changed my mind on this, due to DVD availability: next up will be what is agreed by critics to be Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

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4 thoughts on “Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare

  1. The first time I saw this play was in 1978, in a production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, featuring Michael Pennington, Paola Dionisotti and Jonathan Pryce as, respectively, the Duke, isabella, and Angelo. I did not know this play at all, and was mesmerised. I still find myself swept away by it – especially the first half – but don’t really understand what Shakespeare is getting at. Shakespeare I think was an experimental writer -a lways trying something new; and if something didn’t work out – well, that’s just the nature of being experimental.

    The third play Shakespeare wrote in this period that is neither tragedy nor comedy – neither fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to have it – is Troilus and Cressida. As for Pericles – well, I’d be interested to read what you make of it.

  2. I too knew nothing about it and was swept away – and yes, the more I think about the play, the more curious aspects of it seem.

    I admit, I don’t know where my Shakespeare reading is going, but I’m sure I’ll get to Troilus and Cressida (and Coriolanus too, which seems to be counted alongside it). I set out with only the intention of reading the famous comedies and the famous tragedies; but I feel this area I’ve stumbled on interests me more.

    As for Pericles – I read it today – will watch the BBC production in the next few days and then put up a review. Perhaps experimentation will be a useful explanation here too. One thing I’ll say in favour of it: there’s a lot you could write about.

  3. Thank you for blogging about Measure by Measure, one of my three favorite Shakespeare’s plays (the other two being As You Like It and King Lear).
    I’ve thought hard and long about this dramedy. Himandri, in the link you provided, wonders about the motives of the Duke of Vienna. I think that the Duke wanted to destroy, or at least humiliate that know-it-all holier-than-thou hypocrite civil servant Angelo. So he disappeared from view after granting Angelo power over the city. Sure enough, just like under citizen Robespierre and under Calvin and his fellow fanatics, executions for trivial offenses were immediately imposed.
    Shakespeare then proceeds to out-Moliere Moliere’s Tartuffe ( by making hypocrite Angelo a complex and consistent, if flawed individual in the sense that Angelo wishes for himself the same punishment he sentenced others to, for the same offense). As a matter of fact the main characters of this play have all of them complex motivations, that is, they are like real human beings, not just characters in a play.
    The duke is a good old fool: too lenient, even merciful, but at the same time performing foolish, rash actions (not punishing Angelo after setting him up, breaking down Isabella by falsely telling her that her brother is dead then marrying her, even if she does not love him, etc.). The duke wants to mind-break others and to receive their love or gratitude in return.
    Isabella is a strong willed, capricious, voluble woman who’d do anything to get her way and who is clueless about other people’s feelings, caught in an impossible situation between two different, conflicting moral duties (to chastity and to the God she’s about to marry by becoming a nun on the one hand; to her brother on the other).
    I better stop before I outlast my welcome, but I’m very passionate about this particular play and I get carried away when I talk about it.

  4. Hi Cleanthess’ HumbleHappiness, thanks for the comment.

    I did think about the idea that the Duke deliberately set out to ruin Angelo – and yet, to take that line, it’s still not there clearly in the text, whereas the Duke’s own explanation is explicitly there. Shakespeare does leave a lot about his activity and motivation surprisingly mysterious.

    The idea of the puritan who speaks out against vice, but whose words are overheard by the devil, who then tempts him and leads him into vice, is a plot which has always appeal to me. (I’d wanted to write something myself on the subject, but have never managed to fit it to a worthwhile plot).

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