Measure for Measure
What murky darkness plagued Shakespeare as he was writing this play? It’s called a comedy – they get married in the end and no one dies, thus fulfilling the requirement – but it is the least comical of all the plays. It’s twisted, it’s sick, it’s disturbing. Coleridge called it painful. Oh, yes.
I have already written about how puzzlingly dreadful the characters of the Duke, Isabella and Angelo are in Shakespeare Calling – the book (pages 390-398). In this exploration of what other scholars thought of these characters and the play I applauded Harold Bloom’s assessment of ‘blasphemous’, and Katherine Eisamen Maus writes that viewers/readers must be aware of the Christian church’s fear and loathing of sex. Since this still has bearing on our society I would like to look at how the Duke, by playing God, and Angelo, by being a tyrannical hypocrite, they make like miserable for more than just the victims Claudio and Juliet.
Times are hard in this Vienna. We see this when Mistress Overdone informs Lucio and the other gentlemen that she has witnessed the arrest of Claudio. He is to be executed in three days’ time and she laments: ‘…what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk’ (Act 1.2). In other words, there are fewer and fewer men to visit her bawdy house.
It gets worse for Mistress Overdone. Enter Pompey who informs her that all the bawdy houses in Vienna’s suburbs will be closed in the new strictness. Mistress Overdone: ‘Why here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth! What shall become of me?’ (Act 1.2). Though Pompey reassures her that she will manage, she’ll find a new house, and though this scene is, I assume, usually played for laughs, and though in our day and age in some of our countries at least bawdy houses are seen as exploitive and oppressive of women, Mistress Overdone’s distress at the threat of losing her livelihood is very real. Starvation was never far away in her world.
She is right to be worried. Two acts later she is hauled before Escalus who orders the officers, ‘Go, away with her to prison.’ She pleads for mercy, claiming that Lucio has informed on her despite her caring for his illegitimate child. To no avail. Escalus: ‘Away with her to prison. Go to, no more words’ (Act 3.1). And indeed, we hear no more words from Mistress Overdone.
Lucio is an odd character, complex and often quite likeable. Upon the news of Claudio’s arrest, he’s disturbed. ‘But, after all this fooling, I would not have it so’ (Act 1.2). He is supportive of Isabella in her first encounter with Angelo. ‘Well said…thou’rt i’ th’ right, girl, more o’ that’ (Act 2.2). He speaks shrewdly to the Duke, disguised as a friar, about Angelo’s cruel enforcement of the law: ‘Yes, in good sooth, the vice is of a great kindred; it is well allied, but it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down’ (Act 3.1).
He’s not kind to Pompey, taunting him and refusing to help him as he’s hauled off to prison for being a bawd. Throughout the play Lucio jokes crudely about his exploits with prostitutes – not an admirable attitude – and he is an irritant to the Duke (amusing to the reader/audience) but the Duke, supposedly satisfied with the convoluted solution he has concocted to the Angelo-Isabella problem, is unnecessarily excessive in condemning Lucio for the crime of slandering a prince first to marrying the mother of his child then to whipping then hanging. It’s a comedy so possibly the Duke is jesting but this is Shakespeare’s England (never mind that the setting is Vienna) so probably not. Not terribly amusing in any case.
Three more victims must be mentioned briefly. Pompey, an amiable fool, is as already noted imprisoned for bawdiness. Unlike Mistress Overdone, whose fate after imprisonment we are not told, Pompey, though snubbed and unaided by Lucio, lands on his feet. If he agrees to become an assistant to the executioner his prison sentence, including a whipping, will be cancelled. Not an enviable exchange, one might think, but Pompey approves the proposal: ‘Sir, I have been an unlawful bawd time out of mind, but yet I will be content to be a lawful hangman’ (Act 4.2). Hmmm, on second thought, this is indeed a step up on society’s ladder, so by rights I should remove Pompey from this list of losers.
Nor does Mariana regard herself as a loser. She gets the husband she has longed for. How many times have we asked ourselves why so many of Shakespeare’s clever women are madly in love with such dreadful men? Surely Angelo is the most dreadful of them. Being married to him makes Mariana, without question no matter what she says, a loser.
What Isabella thinks of her fate remains a mystery. Married to the Duke? No doubt seen by everyone else as a true prize. But Isabella, as cold and fanatical as she may be, is surely sincere in her aspirations to become a nun. By Shakespeare’s time there were few nuns left and in his fanatically Protestant England being a nun was only a step up from death as an acceptable fate for women, but Isabella is so very strong in her role as a novice that becoming a wife, no matter how aristocratic and wealthy, is to lose the independence, odd as it may seem, of being God’s servant. So, on my list of losers Isabella must remain.
Shakespeare never makes things easy for us. Villains, heroes, winners, losers, they’re often one big muddle. Claudio and Juliet start out being the main losers in this play but they might just be – along with the unbearably smug Duke – the only ones who aren’t losers in this most troublesome of Shakespeare’s plays.
- William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.
Films seen this time:
- From Shakespeare Calling – the book, page 398:
- ‘BBC, 1979. Directed by Desmond Davis. Cast: Isabella – Kate Nelligan; Angelo – Tim Pigott-Smith; the Duke – Kenneth Colley; Claudio – Christopher Strauli; Lucio – John McEnery; Escalus – Kevin Stoney; Pompey – Frank Middlemass; Mariana – Jacqueline Pearce.
- A straightforward interpretation that seems to miss the essence of the play. The cast is for the most part earnest, except for Lucio who is silly when he should be sardonic and cool. The disgusting absurdity Shakespeare is trying to show us is not presented as an outrageous comedy, but as a … I’m not sure what. Still I enjoyed it quite a lot until the final scene when Isabella smiled and took the Duke’s hand. That kind of ruined everything.’ I agree with my earlier assessment.
- The Globe, 2015. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Cast: Isabella – Mariah Gale; Angelo – Kurt Egyiawan; the Duke – Dominic Rowan; Mistress Overdone – Petra Massey; Pompey – Trevor Foxe; Claudio – Joel MacCormack; Lucio – Brendan O’Hea; Mariana – Rosie Hilal; Juliet – Naana Agyei-Ampadu
- Seriously flawed version. O’Hea interprets Lucio as a limp-wrist fop – awful! The farcical aspects completely destroy the comic elements of this tragic comedy. Egyiawan as Angelo is good though, and Gale does a serious Isabella though she’s a bit one-note weepy.