Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeareon October 19th, 2012
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.
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.