26. Measure For Measure
Measure For Measure is a challenging play. That doesn’t mean that it is a bad play by any means, but it is one that requires a lot of questioning and a lot of thought.
For a start, I found it one of Shakespeare’s denser plays linguistically. This is definitely not his easiest to understand from a pure language point of view. This might just have been my suboptimal health (!) but I found sections of speech hard to understand, which isn’t normally a massive issue for me. It feels like Shakespeare is trying to be clever in a lot of his language choices here, which can be a bit intimidating and opaque to a modern audience.
A more dramatically interesting challenge in the play is the behaviour of the characters within it. The Duke’s decision-making is frankly bizarre throughout! His decision to abandon his post as Duke, to go undercover and spy on his deputy, doesn’t really feel like the action of a sensible and strong leader. Added to this, he is quite happy to dole out justice at the end of the play, seemingly enjoying the game-show like reveal of his true identity and leaving Angelo with a death sentence hanging over his head and Isabella believing that her brother is dead, when he could have just explained everything in a mature and sensible manner. The Duke comes across as someone slightly drunk on power at the end, to the extent that he even asks Isabella to marry him in a wholly inappropriate way! I hasten to add, I don’t think this is a problem. In actual fact, this is a big part of what makes the play interesting. But it is most definitely a challenge for both actor and director.
Angelo is a similarly fascinating character. A man pulled apart by his unrealistic expectations of purity and chastity. He is almost so terrified of sexuality that he suppresses it all around him. This act of suppression, however, means that it has to burst forth somehow. As such, he is suddenly overpowered by lust when a pure, chaste and powerless novice nun comes to him to beg for her brother’s life. Angelo seems drawn to her not just as an expression of his suppressed sexuality but also as a way of exerting his power in the most extreme way possible. By dishonouring a novice nun, he demonstrates his power over her in the most complete way possible – especially since, as he believes, no one would believe her if she accused him of it. It is a fascinating and quite disturbing depiction of a man’s desire to gratify his own lust for power by disempowering and humiliating a woman.
As is often the case in Shakespeare, the female roles do feel underwritten. There is a lot to be explored and examined but the characters don’t feel as rich as their male counterparts. Isabella feels almost too pure to be true – though the dilemma she is forced to play between the desire to save her brother, and the need to remain pure is compelling. Isabella’s scenes with Angelo are gripping and intense, and make for great Shakespeare scene studies.
Mariana is actually hardly in the play at all and is definitely underwritten. Her desire to be married to Angelo, despite his rejection of her and his behaviour towards Isabella is frankly desperate and pathetic. The fact that she is happy to swap places with Isabella, in what we might term the ‘bed-trick’ is also incredibly degrading and humiliating. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this when I read All’s Well That Ends Well this week!
I find Measure For Measure problematic and, in a strange way, it makes me feel dirty. Which also makes me want to direct it! It is unusual for a play to illicit such a visceral response and, although the response isn’t exactly pleasant, it is certainly strong. There is something voyeuristic and creepy about the play, that is also fascinating and gets us to question our own morals and behaviour.