About Me

My photo
Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 12 November 2015

"Measure for Measure" by William Shakespeare

A playscript is a first for this blog but I saw this production in 2015 at the Young Vic and was inspired to read the play.

I also saw it the RSC Live version broadcast live from Stratford on Wednesday 31st July 2019. Lucy Phelps was brilliant as Isabella and Sandy Grierson was wonderful as Angelo; the Duke (played by the excellent Anthony Byrne) was funnier than I had imagined. I had seen this cast previously in As You Like It where they played Rosalind, Touchstone (what a different part! and what a talented man this reveals Mr Grierson to be) and Duke Frederick/Duke Senior.

This is a difficult play to review. It has the  potential to be a classic but there are moments when Shakespeare seems to take his eye off the ball. In particular I want to know:

  • Why does the interview in which Isabella tells Angelo that despite all her previous protestations she will in fact sleep with him done off stage? This must be key. Isabella has to convince Angelo that her reversal is real (while the audience knows that she is deceiving Angelo). This is the sort of thing that Shakespeare excelled at.
  • Similarly, not quite so crucially, Isabella has to persuade Mariana to take part in the 'bed trick' in which Angelo will go to sleep with a woman he thinks is Isabella and is actually his discarded fiancee Mariana. One would have thought that Shakespeare could have dreamed up quite a lot of things Mariana could say in response to this: so you want me to lose my honour because you don't want to lose yours; isn't this actually against the law which Angelo has just condemned Claudio to death for. But, again, this is done off stage (at the back of the stage in dumb show in the RSC production); furthermore it is done incredibly quickly. It is more conflict which could have been meat and drink to Shakespeare ... and he ducked it. Why? Play getting too long? Ditch that dreadful knockabout stuff with Elbow.

Dollimore (1998, 113) describes M4M as a play in which "fundamental political instabilities are being focused in a witch-hunt against promiscuity".

In The Lodger, Charles Nicholl links the writing of this play to the time when Shakespeare was lodging with a landlord who also owned a house in Brentford which was, at the time, a notorious red-light district; Nicholl links this to M4M's theme of closing brothels. Shakespeare also presided at a betrothal ceremony between his landlord's apprentice and his landlord's daughter; he became involved in the subsequent court case regarding non-payment of dowry; this reflects events in M4M: Claudio gets into trouble for having sex with his betrothed before the dowry is paid; Angelo refuses his betrothed because her dowry is unpaid.

In a lecture to the Gresham College 'How to be a Shakespearean atheist', Ryrie (2019) points out that when Claudio "quails at the prospect of death, begging his sister to prostitute herself to save his life" he seems to espouse atheism or at least a failure to believe in an afterlife: "To die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod."

The title would seem to allude to the New testament's Matthew chapter 7 verses 1-2 which in the Wycliffe version reads: "Do not ye deem, that ye be not deemed; for in what doom ye deem, ye shall be deemed, and in what measure ye mete, it shall be meted again to you." This adds evidence towards my theory that the Duke is meant to be God.

Act One
At the start the Duke needs to leave Vienna in a hurry. Not clear why. The suggestion is that he has taken his eye off the ball and that Vienna has become a hotbed of sin and promiscuity. (I personally think that 'the Duke' is God and Shakespeare is writing a parable about what might happen if God, having allowed the world to fall into sin, disappeared and left us to it). So he appoints Angelo, a well known puritan (though the Duke knows he is a bit of a hypocrite because he has sneaked himself out of a marriage contract and |Angelo himself is uncertain whether he is ready for the challenge) to be his deputy. Or to take the fall. Because Angelo's task is to reform immoral Vienna. He is to brink back morals. And this is obviously going to win him no friends. The Duke is 'setting him up'.

Almost the first thing that Angelo does is to have Claudio arrested for getting his girlfriend pregnant. This is a crime even though they are getting married. Claudio is sentenced to death. Claudio asks his amoral friend Lucio to find his (Claudio's) sister Isabella and ask her to go to Angelo to beg for his life.

Now we discover why the Duke made his hasty exit. He recognises that for 14 years "we have let slip" the "strict statutes and most biting laws" of Vienna. It is interesting that he uses the royal plural instead of the singular personal pronoun he has been using so far; is this his attempt to deflect responsibility? The Duke recognises that the laws are therefore no longer respected
"And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose, 

The baby beats the nurse.
Friar Thomas protests that it was up to the Duke to "unloose this tied-up justice". The Duke more or less admits that he is setting up Angelo to take the blame for the fierce imposition of old laws so that he, the Duke, will not appear tyrannical. But the Duke is going to disguise himself and lurk around Vienna to see what happens.
Act Two
In a courtroom scene Angelo resists calls for mercy to be shown to Claudio. Then we have a comedy scene in which pimp Pompey is tried for lewdness but, arguing that all young people fornicate and if this morality law is applied it will depopulate Vienna ("Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?”) he gets off with a warning.

The next scene is the crux of the play. Isabella comes to plead for Claudio even though
"There is a vice that most I do abhor, 

And most desire should meet the blow of justice; 

For which I would not plead, but that I must". 
She begins to beg for Claudio's mercy. She accepts that Claudio has done wrong but insists that justice can be tempered with mercy. She argues that had the roles been reversed Claudio would have let Angelo off:
"If he had been as you, and you as he, 

You would have slipp'd like him, but he like you 

Would not have been so stern.
Angelo takes refuge in the law:
"It is the law, not I, condemn your brother. 

Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, 

It should be thus with him"
Isabella says that it is good to be strong but the strong should be kind to the weak:
"Oh, it is excellent 

To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous 

To use it like a giant."

We can't judge others by our own standards: "We cannot weigh our brother with ourself."

Angelo admits to himself that she is sensible but more than that, she is sensuous:
"She speaks, and 'tis such sense 

That my sense breeds with it.
She goes, saying, as she goes "Heaven keep your honour safe." This is of course a customary phrase in which the 'honour' is the person (Your Honour) and the 'safe' refers to their physical well-being. But it has the double meaning of Angelo's honour and Angelo realises this by replying: "Amen. For I am that way going to temptation" And then Isabella checks what time she should return and says goodbye again: "Save your honour." And again Angelo recognises the double meaning, saying after Isabella has gone "From thee: even from thy virtue."

And when she's finally gone his soliloquy shows that he wants to corrupt the innocent maid:
"What's this, what's this? Is this her fault or mine?

The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?


Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I

That, lying by the violet in the sun,

Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman's lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is't I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Even till now,
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how."
Isabella returns. Angelo is torn between the "Heaven in my mouth" and  "in my heart the strong and swelling evil." (Swelling as in erection?)

She comes in and her first words underline Angelo's dilemma. "I am come to know your pleasure," she says, and then "Heaven keep your honour."

He offers her Claudio's freedom if she will have sex with him.
"Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness 

As she [Julietta] that he [Claudio] hath stain'd?
She says that she would "rather give my body than my soul"; she doesn't quite realise what he is proposing; when she does she will realise that he is asking for her soul as well because what he proposes is a mortal sin. But he argues that "compell'd sins",sins that you are forced to do, don't really count. Then he argues that in the case of saving Claudio's life there would be "a charity in sin"; not only would it not count as a sin but it would even be a good thing. This is the 'end justifies the means' argument: is it right to do a bad thing to prevent something worse?

For a while she doesn't understand him. At last the penny drops. She says that he has "little honour" and threatens that is he doesn't immediately pardon Claudio she will denounce him:
I'll tell the world aloud 

What man thou art."
"Who will believe thee, Isabel?" he asks and cites his good, not to mention puritanical, reputation and his position.
Here is her choice (and it is like the choice the Phantom offers Christine in the final scene of Phantom of the Opera): Isabella must have sex with him to redeem (Shakespeare keeps using this word, with its connotation of the forgiveness of sin rather than simply the quashing of a criminal sentence) Claudio or else not only will Claudio die but Angelo will ensure he suffers "lingering" torture. 

Act Three

The Duke, disguised as a Friar,  watches as Isabella visits Claudio in prison. At the start Claudio is resigned to his fate:
"If I must die I will encounter darkness as a bride 
And hug it in mine arms.
This is ironic given the nature of the crime that he has committed.

Then Isabella tells him that Angelo, outwardly so saintly, has said he will free Claudio in return for Isabella's virginity. Claudio's response is:
First, shock: "It cannot be!"
Second, refusal: "Thou shalt not do it."

But now he might escape, he becomes noticeably less enthusiastic about the prospect of death. When Isabella says that she would sacrifice her life for his he says "Thanks, dear Isabel." Then when she tells him to be ready for death he just says a very dry: "Yes."

And then he starts trying to convince her that the sacrifice of her virginity would not really be a sin. He starts to plead with her: "Oh Isabel!" and then he begs "Death is a fearful thing." and when she replies "And shamed life a hateful." he goes off into a long speech in which he paints a vision of himself dead, rotting in the grave and suffering the torments of hell. There is a lot of chaos in this part: "fiery floods" and "viewless winds" and "restless violence" and "howling". 

This is a brilliant reversal for Claudio.

The Duke comes out of hiding and the poetry turns to prose. The Duke now proposes a trick. There is a lady called Mariana who was betrothed to Angelo but when her dowry failed to materialise she was dumped; Angelo falsely claimed she had been unfaithful. So the Duke always knew Angelo was a rotter, which makes the Duke's motivations even more mysterious. The Duke now suggests that Isabella shall agree to Angelo's proposals but that when Angelo comes to her bed, Mariana shall take Isabella's place (this is the famous 'bed-trick'). Isabella agrees and goes off to find Angelo.

Now we have more comedy in which Lucio suggests to the Friar that the Duke is pretending to be a beggar; this is uncomfortably close to the truth but Lucio doesn't spot the Duke in disguise and his loose tongue allows him to say things that will get him into trouble later on. First he tells the Duke that Angelo is inhuman, "not made by man and woman" and "his urine is congealed ice"; it is ruthless to hang Claudio "for the rebellion of a codpiece". Lucio suggests that the Duke would have been more merciful because he "knew the sport"; Lucio now makes more and more outrageous claims that the Duke paid women for sex, that he would get drunk, that he was superficial and ignorant and that he would "eat mutton on Fridays" (which is wrong for two reasons, first because Lucio is using 'mutton' as he has previously used 'beef', as a synonym for whores and second because the religious rule was that you should only eat fish on Fridays. The Duke (disguised as Friar) protests against these calumnies against the Duke but Lucio insists that he knows the Duke well. This bit is an ironic counterpoint to the case of Angelo: Angelo is a wicked man cloaked in virtue and the Duke (in his own eyes at least) is a good man being clothed in a dirty cloak.

Act Four
I don't like this scene. There are two missed dramatic opportunities, one papered over with an irrelevancy. Shakespeare marking time?

First the Duke talks to Isabella who tells him she has told Angelo she has accepted his terms and will sleep with him. Missed opportunity #1: what a chance to show Angelo 'persuading' a 'reluctant' Isabella.

Now Isabella goes off with Mariana (Angelo's wannabe fiancee) and off-stage persuades her to take part in this duplicity: she will pretend to be Isabella and let Angelo have sex with her. Sounds like a tricky sell but Marian is convinced (off stage) in the time it takes the on-stage Duke to deliver six lines of dialogue!!! Another opportunity of a difficult debate lost.

The Duke, as Friar, blesses the enterprise: "To bring you thus together 'tis no sin" even though Angelo and Mariana will be committing exactly the same crime as Claudio committed with Julietta.

Angelo has now decided that Claudio is to die despite Isabella's surrender. This is a major spanner in the works and it leads the Duke to propose the 'head trick' (having already arranged the 'bed trick', this Duke disguised as a Friar who eavesdrops and hides is obviously a master of deceit and trickery).

There is another prisoner, Barnardine, to execute. The Provost should respite Claudio for four days and send Angelo Barnardine's head in his place. The Provost protests that Angelo has seen both prisoners and will not be fooled by the substitution; the Duke claims that "death's a great disguiser" and suggests some cosmetic changes will do the trick. But the provost has sworn an oath to do his job. The Duke responds that the oath was sworn to the Duke and shows the Provost a signet ring and a letter, both from the Duke. The Duke is coming back to Vienna, although Angelo has received contrary letters.

This is a really weak piece of writing. The Provost seems to need little or no convincing to attempt this fraud on Angelo. Given Angelo's already fearsome reputation and the unlikelihood of the deception being successful, I cannot imagine why the Provost would agree to it. There's nothing in it for him. How could a mysterious Friar, who seems to have the run of the prison anyway, be able to arrange such a thing?

Barnardine is not ready to be executed. Fortunately, however, the Provost has the head of another prisoner, who dies of fever, who looks rather more like Claudio. The disguised Duke and the provost agree to send this head to Angelo. This is a bit silly. Why didn't Shakespeare just use this fortuitous head instead of bringing Barnardine in to the plot?

Isabella comes to see if her brother has been pardoned. For the purposes of the plot she mustn't find this out until the end, so the Duke as Friar decides that she should not be told; that will be good for her soul. We have already established that the Duke is a cruel, manipulative trickster; this makes him even worse.

So the Duke as Friar tells Isabella that Claudio's head is off and sent to Angelo. Understandably, Isabella is distraught. The Duke persuades her to be directed by him so that she can have her revenge on Angelo. Meekly, she agrees. Really? Really???

Angelo and Escalus puzzle over contradictory letters detailing the Duke's return (the Duke is now manipulating by epistle!). Angelo asks "why should we proclaim ... that if any crave redress of injustice they should exhibit their petitions in the street" and Escalus tells him that the Duke's letter says that it is to clear A & E of any allegations. But guilty Angelo is not convinced. Once Escalus has gone he soliloquises, wondering whether Isabella will denounce him. He doesn't think she'll dare but... He killed her brother. "He should have liv'd," he thinks, except he might have taken revenge for Angelo dishonouring his sister. "Would yet he had liv'd," he thinks again. Once you have started on the path of sin, he muses, self-pityingly, "Nothing goes right."

Act Five
This is the culmination, the catharsis, and there is just a single, long scene.

The Duke returns and is met by Escalus and Angelo. He tells Angelo
"Oh, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it 

To lock it in the wards of covert bosom 

When it deserves with characters of brass 

A forted residence 'gainst the tooth of time 

And razure of oblivion
Of course Angelo is supposed to think that the Duke thinks he is an honourable man but the audience know better. And you might think that Angelo himself might start to wonder whether the Duke is laying it on thick with a trowel on purpose. Does he really mean all that?

Then Isabella arrives, demanding "justice, justice, justice, justice"; using repetition for emphasis. The Duke tells her to address herself to Angelo but she replies: "You bid me seek redemption of the devil". Angelo chips in, suggesting she is mad because her brother was "Cut of by course of justice" and she echoes him: "By course of justice!" which is now the seventh use of the word justice in 35 lines. Angelo says that "she will speak most bitterly and strange" and again she echoes him: "Most strange, but yet most truly will I speak." Then she launches into a jewel of a speech:
"That Angelo's forsworn, is it not strange? 

That Angelo's a murderer, is't not strange? 

That Angelo is an adulterous thief, 

An hypocrite, a virgin-violator, 

Is it not strange, and strange?
Then the Duke echoes her "Nay, it is ten times strange." and she echoes him so that we have the words true, or truth, and strange and justice echoing around the auditorium.

Isabella now tries to tell her story but is interrupted by Lucio, to the irritation of the Duke. This provides a breathing space from the rhetoric. She very briefly recaps what the audience already knows (but we have to assume the Duke is pretending not to) and then she gets to her complaint: Angelo demanded her virginity as a price for her brother's pardon, she yielded, he took her and then had her brother executed anyway.

The Duke professes not to believe a word of it and uses an image that has already been used:
"If he had so offended, 

He would have weigh'd thy brother with himself 

And not have cut him off."
Do as you would be done by. Measure for measure.

The Duke uses the tactic I have known other weak leaders use: blame the whistle-blower:
"say by whose advice 

Thou cam'st here to complain". 
And she replies "And is this all?" and "I, thus wronged, hence unbelieved go." At which point this game-playing Duke suggests she should be put into prison for making false accusations.

She tells him that it was Friar Lodowick (the disguised Duke) who had told her these things at which point the irrepressible Lucio puts his oar in yet again and tells the Duke that this Friar has been slandering the Duke (when of course it was Lucio who slandered the Duke to the Friar).

Friar Peter now gets involved, stirring the pot by claiming that he believes Angelo to be innocent and the Friar Lodowick would never slander the Duke. And then Isabella leaves and Mariana enters and the Duke tells Angelo that he, Angelo, shall judge this case.

Mariana starts with riddles: she is neither maid nor wife nor widow (nor 'punk', prostitute, as Lucio suggests, as eager as ever to intervene). Mariana tells the Duke:
"I have known my husband, yet my husband 

Knows not that he ever knew me." 
But after yet another intervention from Lucio, the fool, Mariana is unveiled and accuses Angelo of both reneging on the betrothal and of sleeping with her, thinking he was sleeping with Isabella. Angelo claims that he broke off the betrothal partly because the bride-price was not met but also because Mariana's "reputation was disvalued": she had been accused of immorality. She denies this at which Angelo insists that there is a plot against him and demands that he be given the power to investigate it. This is breathtaking stuff. But the Duke agrees to it, sets up the tribunal, suggests they get Friar Lodowick to testify, and exits. Escalus asks Lucio to stay on to testify against the Friar, whom Lucio has already claimed is a dishonest rogue.

The Duke, disguised as Friar, enters. He points out that the women have little chance of redress if they have to appeal to a judge who is also the accused. Vienna, says the Duke, is flawed:
"I have seen corruption boil and bubble 

Till it o'errun the stew"; 
a play on the word for brothel. Lucio, again!, gets involved and accuses the Friar of the things that Lucio actually said to the Duke. When the Duke is about to be hauled to the prison, Lucio pulls his hood off and discovers ...

Angelo realises that the game is up, confesses and asks for the death penalty. First, the Duke makes him marry Mariana.

The evil bastard of a Duke still pretends to Isabella that Claudio has been executed. He tells her that she must forgive Angelo for his attempted violation of her, for Mariana's sake. But Angelo is condemned to die for executing Claudio (which, ironically, was the just sentence of the law, so Angelo is to be put to death for dealing justice but not for his treacherous bargaining with Isabella): eye for an eye, says the Duke, "Like doth quit like and measure still for measure."

Now Mariana kneels before the Duke to beg for Angelo's life. This failing, she asks Isabella to beg the Duke for her. Isabella is being asked to beg for the life of the man who (she thinks) killed her brother.

Will she? Won't she? She kneels, pointing out that her brother was, after all, justly condemned: "he did the thing for which he died" and Angelo, in fact, didn't violate her even though he wanted to:
"Thoughts are no subjects, 

Intents but merely thoughts."
Brusquely, in three words, the Duke denies the pleading of the two women.

Then the Provost unmasks a "muffled man" standing on the stage and we discover it is Claudio.

At which point the Duke pardons Claudio, asks Isabella for her hand in marriage, and pardons Angelo. All's well? Not so. The Duke still has one axe to grind.

Lucio has slandered the Duke. He is sentenced to be whipped and hanged; after all, he is the wicked one! But his sentence is redeemed if he will marry the prostitute he got with child. The utterly irrepressible Lucio still protests: "Marrying a punk, my Lord, is pressing to death, whipping and hanging!"

The Duke then asks Isabella again to marry him but the curtain comes down before she can answer.

But if he is god then by marrying him she will be doing what she intended right at the start of the play.

Charles Nicholls in The Lodger suggests Act 2 Scene 2 (137-8) "Go to your bosom,/Knock there, and ask thy heart what it doth know" echoes the motto of the essayist Michel de Montaigne: "What do I know?"; this predates the scepticism of Descartes; Montaigne's essays were designed to test ('assay') assumptions

November 2015; 114 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

No comments:

Post a Comment