Wednesday, July 05, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 5: Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure, first broadcast February 18th, 1979
  • Possibly written: 1603, possibly his 26th play
  • What’s it about? Duke Vincentio of Vienna decides to go incognito among his people and leaves Angelo in charge, who starts executing people for begetting out-of-wedlock children. When nun Isabella tries to intercede for her brother, Angelo demands she sleep with him. The Duke plays an elaborate trick on Angelo to make sure that justice prevails.
  • Most famous dialogue: Well, heaven forgive him, and forgive us all, some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
  • Sources: One source is “The Story of Epitia”, a story from Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, first published in 1565. The original story is an unmitigated tragedy in that Isabella’s counterpart is forced to sleep with Angelo’s counterpart, and her brother is still killed. (Shades of Dylan’s “Seven Curses” or Led Zepplin’s “Gallow’s Pole”) The other source is George Whetstone’s 1578 drama Promos and Cassandra, which itself is sourced from Cinthio. Whetstone adapted Cinthio’s story by adding the comic elements and the bed and head tricks.
  • Interesting fact about the play: There is much debate as to whether it was substantially revised after Shakespeare’s death by Thomas Middleton, including changing the setting from Italy to Vienna (which is an odd place for Shakespeare to set a play)
  • Best insults: Two this time
    • A man whose blood is very snow-broth, one who never feels the wanton stings and motions of the sense, but doth rebate and blunt his natural edge with profits of the mind.
    • This outward-sainted deputy whose settled visage and deliberate word nips youth i’ the head and follies does emmew as falcon doth the fowl is yet a devil. His filth within being cast, he would appear a pond as deep as hell.
  • Best word: Circummured
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I have never seen or read this play before (as will be true with 16 of the 37 plays I cover in this series). I considered reading a plot synopsis first, since it was not uncommon for Shakespeare’s theatergoers to already know his reused plots, but decided that no, I would actually learn the story in real time. I was able to follow along just fine and enjoyed not knowing how it was going to end until I got there.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Nobody’s a household name in America, but I knew some of them. Kate Nelligan (Isabella) was great in The Eye of the Needle and Tim Pigott-Smith (Angelo) was great in Bloody Sunday.
How’s the cast?
  • Nobody told Nelligan or Pigott-Smith that this was supposedly a comedy, and the play is all the better for it. They wring great drama from their deadly-serious storyline, though it creates quite a bit of friction with the more comedic storylines surrounding them. Only Kenneth Colley (Admiral Piett in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) as the duke has to go back and forth between the dramatic and comedic stories and he handles that ably.
How’s the direction by Desmond Davis?
  • Once again, it’s all indoors and stagey, but he manages to get some good walk-and-talks by building a 360 degree set surrounded by a cyclorama. The dungeon scenes are properly grimy (including a gruesome severed head) and the bawdy house scenes are properly bawdy. Similar to As You Like It, Davis makes no attempt to disguise Colley for either of his two roles, despite the fact that the character is interacting with the same people who fail to recognize it’s the same person. Perhaps a pair of silly glasses would have helped?
Rulebook Casefile: It’s Okay to Have a Happy Ending If You Earn It

Wikipedia says, “The tension in the play is eventually resolved through Duke Vincentio's intervention, which is considered an early use of the deus ex machina in English literature.” This is nonsense. First of all, it’s hardly early, as Aristotle was already complaining about how common they were in 335 BCE, but, more importantly, it completely debases the term to call this a deus ex machina.

As You Like It, by contrast, clearly ends in a deus ex machina. We find out that the bad guy, entirely off stage, has repented of his evil and restored everyone to their lost stations. Good fortune lands in the heroes’ laps, entirely unearned, just to tack on a happy ending that Shakespeare couldn’t bother to work into the plot.

Measure for Measure could not be more different. Vincentio already suspects that Angelo is evil when the play begins and plans his entire masquerade as an elaborate trap to catch him. He works hard to counter every move of Angelo’s and brings all the players together at the end to spring his trap with cunning and precision. Nothing lands in anybody’s lap.

Another issue with As You Like It was that it twisted its characters out of shape to tack on a ludicrous number of simultaneous marriages at the end. This one also ends in four sort-of marriages, but they’re all set up better. One man is allowed to marry the mother of his child, one is forced to marry the mother of his, one is forced to marry a woman he once said he’d marry and has been tricked into bedding. That just leaves one problematic pairing: Vincentio and Isabella.

Though she’s a would-be nun who has spent the entire play trying to maintain her virtue (presumably forever), the play ends with the Duke proposing marriage and her not verbally answering. A couple of pages later, the play ends. As with another play later identified as a “problem play”, All’s Well That Ends Well, directors are forced to decide what to do with a rather unhappy event that Shakespeare seems to define as a happy ending. Does Isabella silently consent (whether because of love, obedience to power, or self-interest) or silently decline? It all depends on how you stage it.

Shakespeare knew that the rules of comedy dictated that everybody end up together, but he couldn’t convince his entirely non-comedic character to verbally consent. He was too good of a writer to force words into his characters’ mouths, so he let her stay silent and dumped the problem in the lap of the directors and actresses (though the actresses were actors back in his day). This director has her take his hand with a half-smile, but it’s not at all clear what’s going to happen next, and that’s probably the best way. The result is neither comedically satisfying (to achieve that, he would have had to convince us they were in love) nor dramatically satisfying (as it would have been if she’d stayed true to her nature and taken up her vows). It is, instead, a problem. The problem plays are in vogue recently because we live in a problematic age, and the play’s ambiguous ending is considered an asset now. Modern audiences don’t like being told how to feel.

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