Measure for Measure

measure for measureOkay, if there was ever going to be a Shakespeare play that was RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES, this one is it, guys. I was reading along, with no sense of what was going to happen, and then I found myself sputtering in total, visceral recognition and outrage. This play is stupendous. Everyone should be putting it on right now, because apparently the same thing has been happening for centuries — as opposed to it being a “cultural shift” — and Shakespeare knew all about #metoo.

Okay, so for those of you who, like me, knew nothing about Measure for Measure, the gist of the plot is this: the Duke of Vienna, who has been something of a lax ruler, decides to go away for a while and leave his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo is an extremely strict person, known for his high moral standards, and he decides to clean house while the Duke is away. The first thing he does is to arrest Claudio and sentence him to death for getting his girlfriend Julietta pregnant, even though the two of them are engaged and just waiting for the dowry to get settled in order to get married. Death? says everyone. Are you serious? Serious as a heart attack, says Angelo.

Well, they go to Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is about to profess her vocation as a nun, and ask her if she would come to Angelo and plead for Claudio’s life — he might listen to someone so pure and good. And here’s where things get interesting. Isabella comes to Angelo and begs him to let Claudio live. Her arguments about mercy and hypocrisy are convincing and to the point, but that’s not what changes Angelo’s mind. He finds that Isabella’s purity and goodness stir something inside him — and it’s not mercy. It’s lust. He proposes to her that if she’ll sleep with him, he’ll pardon her brother. Isabella instantly refuses in the clearest possible terms, even at the cost of Claudio’s life:


Angelo: Then must your brother die.

Isabella: And t’were the cheaper way:

Better it were a brother died at once,

Than that a sister by redeeming him

Should die for ever.

More: when Angelo presses her and tries to convince her, she says she will tell the world what he’s done. Angelo’s response is chilling — the iambic pentameter of what every Harvey Weinstein the world over must say.

Isabella: Ha! Little honour to be much believed,

And most pernicious purpose. Seeming, seeming.

I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for’t.

Sign me a present pardon for my brother,

Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud

What man thou art.

Angelo:                     Who’ll believe thee, Isabel?

My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,

My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state,

Will so your accusation overweigh

That you shall stifle in your own report

And smell of calumny. I have begun,

And now I give my sensual race the rein.

“Who’ll believe thee, Isabel?” I shuddered when I read that line — because of course he’s right. The reason this play turns out with Claudio’s life and Isabel’s honor intact is not that Isabel is brave or that we believe women (in 1604.) It’s because the Duke didn’t really go away, he stayed in Vienna in disguise as a friar and lurked around and heard everything Angelo did, and we can definitely believe a Duke. So this makes a comedy possible after all. Sort of.

The ending of this play is kind of a mess. It’s as if Shakespeare presents himself with a moral dilemma he doesn’t know how to solve, and then solves it with a handful of (to me) very unsatisfying patches on a problem that isn’t going away anytime in the next few hundred years. Angelo thinks he’s sleeping with Isabel, but actually he’s sleeping with Mariana, a woman he dumped years ago and left in dire poverty because her dowry didn’t come through (more evidence that Angelo is a horrible person), so Angelo and Mariana get married. Poor Mariana! Even though this saves her from poverty! And Angelo obviously doesn’t want to marry her. The Duke proposes to Isabella, without making a single reference to her vocation as a nun. Isabella, oddly, doesn’t say yes or no. It’s sort of… assumed they get married? Claudio is saved by a trick they play with someone who was going to be executed anyway. So… happy ending? I guess?

But hanging over the whole play is that horribly chilling scene where Isabel, fierce Isabel, who is there to plead mercy and forgiveness and humility, there to remind Angelo that God forgives and he should too, is told that if she doesn’t have sex with Angelo, her brother will die suddenly and brutally, and she will never be heard. That her words will be outweighed and stifled by a man’s. That no one will believe her, that she’ll be the one to have a bad reputation. And she knows it’s true.

This was a shocking play to read in the wake of the many accusations of sexual assault and harassment we’ve been reading in the news. Of course I knew that this is not a recent phenomenon. But to read the same words we’ve been seeing over and over again in a play from 400 years ago was heart-poundingly relevant. Read it for yourself and see.

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7 Responses to Measure for Measure

  1. Forget the festive comedies: these late plays of Shakespeare (the “problem” plays)—“The Winter’s Tale,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Measure for Measure,” and “The Tempest”—are all among Shakespeare’s best plays, and also among the most relevant for our times.

    If you haven’t read it already, go right into “All’s Well That Ends Well,” a play that, depending on your point of view, does not necessarily end well. Like “Measure for Measure,” it features a strong female lead faced with a moral dilemma, who at the end of the play may or may not be better off as a result of the choices she makes, but the important fact is that she maintains control of the use of her body.

    “Measure for Measure” is the stronger play for the reasons you suggest—the speeches between Isabel and Angelo read well and play even better on stage when in the hands of actors and a director who understand the incredible tensions in play. Claudio’s apparent heartlessness at the seeming lack of value he places on his sister’s virtue still has the ability to shock audiences 400 years later (as it did me when I first saw it performed about ten years ago at the fabulous Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

    I agree—now more than ever this play crackles with the electricity of the moment, and the question of the power that men have over women’s bodies and the heartless way that some men devalue the humanity of women for the sake of maintaining male privilege.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for this, Christopher! I know so little about Shakespeare — I grew up near Washington, DC and had the opportunity to see a number of plays at the Folger, but I’m an English major manquée and never studied them. You have me very intrigued about All’s Well.

  2. Teresa says:

    I saw a production of this a couple of years ago set in 1930s Vienna. It was absolutely electrifying (and my first exposure to the play).

    I agree with Christopher that some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known late plays are among the most interesting. I found “All’s Well That Ends Well” extremely disturbing, but hard to stop thinking about. I suspect the production could make a big difference there. The version I saw didn’t seem to know what a disturbing story it was. The Measure for Measure production seemed to understand that the supposedly happy ending isn’t altogether happy.

    • Jenny says:

      I remember you telling me about that performance set in the 1930s! I can picture that — how chilling.

      I’m glad you agree that the ending of Measure for Measure isn’t really happy. I can’t see either of the women being happy — or even really being taken seriously. It’s satisfactory in that neither of them winds up grindingly poor, which is an improvement, but not really the “happy ending” we are led to expect, perhaps. Patriarchy, man.

  3. Elle says:

    The problem plays are amongst the most interesting, but also amongst the hardest to stage convincingly or powerfully enough, although I think that when directors succeed with them, they have an impact at least equal to those of the great tragedies. All’s Well and Measure For Measure in particular are fascinatingly weird little plays; they *are* disturbing, and it’s hard to know whether their inconsistencies are part of their genius or not. Like most of the other problem plays, they also lack much in the way of compelling poetry (exceptions made, obviously, for “the quality of mercy is not strained” and “if you prick us, do we not bleed” from The Merchant of Venice.)

    • Jenny says:

      I tend to agree with you about the poetry in this one, although flowery stuff would almost have been a distraction. (I only feel that way because there wasn’t any. Of course if there had been, it would have been even more compelling and chilling.) Nonetheless, it stands out as an amazing play. I think one of our local universities is putting it on in the spring, and I’m definitely going.

  4. Gubbinal says:

    Thank you so much for a very astute review.

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