Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has often been thrown into the category of his “problem plays.” Well, I am here to tell you that the play is definitely not a problem and that you should take time to check out performances of it when you can, especially this summer at the Blackfriars Playhouse. In my opinion, it is misunderstood and easily labeled as a “problem play” simply because there are several layers to it. Are there comic elements? Yes! Are there tragic elements? Yes! Is there sometimes a mixture of both within the same scene? Yes! See, what I love about Measure for Measure is that the play is a very human play. Our daily lives are layered with different emotions at different times and we never know when a shift will happen. What can start out as a rough day can turn to a positive one at a moment’s notice and vice versa.
Dealing with such shifts in emotion is part of being human and what makes this play special is that the characters have to deal with that. For instance, in Act 1, scene 2 of the play, Lucio and several gentlemen are sharing some comic banter back and forth and it makes for a funny scene. However, a bit later, Mistress Overdone comes in with the news that their friend Claudio has been arrested. Now, pay attention to the language that she uses when describing this incident:
“I saw him arrested, saw him carried away; and, which is more, within these
three days his head to be chopped off.” (1.2. 64-66)
What a way to shift the mood, huh? In the same scene we go from comedy to tragedy within several moments; we go from characters being funny and witty to someone rushing in to describe the way their friend was arrested in what we can infer to be an aggressive manner because she says that he was “arrested” and then “carried away.” Not only that, but he will be executed in a mere three days!
The way Measure for Measure shifts between emotions and genres is fascinating and is why I think you should always take the opportunity to see it. Rather than being on a straight line with some curves here and there like you get with many other Shakespeare plays, you get to go on a roller coaster and experience all the highs and lows and twists and turns within a single scene! In my opinion, as an audience member, that makes for an entertaining and engaging night at the theatre because you can’t help but be drawn in by these characters and their complexities. Going on that roller coaster with the characters is an amazing experience that you don’t always get in other plays. I have performed and studied this play in depth and every time I revisit it, I get so connected with the story and am able to feel the striking amount of humanity that Shakespeare’s characters possess. The shifts in emotions just make it feel so real, so relatable, and so human. I encourage you to not buy into the notion that Measure for Measure is a “problem” play because if you do that, you are missing out on a captivating piece of theatre. Check out this summer’s production with the American Shakespeare Center and go on that roller coaster ride! It will be a theatre experience that you will not forget.
ASC has officially kicked off an epic Summer of Shakespeare that is now playing through August 13 at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Get tickets for Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado About Nothing today!