Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
- The Duke of Vienna, claiming urgent business abroad, leaves control of the city to his deputy Angelo.
- Angelo swiftly restores old laws against sexual depravity, closes the city’s brothel,s and arrests fornicators.
- Claudio is immediately arrested and sentenced to death for apparent premarital acts with his pregnant fiancée, Juliet.
- Claudio entreats his friend, Lucio, to find Isabella, Claudio’s sister, and ask her to plea to Angelo for Claudio’s life.
- Though Isabella is about to become a nun, she agrees to petition Angelo.
- The Duke, meanwhile, has disguised himself as a friar in order to observe Angelo’s management of the city.
- Angelo, at first, refuses Isabella’s suit, but then agrees to stay Claudio’s execution – only if Isabella will consent to certain demands.
- Isabella returns to Claudio to tell him of Angelo’s conditions; Claudio asks Isabella to save his life by giving in to Angelo’s requests.
- The Duke – still disguised as a friar – decides to intervene.
- Plots to rescue Isabella’s integrity, save Claudio’s head, and expose Angelo’s treachery ensue.
Notes from the Director
embracing the contradictions
The only known reference to a performance by Measure for Measure during Shakespeare’s lifetime is listed in the Account Book of the Office of the Revels for the year 1604. A play called Mesur for Mesur by “Shaxberd” was performed by his Majesty’s Players (Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men) for King James on December 26, St. Stephen’s Night, in the banqueting hall of Whitehall Palace. Though the term “measure for measure” resonates with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the play can hardly be considered joyous Christmas holiday fare.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
An Angelo for Claudio; death for death.
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.
Measure for Measure, Act 5
This sounds more like a revenge play.
First published in the 1623 Folio collection of Shakepeare’s plays, Measure was probably written in 1604. Among Shakespeare’s plays it seems to be part of a transition away from his great romantic comedies (Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night). Harold Bloom, in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, states that “the astonishing Measure for Measure can be regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell to comedy.” Well, perhaps this statement is true or perhaps it only marks a shift to a different kind of comedy. In any case, Measure is sometimes referred to as a “problem play” because it does not seem to fit easily into the category of comedy or tragedy and because its ending is unsettling.
The issues of Measure are timeless: sex and sin, justice and mercy, religion and society, law and order, good and bad. Shakespeare does not give us answers to these difficult issues but rather seems to challenge us with questions, such as when Escalus asks the audience, “Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?” Lucio’s comment to Claudio in Act One gives a very understandable response, “I had as lief have the foppery of freedom as the morality of imprisonment.”
Because the play is so full of difficult questions it is open to a great variety of interpretations as scholars, directors, and actors search for ways to answer the questions and find meaning in the story. For every neat interpretation of the play, opposite one can be made. A situational ethics tone in Measure can be heard in Angelo’s question to Isabella: “Might there not be a charity in sin to save a brother’s life?”
More than any other character in the play, the Duke seems to personify the questions and contradictions of the story. The Duke’s inconsistencies concerning right and wrong, his gentleness and harshness, his game playing, his past, his scheming, and his final resolutions all lead to more questions. Is the Duke’s excellent adventure an allegory representing God (or King James) or is it more in line with Machiavelli’s Prince and Lucio’s “duke of dark corners”? Is the Duke good or bad?
As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, the comedy in Measure parodies the serious issues in the story. The comic constable Elbow may be the most noble character in the play. The imposition of Lucio’s marriage to a whore seems to parody the Duke’s own attempt to impose marriage on Isabelle. The trick of switching the cut-off head of one prisoner for another mirrors the switching of virgins (maidenheads) in the “bed trick.”
The comedy in Measure is dark. The drama of the story is sometimes a bit absurd. Does the term “measure for measure” imply judgement or forgiveness? In staging the play we have tried to embrace the questions, contradictions, and absurdities that are inherent in it, including Shakespeare’s use of a romantic comedy resolution to this near tragedy.
Side Note: In the summer of 1976 I first saw Measure for Measure at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival production in Central Park (directed by John Pasquin with Meryl Streep as Isabella, John Cazale as Angelo, and Sam Waterson as the Duke). I remember being incredibly moved by Isabella as well as repulsed by Angelo, but I cannot remember how this production staged the ending. Modern theatre productions of Measure tend to use one of three main choices: Isabella goes with the Duke, Isabella rejects the Duke, or the ambiguous ending which lets the audience decide. Driven by curiosity as to whether the 1976 production influenced our ending in 2004, I have tried to no avail to find out how the 1976 production ended. If you know the answer to this question, please advise.