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
Black, White, and Shades of Gray
The Revels Accounts show that Mesur for Mesur by “Shaxberd” was acted in the banqueting hall of Whitehall on St. Stephon’s Night (26 December) in 1604. Most critics suppose that the play was written earlier that year and performed at the Globe in the summer of 1604, but no early performance records survive other than those for the royal Christmas festivities.
As long as scholars could not decide whether this play was a comedy or not, it never got played. In fact, this ambiguity makes it one of the most revealing of Shakespeare’s works.
– Peter Brook
Measure for Measure might be Shakespeare’s most enduringly modern play. It’s not a “problem play” because Shakespeare had problems writing it or because audiences have a problem enjoying it. It’s a problem play because it defies genre, because it cannot be neatly labeled, and because the ending is as disturbing as it is “happy.” It’s a play that asks more questions than it answers. Yet these same “problematic” attributes have kept the play fresh for centuries. Unfortunately, the fallible hubris of humanity hasn’t changed much in four hundred years, so we can go down the list of politicians (on both sides of the aisle) and religious figures of this and many eras caught committing the acts they ever-so-publicly denounce. The play stays fresh because we continue to struggle with the same issues.
Characters within Measure provide opposing answers to the many questions raised in and by the play. Shakespeare uses ambiguity and antithesis to give conflicting answers to complicated questions. In doing so, he mirrors the complexity of humanity and shows that no easy answers exist, especially regarding life’s most profound and confounding subjects: religion, authority, purity, justice.
The audience identifies with, believes in, and agrees with certain characters – and disagrees with others. We judge the”rightness” and the “wrongness” of each character’s actions and arguments based on our own moral standards, our own social circumstances, and our own political and religious beliefs. Thus, two people sitting next to each other in the audience may form multiple interpretations of Measure depending on when she or she sees it and depending on the events in that person’s own life.
Despite the “happy” endings – in which the “villain” is revealed, lives are saved, order is restored, and couples are married – the play’s ominous undertones and ambiguity leave an unsavory aftertaste. Can there really be a “happy” ending in a play where:
- a novice nun values her own chastity more than her brother’s life?
- a novice nun says she will be eternally damned if she has premarital sex, yet willingly participates in blackmail and helps stage a “fake” sexual encounter for someone else?
- the “hero” may not be a hero at all?
As to the “hero,” the character in Measure who embodies and personifies ambiguity and antithesis more than any other is Duke Vincentio. The quality of the Duke’s “goodness” is as much an issue in the play as Angelo’s “badness.” Can the Duke really be “good” when he:
- is responsible for Vienna’s corruption because he hasn’t been enforcing the law?
- leaves the problems he created in the hands of someone else to fix?
- impersonates a holy friar so he can spy on his appointed deputy?
- hears confession and abuses other sacred rites while impersonating a friar?
- lies to Isabella by telling her that her brother is dead?
- uses marriage as a form of punishment?
- takes one of God’s brides as his own?
In spite of these dubious actions, however, it is the Duke who ultimately sets things right in Vienna. He puts an end to Angelo’s opportunistic dealings, saves Claudio’s life, reunites brother and sister, and helps Isabella find mercy and forgiveness. So, is he “good”?
Shakespeare lets the audience make up its own mind. So, too, does this production, which encourages you to wrestle with the issues and come to your own conclusions. The play should be shocking. The play should be funny, and not just because of hypocrisy. I hope we can make you think, make you laugh, make you question. If we do our jobs well, you will leave the theatre different than when you entered. That’s how good Measure for Measure is. That’s how good Shakespeare is.
Co-founder and Artistic Director