Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Measure For Measure
William Shakespeare
  • Category:Play
  • Date Read:11 January 2018
  • Pages:190
  • Published:1623; 1969
  • 5 stars

Measure for Measure is currently being performed in Sydney and I will be attending a performance this weekend. Sport for Jove, the drama company producing the play, say on their website that Shakespeare may as well have written this play yesterday. What they mean, of course, is that the play is topical. In the last few months the entertainment industry has produced a slew of scandals involving powerful men taking advantage of the less powerful (mostly women – Kevin Spacey’s case was an exception) in the industry. The catalyst for this groundswell of public feeling against abuse and sexual predation was the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator, his actions spanning several decades, as he took advantage of attractive actresses dependent upon his favour for their careers. The scandal has led to a chorus of similar cases, often grouped under the #MeToo moniker. In Australia, this includes a prominent TV personality, Don Burke, who presented a highly successful gardening show for decades, and most recently, Craig McLachlan, a former soap star who has been fronting The Rocky Horror Picture Show on stage as Frank N Furter. Both have been accused of unwanted sexual advances and abuse.

The privilege and power that men like Weinstein have enjoyed over many decades has been protected against allegations by a culture of silence and fear. There has been an unwillingness to expose their behaviour due to the money they generate as well as the powerlessness of their victims: that their victims stand to achieve nothing; that they will not be believed. This is a reality Angelo knows only too well in Measure for Measure:

  • Who will 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.

This is patriarchal power at its bluntest and most boldly stated. It is the power to force a woman into sexual subservience and silence. It is little wonder the play seems so topical, even though it was written over four hundred years ago. Its currency seems to justify Jonson’s hyperbolic claim of Shakespeare: not of an age, but for all time.

Yet the play isn’t only concerned with the issue of sexual abuse, which is uppermost in the minds of modern audiences at the moment. It offers a complex, sometimes uncomfortable glimpse, into human nature and the moralities of law. Jonson’s acclamation aside, aspects of the play have the potential to be confronting rather than comfortingly sounding a bell in the modern echo chamber of confirmation bias. There is often a tendency to see Shakespeare’s work as unproblematically modern – to value those aspects influenced by Renaissance Humanism, for instance. Yet, by doing so, there is also a tendency to elide aspects of thought and action represented in the plays when discussing them, that are potentially alienating for a modern audience. A lot of modern entertainment dwells on binary moral systems. There are villains. There are heroes. Shakespeare tends to be more ambiguous.

A brief overview of the plot shows why the play has appeal right now. Isabella discovers that her brother is to be put to death for having sex outside marriage. His lover, Juliet, is pregnant. Angelo, who is presiding over the city while the Duke is absent, is initially unmoved by Isabella’s pleas for her brother’s life, until her increasingly impassioned entreaties and her beauty tempt Angelo to make an offer: he will release Claudio, Isabella’s brother, if she gives up her virginity. Isabella resists. Eventually, all is put to right when the Duke discards his monk’s disguise – a position which has allowed him to see all – and effect the denouement to the various aspects of the plot.

So, Angelo is a bad guy. The Duke represents the law working towards morality and balance. Isabella is a chaste and a loving sister. And her brother, Claudio, may have dipped his wick a little too early into Juliet, but the girl was willing and they were getting married, anyway. Everything is restored as it should be.

But there are aspects of this plot that don’t synchronise entirely with modern sensibility. The underlying issue around Angelo’s desire to force Isabella into sex lies not in morality itself, but the relationship of each protagonist to their own humanity. Angelo’s temptation comes after a long period of sexual denial. In fact, the Duke’s soliloquy at the end of the third scene suggests a belief that Angelo’s austere demeanour lacks humanity, and that he will be tempted by what power puts before him:

  • …Lord Angelo is precise,
  • Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses
  • That his blood flows, or that his appetite
  • Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see,
  • If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

In her first scene, Isabella reveals a similar austerity. When she speaks to Francisca, a nun representing the priory she wishes to join, Isabella reveals an extreme puritanical bent:

  • …I speak not as desiring more [privileges],
  • But rather wishing a more strict restraint
  • Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare

When Isabella pleads for her brother’s life, she must be urged on by Lucio to show the feeling appropriate to the petition if she is to move Angelo to relent:

  • Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown;
  • You are too cold. If you should need a pin,
  • You could not with more tame a tongue desire it.

Strangely, for a modern audience, the sexual abuse perpetrated by Angelo is an agent for these characters to find their humanity and change for the better. When Angelo muses upon the effect Isabella has had upon him, it is an ennobling change he contemplates, rather than a sinful or illegal thought:

  • Never could the strumpet
  • With all her double vigour, art and nature,
  • Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
  • Subdues me quite. Ever till now,
  • When men were fond, I smiled and wondered how.

By the end of the play Angelo marries Mariana, long neglected by him, albeit against his will. But this kind of thing is not unheard of in Shakespeare. By the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Demetrius remains under the love spell of the fairies and marries Helena. What matters is that the play achieves balance in its resolution. Isabella has also undergone a transformation in the end, but more of that later. The point is, Shakespeare’s plot does not necessarily dovetail with modern values as neatly as it would first appear.

While no-one would question Isabella’s refusal to give herself to Angelo, the situation is framed in terms of her austere and unfeeling character. Should we wonder, for instance, at her quick acceptance of her brother’s impending death when weighed against the loss of her own virginity? The argument is framed by religious dogma in the play – this is her immortal soul on the line, not just her body – but to my mind there is something morally disjointed in the stark imbalance of her reasoning:

  • Isabella
  • That, had he [Claudio] twenty heads to tender down
  • On twenty bloody blocks, he’d yield them up,
  • Before his sister should her body stoop
  • To such abhorred pollution.
  • Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die.
  • More than our brother is our chastity.

Her purity is hyperbolic and unsettling. Yet the strident tone of her declamation starkly contrasts with Isabella’s willingness to allow Mariana, Angelo’s former fiancé, now rejected due to the loss of her dowry, to sleep with Angelo in her stead. This tryst forms a neat parallel between Angelo and Claudio, it is true – Angelo has sex out of wedlock with a woman he is technically engaged to marry, much like Claudio with Juliet, thereby exposing Angelo’s hypocrisy over Claudio’s own ‘crime’ – but it also reveals a level of hypocrisy in Isabella who is clearly meant to retain an air of purity for the audience. Indeed, Shakespeare’s staging works to maintain her purity. For instance, Isabella performs two actions to achieve the Duke’s plan. First, she returns to Angelo and agrees to have sex, with the secret intention of using Mariana as her surrogate. Angelo is so convinced that he even tutors her on how to surreptitiously sneak in at night. Isabella then speaks to Mariana at the Duke’s behest to persuade her to have sex with Angelo, in order to save Claudio. Yet both of these moments happen offstage. We don’t get to see Isabella in a flirtatious scene with Angelo – there must have been some flirtation, surely, to convince Angelo of her change of mind. We don’t get to hear her persuasive words to Mariana, either, laden with hypocrisy, to convince her to do the deed with Angelo. Shakespeare protects Isabella’s chaste image; she is only given scenes to perform in front of the audience in which she appears most pure.

Isabella also castigates her brother for holding hope against death, even though she need not have revealed the hope Angelo offers, since she had already made up her mind not to sleep with him. “Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?” she asks her brother. Yet she quickly assents to the Duke’s plan to use Mariana in vice, and thereby seeks to make her brother a ‘man’ by the same means, anyhow.

Some of the Duke’s actions should also be problematic for a modern audience. He is the fantastical Duke of dark corners, as Lucio describes him, alluding to the Machiavellian efficiency with which he runs his state and manipulates those around him. Machiavelli’s book was known to Shakespeare – Machiavelli’s thinking had already had most of a century to influence thinkers in Europe. A selfless exercise of power by the Duke would not be so problematic, except that it is not selfless. First, there is the problem of the minor character of Barnadine, a prisoner who is executed as part of the Duke’s plan to save Claudio and unmask Angelo. Does Barnardine’s supposed indifference to execution excuse the Duke’s actions? – It hath moved him not at all. Barnardine has had a heavy night of drinking and argues for his life when told that he is to be executed early. He wants more time to prepare me. He means time to prepare for absolution so as to avoid eternal damnation. The Duke, himself, says Barnadine is unmet for death and to transport him in the mind he is / Were damnable. In effect, sending Barnadine to be executed at this moment would be akin to the fate Angelo expects of Isabella; not just something done to the body, but a question of the immortal soul. The problem seems moot when the provost (gaoler) reveals that another prisoner, Ragozine, has died that morning and would just as easily serve the Duke’s purpose. Yet the Duke leaves the provost to sort that out while he once again turns to the matter of executing Barnardine.

If ends justify means – that is, if the Duke’s actions are motivated for a greater good – one must also consider what those ends are. The Duke’s reason for withdrawing from the political scene is made clear to the audience at the beginning of the play. The Duke has been a lax leader. For fourteen years he has neglected the exercise of law and now sees that authority must be reasserted. But he feels he cannot effectively achieve that, himself: ’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall / For what I bid them do…. His solution? To withdraw and let Angelo sort out his mess:

  • I have on Angelo imposed the office,
  • Who may, in th’ambush of my name, strike home,
  • And yet nature never in the sight
  • To do it slander

Angelo’s harshness merely serves that part of the Duke’s plan to remedy his own failed authority. It is a strategy which finds its equivalent in Machiavelli. Machiavelli tells the story of Cesare Borgia (his poster boy) and the means by which he brought Romagna back under the rule of law by appointing Remirro de Orco, a cruel, no-nonsense man, and gave him complete control. De Orco reigned in the population’s excesses with Draconian measures. His means made him unpopular. With the citizens subdued and seeking a reprieve from de Orco’s rule, Borgia stepped back in, had him beheaded and was able to establish a more popular rule for himself. De Orco was Borgia’s fall guy, much as the Duke intends Angelo to be. Machiavelli advocates the use of force, but acknowledges it is best also to have the people’s love.

The disturbing thing about the Duke is that his actions encompass competing ideals within the play. The Duke’s withdrawal is meant to re-establish law as well as check morality. Yet his temporary instalment of Angelo shows these ideals are not necessarily the same. It is, after all, the Duke’s law regarding marriage that Angelo enforces – the Duke has been in power for fourteen years, long enough to change it - which condemns Claudio. Angelo merely enforces it after the Duke’s long period of neglect. Yet the Duke also acts contrary to his own law to effect a moral outcome, saving Claudio, thereby casting Angelo, and the law, as villain.

It seems that the ideal of morality is potentially at odds with the law. Angelo, himself, expresses this when he speaks of the separation of morality and law:

  • The jury, passing on the prisoner’s life,
  • May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
  • Guiltier than him they try; what’s open made to justice,
  • That justice seizes; what knows the laws
  • That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,
  • The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t
  • Because we see it: but what we do not see
  • We tread upon, and never think on it.

I don’t think this reading is too far-fetched. Shakespeare has touched upon this idea in other plays. Is there morality, for instance, in the legal penalty imposed on Shylock by Portia in The Merchant of Venice or, for that matter, the terms of the contract Shylock seeks to impose on Antonio? Portia’s judgment reveals the stark contrast between the workings of law and the moral impulse that seeks to be guided by it.

It is not until Angelo is affected by Isabella’s petition for her brother that he changes this opinion:

  • Thieves for their robbery have authority
  • When judges steal themselves.

It is uncomfortable to contemplate that Angelo’s temptation to have Isabella is both repugnant as well as the means by which the first spark of moral understanding is achieved.

Inserted between the law and morality is the New Testament ideal of moral judgment. For his part, the Duke upholds this ideal throughout the play; that one cannot judge another for a sin one is guilty of oneself;

  • He who the sword of heaven will bear
  • Should be as holy as severe
  • ...
  • Claudio, whom here you have warrant to execute,
  • is no greater forfeit to the law
  • than Angelo who hath sentenced him.

On the other hand, Angelo’s assertion that the guilty can sit in judgment of others is against John 8:7, in which John says Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

Like Portia dealing out a Draconian sentence against Shylock to make her point, the Duke resorts to the pitiless creed of the Old Testament when Angelo’s schemes lay exposed:

  • The very mercy of the law cries out
  • Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
  • ‘An angelo for Claudio, death for death’
  • Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure,
  • Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.

Yet it is Isabella who offers the New Testament’s refinement of Angelo’s unrelenting notion of justice – the Old Testament doctrine of an eye for an eye – with her forgives of Angelo, which balances out the dialectic tension of the play. It is with this response, I believe, that the play is at its most modern, and in which it, ironically, has the potential to conflict most strongly with feelings engendered by the current scandals that began in Hollywood. While the play may be topical for its portrayal of the abuse of male power, one might be hard-pressed to find anyone quite so willing to exonerate the likes of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk as readily as Isabella forgives Angelo, whom she still believes, at this point, to have had her brother executed.

By the end of the play its tensions are mostly resolved in the deus ex machina of the Duke’s plotting. Angelo is forced to marry Mariana and repent, Claudio is saved and will marry Juliet, and in the moment that is mind-spinningly weird for a modern audience, the Duke is suddenly proposing that he will marry Isabella, who was formerly preparing to enter a nunnery. Of course, we never hear Isabella’s reply, although there is nothing in the text to suggest she will refuse her benefactor. Also, the denouement suggests that Angelo’s abuse of patriarchal power is not irredeemable. Earlier, Angelo tells Isabella …every fault’s condemned ere it be done, suggesting that once a crime is committed, no forgiveness is possible, merely punishment. This flies in the face of Christian doctrine. By marrying Mariana, Angelo is re-inscribed within the patriarchal order and the value of forgiveness reasserted, so that his crime is a personal failing addressed by the system, rather than a systemic failure.

However, that avoids the issue of whether abuse of power is a systemic failure, which is a question a modern audience has more invested in.

And this is not the only problematic aspect of the ending. Lucio is to be married to a prostitute against his will, taken to prison and presumably tortured. His crime? Slandering a prince deserves it: so says the Duke. Lucio’s bragging, gossiping and overfamiliarity, by no means a crime, has led to the only real punishment meted out by the Duke after his return. There is something petty about it. Maybe even immoral.

Measure for Measure has often been classified as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ comedies. I think it continues to raise moral questions. If it reminds us of the #MeToo phenomenon that has dominated the news for the last few months, it is also important not to simplify the play as advocating certain moral positions which fit with modern sensibilities. I find all the major characters in the play to be morally problematic and hypocritical, even when they identify with strong moral positions, like Isabella. But Shakespeare is so often like that, embracing complexity over the simplistic. His plays tend to reflect humanity, rather than a specific ideological position we imagine their author may be advocating. That’s why they’re so interesting, and why they maintain relevancy, even if the complexities offer far more than what we hope to find.

The Sport for Jove Production – Adapting for a modern audience

Since the purpose of this site is to review books, making comments about the play I saw last night is a little bit unusual. But I thought it would be interesting to comment on how the play was adapted, especially in light of some of my comments in my review, along with Sport for Jove’s advertising for Measure for Measure and my experience of their productions, which have always been positive. I’ve attended many of their shows and they are consistently excellent. They are able to take old texts and make them relevant for modern audiences.

As expected, the production changed several elements of the original text for the audience. Claudio was played by a woman – Claudia – who has a relationship with another woman. The issue of homosexuality was not addressed, only implied, in the pairing, and instead, their crime became Fornication. A scene in which Claudia is branded with an F on her back, reminiscent of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, was inserted into the play.

There were also elements that seemed inspired by last year’s first season of The Handmaid’s Tale and Nazi Germany. As Angelo assumed power women were forced to wear arm bands denoting their marital status. It was telling that all imprisoned characters in the play were women, including the ill-fated Barnardine. The effect of this change was both comic and served the purpose of this modern adaptation. Barnardine was characterised as a shrew, much like Kate in Taming of the Shrew. When she was called forth for execution the guards nervously drew their weapons and comically shrunk back from her. It was funny to see how powerful she had become against these armed prison guards, but the characterisation was stereotypical of the difficult woman who refuses to play along. In that other play, Kate is tamed and forced to marry. More ominously, the shrew in this version was beheaded.

The characterisation of the Duke was interesting. At the beginning he was shown at a desk, stamping and signing documents. Angelo stood over him, turning the Duke literally into a rubber stamp. It was clear that Angelo already wielded power with the Duke as his proxy. The Duke then seems to have had a breakdown, overcome by the pressure of his work. He was clearly unhappy. So, his going into hiding was less a Machiavellian move, but one of desperation.

In keeping with this, his decision to persuade Barnardine to die without any need was omitted in the performance.

Angelo seemed more in command and sure of himself from the beginning, especially since his portrayal as a puppet master at the beginning of the play. His actions are more extreme within the play, too. His attempt to persuade Isabella to exchange her virginity for her sister’s life became physical. He forcibly bent Isabella over a table, and only for his own restraint, it would have become a full-blown rape scene.

In this adaptation, Juliet was in prison, pregnant. She dies in prison and it is her head supplied to Angelo instead of the prisoner, Ragozine, who dies in prison in the original play. Needless to say, she has no relationship with Claudia in this production, since she is pregnant and has clearly had a relationship with a man.

Throughout the play, sirens, music, announcements and uniforms were used to give the sense of a modern police state.

Lucio was played to great comic effect and the production managed to draw more laughs from the text than a reading of it might suggest was possible.

The Duke’s proposal of marriage at the end of the play drew a reaction from the audience. Having listened to a few people around me, it seemed there were people in the audience not familiar with this play, so the response may have well been genuine surprise. Isabella’s implied decision to accept the Duke’s proposal seemed just as jarring to a modern audience as I suspected it would be. However, I think part of this is, as I stated in my review, due to the intended character arc behind Angelo’s abuse of power in the original text: that both he and Isabella are alike in their lack of emotion and humanity and they need to change. They are both puritanical – almost certainly a nod to the Puritanism of Shakespeare’s own time – and their ordeal is less about sexual abuse, but rather their journey to acceptable sexual roles within patriarchal society.

The Duke’s closing speech was given to Isabella. It confers upon her more power. The Duke’s words, now hers …we’ll show what’s yet behind suggests that women will now have a say in the social reform that needs to now take place, but it also has the effect of implying that she has indeed decided to accept the Duke’s proposal with the line So, bring us to our palace…

That’s the kind of weird effect modernising Shakespeare can have. However, this was a good production (the only live production I have seen) and was a good evening, despite a cold night at the outdoor theatre.

Modern Representations

What rules your life? The law? Your conscience? Your instinct? Faith? Should we be ruled by justice or mercy? Should a government legislate your sex life, your morality? How do you responsibly answer the prompts of your deepest, darkest impulses and remain an upstanding moral citizen? Shakespeare may as well have written this play yesterday - an Elizabethan Orange Is The New Black meets A Handmaid's Tale - Measure For Measure pushes the genre of comedy to its darkest and most biting limits. A murky and morally ambiguous exploration of desire and power that will shock audiences with its contemporary voice, will make you laugh and make you think twice.

Sport for Jove - Promotional copy from their website.

The Handmaid's Tale - Television Series
Bruce Miller's TV Series, The Handmaid's Tale, based upon Margaret Atwood's novel and referenced in the promotional material of Sport for Jove, explores the dangers inherent in conservative ultra-right attitudes to women. Offred, played by Elizabeth Moss, has become an iconic symbol of this abuse.
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