So, put another play in the books: Measure for Measure is done. And though it means that I’m now three-quarters of my journey through the Canon, I’m sorry to see it go. I could have have probably gone another week or more on this play, just with topics off the top of my head (rhyme and meter in a weird speech by the ever-lovin’ fruke, a re-examination of the Bed Trick–comparing and contrasting it to the one in All’s Well That Ends Well–and the possible homosexuality of the duke, to name just three). And I’ve certainly enjoyed my two months in Vienna.
Well, let’s just say that for the first time since the beginning of the year, I’ve had a play crack the top four. Remember, this is on the Walthall Scale of Subjective Enjoyment (you mileage will vary). For me, I like Measure for Measure just a hair more than Twelfth Night, putting it at the top of the so-called problem plays, and number four overall. Titus, Midsummer and Romeo still stand above it for me personally (yes, I know…nobody is supposed to enjoy Titus Andronicus, but I just love its horrorshow insanity).
What is it about Measure for Measure that I love so much?
Well, there’s the timely/timeless aspect. Moments of visceral, social horror. Laugh-out loud (even on the page) gags.
A truly wicked but conflicted villain in Angelo. A sleazy but hilarious (especially in that last scene) Lucio. A weak but understandable Claudio. A strong but somewhat alienating Isabella. And a duke that is either weak, a saint, a conniving manipulator, or maybe even an “old fantastical duke of dark corners” (IV.iii.156-7)… and the deciding factor for the duke’s persona? The enigma that is Mariana.
From a purely thematic perspective, you’ve got the concept of mercy (a word found more in this play than any other in the Canon), which makes it the nexus between the unmerciful “comedy” of The Merchant of Venice, the brutal tragedies to come, and the fully forgiving romances and tragicomedies that will end Shakespeare’s career. Also, you have the heavy use of doubling terms, like “deputy” and “substitute.” When you look at the number of characters who have parallels (Duke/Angelo [duke/deputy]; Angelo/Isabella [righteousness]; Isabella/Mariana [the Bed Trick]; Claudio/Frederick [brothers]; Duke/Pompey [a change of jobs]; Angelo/Claudio [perpetrator of the fornication law, and thus linked in Isabella’s mind (so much so that she sees giving into the deputy as “a kind of incest” [III.i.138])]), then this doubling motif can either be seen as a key to the theme on the page, or (as I mentioned in yesterday’s podcast regarding directorial concepts and casts) as a cue how to how to present the play onstage.
And on the concept of performance, the play seems teeming with possibilities. Play it deadly serious, a truly dark comedy. Play it whacked out and wacky, dirty, nasty, filled with nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Play it in the wild west. In Vegas. In a mid-East occupied nation. Today. Hundreds of years ago in Vienna.
Incredible flexibility as a work, both as work on the page and the stage.
At least, so I think… I’ve yet to see a great production… hell, have yet to see any production other than those video versions I reviewed a couple of podcasts ago.
Here’s hoping for great one in my future…
Until then, let’s meet the Moor of Venice…tomorrow.