Sunday, May 6, 2012

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Source of book: I own the complete works of Shakespeare

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.
            Act V, Scene I

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again
Matthew 7:1-2

Shakespeare had the above quote from the Sermon on the Mount in mind when he named this play. The plot was largely taken from a prior collection of stories. (Few of Shakespeare’s plots were truly original – he certainly improved on the originals in richness of language and psychological detail.)

This play is technically a comedy in that it ends “happily”, with the characters getting married rather than dying tragically. However, it is one of several that are plays with little humor, serious theme and incidents, and endings that are one heartbeat from being true tragedies. Certainly in this category are A Winter’s Tale and All’s Well that Ends Well. Perhaps The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest would also qualify. Measure for Measure is linked to the former of these borderline cases in its theme of justice and mercy.

The elements of the plot are as follows. The Duke decides to leave his domains in the hand of a subordinate, Angelo, who is a strict and rather heartless fellow. As Lucio notes, he seems to have no temptation to sin, and therefore no sympathy for those who have fallen.

Governs Lord Angelo; a man whose blood
            Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
            The wanton stings and motions of the sense,
            But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
            With profits of the mind, study and fast.

The Duke spreads rumors that he will be gone for a long time, but comes back disguised as a friar, so he can spy on the affairs of his kingdom.

Angelo quickly takes it on himself to exterminate all sexual immorality from the kingdom – and exterminate is the right word. Claudio is all but married to Juliet. The only impediment is the dowry and the formalities. (Under one interpretation of Elizabethan law, they would have been married, but not under another.) Their self-control has lapsed however, as Claudio explains:

CLAUDIO:    Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed:
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order: this we came not to,
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

In other words, Juliet is now pregnant. I wish I had thought to use this line in announcing one of our pregnancies – at least to my mother-in-law, who would have appreciated the reference.

The heartless Angelo insists on the rigid application of the law. Claudio is to be executed, despite his desire to marry Juliet. (It is never explained why only Claudio gets the death penalty, but not Juliet.)

ANGELO:      We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
                        Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
                        And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
                        Their perch and not their terror.

Claudio sends word via his friend, the rakish Lucio, to his sister, Isabella, who is a novice in a convent. She agrees to beg for Claudio’s life, but she is a morally rigid as Angelo, and completely fails to make a convincing case. However, she does manage to make Angelo lust for her. She is summoned back, and he proposes an exchange: Claudio’s life for Isabella’s virginity. She refuses, horrified at the very prospect. She informs her brother of the proposal, and is scandalized when his fear of death makes him waiver. She describes her horror of any moral failing, even in a possibly good cause, in the images used by Dante in his account of the punishment for the lustful.

  Illustration from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb (George Routledge, 1894).

 The Duke, disguised as the friar, overhears them, and is not pleased with Angelo’s hypocrisy.

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practice on the times,
To draw with idle spiders' strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!

The Duke proposes as scheme. Isabella will agree, but her place will be taken by Mariana, who was once betrothed to Angelo. He jilted her when her dowry was lost at sea, but she still pines for him.

Craft against vice I must apply:
With Angelo to-night shall lie
His old betrothed but despised;
So disguise shall, by the disguised,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.

I will leave the conclusion to the reader rather than spoil the entirety of the plot.

There are some humorous scenes in the play. A subplot involves Mistress Overdone, the madam of a brothel, and Pompey, her servant. They, along with Lucio, who is a regular customer, get many of the witty lines. Her establishment, despite its age, is threatened by the renewed enforcement of the law.

MISTRESS OVERDONE:    Thus, what with the war, what wit the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk.

Later, Pompey, jailed for his activities, is called upon to assist the executioner (whose name, Abhorson, is a bad pun in itself), in executing Claudio.

PROVOST: Come hither, sirrah. Can you cut off a man’s head?
POMPEY: If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can; but if he be a married man, he’s his wife’s head, and I can never cut off a woman’s head.

Likewise, there are some witty references to the English view of French morality. This is anachronistic, since the play is nominally set in Vienna, not England, but Shakespeare’s audience was sure to guffaw.

Measure for Measure does not have as many familiar quoted lines as the better known plays. The language never reaches the pinnacle that it does in the greatest of the bard’s works. Still, as lesser height for Shakespeare is still lofty, and this play is far from disappointing. In many ways, its thought is more developed than in the early comedies, and it relies far less on easy physical humor. Although the “bed trick” and the happy ending may seem a bit contrived to modern audiences, I found that the near-catastrophe retained its power, and was not blunted. Had everyone died at the end, it would not have changed anything. The events devastate those involved, and all are conscious of having escaped by good luck. Or rather, they have escaped due to the application of mercy.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare advocates for mercy, but he fails to take the concept to a logical conclusion. Shylock fails to show mercy, so none is shown to him. Portia is willing that mercy be shown to those she approves of, but denies it to Shylock, who escapes with his life, but nothing else intact.

By contrast, in Measure for Measure, every character must grapple with their own thirst for justice and even revenge, and each wrongdoer is shown mercy. In the last act, each character in turn faces the choice. Angelo knows he is unmasked as a hypocrite, and resigns himself to his fate. Mariana is willing to forgive Angelo for attempting to seduce Isabella. Isabella herself is given the most powerful moment, as she is asked by Mariana to forgive the (apparent) death of her brother and plead for Angelo’s life. Her final submission to mercy is truly affecting. Finally, the Duke himself must choose to forgive the insults he has endured from the tongue of Lucio. His choice, like that of Isabella, is not easy, but when it is made, the sense of forgiveness and release is genuine. Had either have insisted on revenge, the bad taste would have lingered, as it did with Shylock.

Note on additional resources:

There are three additional resources on Shakespeare in my library that I have found to be valuable. The first is Dover Publications’ Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, which contains the definitions, explanations, and locations of just about anything obscure or difficult about Shakespeare’s language. This two volume set contains roughly 1500 pages of material, and is truly unlike anything else available.

The second is Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. Yes, this book is by Isaac Asimov, the science and science fiction writer. When my wife found this book used, I was skeptical. However, it is a truly amazing reference book. Asimov focuses his attention on explaining the literary and historical references within the plays (and longer poems). Even with a background in Greek and Roman mythology; even with a knowledge of English history; it is difficult to remember everything that would have been part of the common knowledge of an educated person in Shakespeare’s time. Asimov spells these out in a simple and understandable, but sophisticated discussion of each play.

For those of us with children, another resource is Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.
These simplified versions of the plots have aided me in preparing my own children for the two plays they have seen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest.

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