Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is often described as one of the playwright’s “problem plays,” shifting between lewd comedy and moral drama with halting transitions. It often leaves audiences confused as to whether they should discreetly chuckle alongside the baseless clowns or hold their breath fearfully during Isabella’s tumultuous attempts to save her brother.
Measure for Measure was written between 1603 and 1604, classified initially as a comedy. However, the production history exemplifies the complicated nature of the play, each with a nearly unique perspective. Justice, mercy, and licentious behavior all provide avenues for artists and audiences alike to delve into the play and find something that’s evocative, sometimes eerily so, of our present day circumstances.
Vienna is overrun with brothels and loose morality, yet Duke Vincentio is hesitant to enforce stricter laws in order to clean up the city. Instead of relying on his own authority, Duke Vincentio cloaks himself as a friar within the city and leaves his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo quickly seizes his newfound power, resurrecting an old law denouncing extramarital affairs. Claudio, a citizen of Vienna, gets Juliet pregnant. Despite their intentions to marry, Angelo sends Claudio to jail for inappropriate behavior, punishable by death.
As Claudio is dragged through the city to prison, he crosses paths with Pompey, a pimp, and Mistress Overdone, an owner of a brothel. Claudio quickly explains his predicament and employs the duo to find his friend, Lucio and ask him to talk to Isabella, Claudio’s sister. Luckily for Pompey and Mistress Overdone, Lucio is a frequent customer and easy to find.
Lucio meets Isabella at her convent and persuades her to leave the convent briefly to appeal to Angelo to save her brother. During their meeting, Angelo strikes a bargain to release Claudio only if Isabella agrees to sleep with him. Torn between her chastity and saving her brother, she meets with Claudio to discuss Angelo’s proposition and her refusal. Claudio, begging for his life, asks his sister to disregard her intentions of becoming a nun to save him. Meanwhile, the Duke, still disguised at the friar, overhears the entire conversation between Isabella and Claudio. While he admits that Claudio faces certain death, the Duke does let Isabella know that deputy Angelo once had a fiance, Mariana, who he essentially abandoned.
Isabella and Mariana devise a plan to disguise Mariana as Isabella, so Angelo believes he’s slept with Isabella when in reality it was his ex-fiance, therefore committing the same “crime” as Claudio. However, the orders to execute Claudio have already been sent. Pompey and Lucio find a prisoner who had recently passed from fever and send his head to Angelo in place of Claudio’s, sparing Claudio’s life. Yet, the Duke tells Isabella her brother has died, leading her to believe that her plan has failed.
This culminates in a flurry of characters, from nuns to pimps, fake friars and vain deputies, finally meeting to discuss how this mysterious friar has meddled with their lives. In this moment, the friar reveals himself to be the Duke. Duke Vincentio demands Angelo marry Mariana and promptly condemns Angelo to death. Mariana and Isabella both beg the Duke to spare Angelo, to which he relents. Claudio is brought forward, reunited both with his sister and his pregnant fiance, Juliet. And then, in perhaps one of the more puzzling endings of Shakespeare’s, the Duke proposes to Isabella, to which he is met with silence.
Measure for Measure contains a multitude of issues to dissect, as evidenced by the plot. While this play does not neatly fold into either tragedy or comedy, it does allow for a breadth of creativity to examine the multiplicity of humanity. Perhaps in that way, it’s one of Shakespeare’s more compelling works. Measure for Measure often goes unrecognized, but it’s importance is especially apt in this current political climate. How do we interact and rebel against power? How do we define justice broadly and does that waiver in certain circumstances? And through it all, how do we protect the ones we love most? These are epic questions, but Measure for Measure is a story of epic proportions.
ArtsEmerson’s upcoming presentation of Measure for Measure travels to contemporary Russia with a critical eye of its society and politics. This production from Cheek by Jowl and and Pushkin Theatre asks these large questions, but it’s up to audiences to search for the answers.