Shakespearing #27 by David Foley
Measure for Measure
When I was in college, I was robbed at gunpoint coming home from buying a pint of ice cream. They took my coat, they took my watch, they took the ice cream, and when they discovered I had only a few dollars on me, one of them pressed the gun to my temple and threatened to blow my brains out. But they let me go.
A policewoman came by our apartment to take a report. She drawled, “You were lucky. We found a guy last night with half his head blown away. Needless to say, his family’s making funeral arrangements.”
It so happened that, for someone’s directing class project, I was acting in the Isabel/Claudio scene from Measure for Measure.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod…
It was probably the best performance of my brief acting career.
It helps that it’s a great scene, as are Isabel’s scenes with Angelo. You remember what Shakespeare can teach you about writing a scene which pulses with shift and counter-shift, discovery and response. Angelo and Isabel make a great matched set of opponents, and the Duke is charmingly beneficent, and there are unexpected plot twists, and all this makes Measure for Measure play better than it reads.
When you read it, you really notice how weird it is.
For one thing, the Duke seems much less beneficent when you slow him down. His reasons for leaving Angelo in charge are pretty bad (essentially, he wants Angelo to be the meanie). He never seriously questions the justice of Claudio’s sentence, only its mercy. And he lets Isabel believe that Claudio’s dead because it’s better for her soul or something. He makes a shaky moral center for the play.
All this could just be the strangeness of a moral world four centuries removed from ours, but when you read Measure for Measure in presumed sequence with Troilus and All’s Well, it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare himself is thrashing about morally. After Hamlet and Twelfth Night, he seems to have plunged into a moral wilderness. Perhaps we can’t get a handle on the moral world of these plays because Shakespeare can’t. The sense you sometimes get in Shakespeare—that he’s spouting the party line but feels deep down that something’s wrong with it—here produces what feel like painful fractures.
Or perhaps we can’t get a handle on it because Shakespeare himself is, of necessity, disguising his own meanings. At the beginning, the Duke hints that the play intends “[o]f government the properties to unfold,” and it’s possible to trace a steady critique of authority throughout the play. It’s no accident that the executioner, representing the power of the state at its most brutal, is named Abhorson (ab-whoreson), or that he’s put on the same level as a brothel-keeper. Moreover, this is the third play in a row which has a character who provides a comic counter-narrative to the poses of authority. Like Parolles in All’s Well, Lucio unwittingly slanders a noble character to his face, burlesquing the illusions of nobility. Lucio may be the moral center of the play: genial, mendacious, venal, and for all that well-intentioned. He’s the one who fetches Isabel to plead for Claudio and urges her on when she does. He becomes a real-world corrective to the Duke’s complacent platitudes. As he says to him, “Nay, friar, I am a kind of burr; I shall stick.”
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.
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