21 February 2013

Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is yet another play that I had not read, but unlike Two Gentlemen, I'm quite happy to have read it. It offers such characters as 'Mistress Overdone', described in the Dramatis Personae as "a bawd," and 'Froth', a "foolish gentleman." There is Elbow, prone to malapropisms (not unlike Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing). And there is Angelo, an extremely strict and moral man who is acting in the Duke's stead while the Duke is absent. Angelo's actions force events which cause the watcher (or reader, in my case) to think a bit harder about the difference between justice which is thoughtless, and justice which is tempered with wisdom.

The story goes thus: The Duke of Vienna has departed the city for a diplomatic meeting (except he's not actually leaving, he has sneaky plans, instead), leaving Angelo and Escalus in charge. Young Claudio has been hauled off to prison for getting his fiancee, Juliet, pregnant, and condemned to death by Angelo. He is somewhat resigned to his fate, while his friends are not. Juliet is being consigned to a convent. Others in the story, including Juliet's cousin Isabella, a novice nun, think that Claudio should simply be instructed to marry Juliet forthwith, and are bewildered by Angelo's harsh decision.

Isabella decides to plead on her brother's behalf and begs Angelo for mercy. She appeals to Angelo's humanity--that he, too, is likely a sinner and as such, should have pity on Claudio. She then attempts to bribe him by promising that the women at her convent will pray for him, to provide "such gifts that heaven shall share with you." Angelo tells her to come again the next day, and dimisses everyone, to rant about how now he has fallen in love with Isabella. He later offers to trade her brother's life for her virtue. She is appalled, and threatens to make known what sort of man he is. He points out that no one will believe her, and she'll be put to shame, instead.

When she tells her brother in prison, the Duke, lurking in the guise of a friar, overhears, and explains that he will aid Isabella and Claudio. Sometime earlier, Angelo had reneged on a betrothal contract with a young woman because her brother's ship which carried her dowry had sank, leaving her with little money. The Duke intends to enlist the woman, Mariana, to help set more than one wrong right. He sends her to Angelo in the guise of Isabella. Angelo sleeps with Mariana and then sends the order for Claudio to be executed anyway. The Duke intervenes and hides Claudio in the prison, and returns as himself in the last act to set things aright. Angelo is forced to wed Mariana, in light of the broken betrothal now ostensibly fulfilled by their union, and when the Duke plans to have him subsequently executed for his crimes, Mariana intervenes on his behalf. The Duke relents, then produces Claudio and Juliet, instructs them to marry, and then proposes to Isabella himself. She does not clearly accept, but it looks as if she will quit the convent to wed the Duke.

The plot of this play is a little more intricate than the last one discussed, and it really only falls into the comedies because it ends, not with executions, as Angelo would have it, but with weddings. There are comic characters, but the overall tone of the show is severe. Measure for Measure may not directly allude to this particular story from the Bible, but it reminded me very much of the story of the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees haul her before Jesus and demand that he condemn her. He takes a moment, and when they again demand a response, he simply states, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Slowly, the crowd disperses. He doesn't point out that they're breaking Mosaic law by condemning only the woman, and not the man as well. He simply faces them with their own culpability. In Measure for Measure, Angelo, unwilling to face his own wrongs, simply punishes them in others, until he is forced by a higher authority to admit his failings. His repentance is briefly stated, but one would hope that in the future, his wife and the Duke together will keep him truly honest.

I'm waiting for a film version of this to come in at the library, so I can see what it looks like staged. In the meantime, we will proceed from the serious comedy here to The Comedy of Errors.

"Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall:
Some run from brakes of ice, and answer none,
And some condemned for a fault alone." Escalus, Measure for Measure, II.1.38-40

"Go to your bosom;
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault: if it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life." Isabella, Measure for Measure, II.2.136-141

"Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with dearer love." Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, Measure for Measure, III.2.163-164

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