by Michael Meigs
Measure for Measure
is one of Shakespeare's darkest plays, an intimate and claustrophobic study of misrule. There are no great battles here, no dazzling displays of fancy; this mythical Vienna has a stifling ambiance, a combination of bureaucratic neglect, fetid bordello and sterile cloister. One can seek to read it as a comedy, which to some extent director Michelle Polgar has done, but one can also see it as a meditation on zealotry.
Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, is an introspective, bookish fellow who has long neglected public affairs. In the opening of the play he abruptly announces his departure to points unknown and confides to the ascetic nobleman Angelo and to ducal counselor Escalus letters granting Angelo full power to administer the dukedom. We quickly learn that Vienna is a stew of moral corruption, thick with brothels and generally immoral behavior. Our jaunty guide to that underworld is Lucio, a "fantastic" well acquainted with it, and we make the acquaintance of the tapster-pimp Pompey and the brothel keeper Mistress Overdone.
|Hannah Marie Fonder, Curtis Allmon (photo: Bret Brookshire)|
Empowered by the absent duke, Angelo becomes the swift and merciless instrument of justice. He orders brothels in the city limits pulled down, despite -- in fact, because of -- their thriving business. Lighthearted Lucio is appalled to find that Claudio, a young gentleman, is under arrest and on his way to jail for having gotten Julietta his beloved with child without sanction of marriage. Angelo is unyielding: the law specifies death for the offense, regardless of any excuses or extenuating circumstances. Lucio turns to Claudio's sister Isabella, a novice in the convent, and persuades her to beg Angelo to spare Claudio's life.
No one else could be as appealing as the virginal Isabella. She does move the Duke's harsh deputy -- but to her dismay, it's not toward an act of public mercy but toward the dark side of his initially tenative but then increasingly insistent offer of a trade: her virginity, in secret, in exchange for her brother's life.
Shakespeare dwells upon human fallibility in Measure for Measure. In law, in religion, in dealings with one another in society generally, we are urged and constrained to ethical behavior even though our weaknesses are legion. Angelo the zealous executor of the laws falls immediately prey to temptation; worse still, he resorts to prevarication, making promises that he has no intention of keeping. Isabella is trapped between the corporal purity imposed by her order and the pressure to seek to spare her brother's life with the forbidden sin of yielding her body. Claudio, the acknowledged and to some degree repentant condemned sinner, is equally torn and tormented; he pleads, apparently in vain, for his sister Isabella to yield to the abuser of power.
And central to all this is Duke Vincentio himself, whose long neglect of the law and flight from responsibility have brought about these conflicts. One central question in staging Measure for Measure is how to portray Vincentio as he disguises himself as a holy friar and dabbles around the edges of this developing catastrophe. Is he the most reprehensible of them all? Or is he instead a thoughtful ruler who's engineering all of this to teach everyone a lesson about law and mercy, guilt and responsibility, temptation and absolution?
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