Thursday, July 25, 2013

MEASURE FOR MEASURE…politics, power, and humor

Though Shakespeare, himself, classified his 1604 MEASURE FOR MEASURE as a comedy, modern literary thinkers refer to it as a problem play, a term developed in the late 1800s.

In problem plays, a social issue is examined comically, but contains tragic overtones.  The endings often seem contrived since they solve troubling issues in a superficial way, with no clear dĂ©nouement.  This format is well illustrated in MEASURE FOR MEASURE.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE deals with such issues as mercy, justice and their relationship to pride and humility.  The concept is highlighted by the script’s line, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

The play starts with Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, relating that he is going to leave the city on a diplomatic mission.  He, in fact, is not going to leave, but wants to observe the goings on in the city which has been turned over to the very righteous Judge Angelo, a pontificator of strict morals. 

It doesn’t take long for Angelo to assert his power.  He has Claudio, a young nobleman and Juliet, his pregnant wife-to-be, arrested for having premarital sex, which is against the law.  He declares that Claudio is to be put to death.  When Lucio, goes to Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is a novice nun, with a plea for her to intercede with Angleo on behalf of her brother, the major issues of the play unfold.  

It soon becomes clear that Angelo harbors lustful thoughts for Isabella and makes a proposal that her brother’s life will be saved if she agrees to a liaison with him.  The virginal Isabella refuses.
Meanwhile, the Duke, disguised as a friar, is observing.  He befriends Isabella and arranges to thwart Angelo’s evil intentions.  A “bed trick” is arranged in which Angelo will have sex with Isabella, but it will be in a dark room in which Mariana, to whom Angelo was previously engaged, but who was jilted by him when her dowry was lost at sea, will substitute for the nun. 

After getting his way, Angelo refuses to free Claudio, and demands that the boy be executed and his head be sent to him.  A Shakespearean plot device, know as the “head trick,”  ensues.  The head of a man who died of natural causes in prison is sent to Angelo, thus providing evidence that Claudio is dead.

The play concludes when the Duke returns to take back his throne, Angelo’s deeds are exposed, he is sentenced to execution, but is allowed to live if he will marry Mariana.  The Duke proposes to Isabella.  (If Isabella accepts, based on Shakespeare’s writing format, this would make the play a comedy as all’s well that ends well, but the dialogue ends in silence.  We know not whether Isabella agrees to the marriage.  Thus the script is dubbed a “problem play.”)

The Stratford production is well conceived by director Martha Henry.  The action is nicely paced, the characters clearly etched, and the technical aspects aid in developing the plot.  The inserted farcical shticks work, adding a needed lightness to what could be an oppressive plot.  One might question why the director chose to change the date of the play to 1949.  The language and the concept are much more fitting to a past time.

Standout performances include Geraint Wyn Davies as Duke Vincentio, though, at times, his projection fell off.  Stephen Ouimette is delightful as Lucio, a manipulative liar and gossip.  Tom Rooney is evil incarnate as Angelo.  Carmen Grant is properly austere as Isabella.  The rest of large cast well develop their roles.

Capsule judgement:  Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE gets a solid production at the Stratford Festival.  Its message of mercy, justice and their relationship to pride and humility is clearly etched.  Those who like the Shakespearean style of writing and plot development should be pleased with this staging.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE runs through September 21, 2013 at the Stratford Festival. For information call or go to: 800-567-1600 or go on-line to