The Festive Season is over, but I hope it is not too late to wish you all a Very Happy New Year!!!
Just before the holidays, I was about to publish Measure for Measure, but I got stuck. I couldn’t make head nor tail of what the Duke was doing in the play. He has 839 lines in our MFFE edition, more than King Lear, and nearly twice as much as Isabella. With all these lines he feels rather like a bit part in the story of Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio. Admittedly he waves a magic wand a few times to prevent the play turning into a tragedy, but it hardly seemed to warrant 800+ lines. Not only that, his presence creates difficulties as to how one might direct the play.
Over the Festive season I had a great time catching up with the family, eating too much, drinking too much, but always the Duke was worrying away in the background. Finally, inspiration arrived, and earlier this week I discovered why the Duke has so many lines, and came up with a way of putting on the play which I think could work.
I want to share this excitement so you’ll find below the Introduction to Measure for Measure which explains the problem, and provides the solution. If you want to download the play you’ll need to go to https://players-shakespeare.com/portfolio/measure-for-measure-mffe-version-1-01/ , scroll past the same introduction, until you get to the downloads.
If you want to download the Playreading Pack to run a playreading, you can find it at
It’s free for round about the next month. We’ll be running our play-reading of Measure for Measure on 8th Feb.
And now here’s the introduction to Measure for Measure….
Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure in 1603 – 1604, using Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra as his primary source for the story of Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio. The first known performance of the play was at King James’ Christmas celebrations on Boxing Day, 1604.
The title of the play is linked to a verse from the Sermon of the Mount: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
The story of Angelo and Isabella explores Elizabethan / Jacobean ideas about sex and power, and Justice and Mercy, in a Christian context.
The puritanical Angelo shows no mercy to Claudio, Pompey Bum and the other habitués of Mistress Overdone’s brothel, and eventually asks none for himself. The novitiate nun Isabella, though abused thoroughly by Angelo, and thinking her brother dead at his hands, struggles and then succeeds, to request mercy for him, when asked to do so by Mariana.
As well as this story of Angelo and Isabella, there is in Measure for Measure, the story of the Duke of Venice who is concerned with the “properties” of government, and with “sufficiency” in office. This political sub-plot is obviously significant given that the Duke’s role is the largest (839 lines in the MFFE edition), nearly twice as large as Isabella’s part (439 lines).
Why was this political sub-plot and the Duke’s role added to the play?
Elizabeth I died on March 24th 1603. James I (of England) succeeded her, unifying the English and Scottish crowns. On 5th April, James left Edinburgh, on a slow progress through England, reaching London on 7th May, and was crowned on 25th July.
How did this affect the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and Shakespeare in particular? Twelve days after arriving in London, James issued a royal patent which gave a Charter to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as “The King’s Men”. Nine of the leading members, including Shakespeare, were made Grooms of the Chamber and were each given 4 ½ yards of red cloth for their costumes at the coronation.
There was intense interest in the new king in London, the first new English monarch in nearly fifty years. Rumours about him and his character circulated. These were stimulated by the publication of James’ book on statecraft addressed to his son, Basilikon Doron, published in 1603 in London, which went through four edtions in that year.
It was obviously important to Shakespeare and The King’s Men, that they established themselves in favour with the new king. By Christmas 1604, when they performed eleven of the fourteen or fifteen plays put on at court they had achieved this.
A play they performed that Christmas was Measure for Measure. This no doubt helped increase their favour with the King, because the Duke’s political opinions closely matched King James’. In his article, The Role of James I in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure David Stevenson points out:
James was known to have a fascination with Justice and Mercy. This is one of the important themes of Measure for Measure.
James was known to have a distaste for displaying himself in front of the noisy London crowds. The Duke has two or more speeches which reflect this:
I’ll privily away. I love the people
But do not like to stage me to their eyes…
I. i. 68-73
The general, subject to a well-wish’d King,
Quit their own part, and in obsequious fondness
Crowd to his presence, where their untaught love
Must needs appear offence.
(II. iv. 24-30)
Even more persuasively, Davidson demonstrates that Shakespeare carefully mined the Basilikon Doron in order to be able to dramatise the intellectual interests of his new patron in his comedy.
It seems clear that Shakespeare grafted the Duke and his interests onto the story of Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio, in order to interest and flatter the new king.
The Duke of Vienna (Vincentio) thinks that Vienna has become too sexually permissive, and so decides to take ‘leave-of-absence’ leaving a puritanical subordinate, Angelo, as his deputy, to tighten up the moral climate.
Under a law forbidding sex outside marriage, Angelo arrests and sentences to death Claudio, who is living with Juliet and has made her pregnant but is not formally married to her.
Angelo also decides to close all the brothels in the suburbs, which provides a comic sub-plot, involving Pompey Bum, a pimp; Mistress Overdone, a brothel-keeper; Elbow, a police constable, and various gentlemen, clients of the brothel, including Lucio.
When Lucio hears of Claudio’s arrest and forthcoming execution, he tells Isabella, a novitiate nun, and sister of Claudio. Isabella meets with Angelo, and encouraged by Lucio, tries to persuade him to let Claudio live. She uses her considerable intelligence and knowledge of rhetoric but Angelo is not persuaded. However, despite his puritanical past, he finds himself sexually attracted to Isabella:
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints doth bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigour, art, and nature
Once stir my temper: but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite.
He asks Isabella to meet with him again the next day when they continue their rhetorical debate. At that meeting, he suggests to Isabella that, if she sleeps with him, he will let Claudio live, though in fact, he intends to have Claudio executed, even if she accepts his offer. Isabella rejects his offer in rather sensual, or even masochistic language:
Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies
And strip myself to death as to a bed,
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.
She rushes off to prison to tell Claudio that he must die, because she will not yield her virginity, and so her eternal soul, to save his life. She is disappointed to find that he is not very keen to die to preserve her virginity, and attacks him, again in sexually charged language:
O you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life
From your sister’s shame!
Luckily the Duke, disguised as a Friar, overhears their conversation, and contrives a number of tricks to save Isabella and Claudio from Angelo:
First, he proposes a ‘bed trick’ to Isabella. He suggests that she tell Angelo that she agrees to meet him somewhere dark so that he can make love to her. Mariana, who was engaged to Angelo and still loves him, will make the rendezvous instead of Isabella. Isabella and Mariana are happy to agree to this plan.
Secondly, he devises a trick for Claudio. Angelo insists that Claudio is executed and that Claudio’s head is sent to him as proof of his death. To save Claudio, the Friar proposes that Barnadine, a criminal, be executed, and his head sent instead of Claudio’s. When Barnadine refuses to be executed, another criminal, Ragozine, obligingly dies, and his head is sent to Angelo.
Next, the Duke writes to Angelo and his court to say that he is returning to Vienna, and wants to be met at the gates by Angelo, the court, and any individual who wants to make a complaint about the administration in his absence.
The play is now set up for Act Five. The Duke arrives at the gates of Vienna, is met by Angelo, and Isabella comes and denounces Angelo’s behaviour implying that he has deflowered her. Angelo denies this, but Mariana comes forward to say that she lay with Angelo, to replace Isabella.
After many twists and turns, it comes out that the Duke stayed in Vienna disguised as a friar, and was aware of all that went on.
Angelo confesses his crime, much worse than Claudio’s. He is forced to marry Mariana, and then is be executed, but when Isabella, who has been treated so badly by him, and still believes that Claudio has been killed by him, calls for mercy to be shown to him, he is allowed to live.
Claudio, who has been hidden by the Duke, is revealed alive, and marries Juliet, his pregnant girlfriend.
Lucio, who has irritated the Duke by being rude about him on every conceivable occasion, is punished by being forced to marry a prostitute that he has made pregnant.
And a final surprise – the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella in front of the assembled Viennese citizens and dignitories. She is so surprised that she doesn’t speak again after the Duke’s proposal,making her response to this offer ambiguous. In most productions, she accepts the Duke, taking on the responsibilities of wife and eventual motherhood, instead of becoming a nun.
C21 performance considerations:
The play is perhaps not so well thought of as some of Shakespeare’s other comedies. It is becoming increasingly difficult for a modern audience:
- The very traditional view of women presented in the play jars with modern ideas.
- The play takes place within a Christian framework which, for many today, at least in the UK, is no longer so culturally relevant.
- The Divine Right of Kings, of which James was a keen advocate, and which seems necessary to justify many of The Duke’s tricks, is no longer accepted and makes some of The Duke’s behaviour improbable.
- The structure of the play does not fit into a recognisable genre. It is neither comedy nor tragedy.
And yet the play explores our attitudes to sex, something of great interest to most, so how can it be presented to make sense to a modern audience?
Leaving aside The Duke, the story focuses on Angelo, Claudio, and Isabella, with a comic sub-plot involving Pompey Bum, Mistress Overdone, and the prisoners.
There are intriguing similarities in the moral behaviour of the three main characters:
Angelo, of course, behaves rather badly when trying to trade Claudio’s life for a night with Isabella, particularly when he plans to default on his side of the deal.
Angelo has also been betrothed to Mariana, and has broken off the engagement.
Claudio too has been betrothed to Juliet, but has consumated the betrothal, rather than breaking it off, or getting married.
Isabella has avoided betrothal, except nearly to Christ, but some of her judgements seem questionable: Is her chastity really worth more than her brother’s life? Perhaps it is not so clear-cut as she seems to think. Her involvement in the bed-trick is, again, questionable. As is her near-perjury when accusing Angelo in A5S1
However, perhaps we shouldn’t make any moral judgements, given the reference in the title of the play to ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’.
Their lack of self-awareness is also interesting:
Angelo’s attitude to sex seems to be due to puritanical repression, quickly overcome by the pure innocence of Isabella.
Isabella’s desire to become a nun could well be seen as a similar repression, particularly given some of the language she uses. Of course how this is seen depends on whether she accepts the Duke in A5S1.
Claudio doesn’t suffer from these reservations, seeming happy to accept his and Juliet’s sexuality. But his lack of awareness of the need to marry Juliet, nearly leads to him losing his life, and Juliet losing her partner and supporter.
All this provides the basis for an interesting production, but it is difficult to see how some of the problems for a modern audience can be resolved. However, I’m fairly confident that when going through the rigours of preparing a production one could develop a view of the play which would interest a modern audience.
There are a number of recent productions where plays which are at first sight no longer culturally relevant, have been presented in a way which makes them accessible. One in particular springs to my mind – the Mabou Mines production of Ibsen’s Dollshouse which we were lucky enough to see in the Edinburgh Festival a few years back, and which is available on DVD from Mabou Mines.
The ‘post-dramatic’, ‘melodramatic’ style of this production would help a lot with some of the difficulties of Measure to Measure: The acting style allows for rapid oscillations between tragic and comic, particularly relevant for the trickster Duke’s machinations in the second half; the self-referential, mocking, approach would again help to defuse the cultural difficulties in Measure for Measure, as it does in The Dollshouse as directed by Lee Breuer.
I am almost tempted to take up my director’s baton again.