Measure for Measure
I confess a personal weakness for this play. It is often regarded as a “problem play” or “problem comedy”, and, to be sure, there are problems aplenty. While it has what most viewers would consider a generally happy resolution, in that people are marrying rather than dying, it explores some very dark areas and leaves almost no character untainted. The story also requires not one but two separate monstrously improbable cases of (deliberately) mistaken identity.
The plot revolves around infidelity at several levels, misplaced trust, and (effectively) a rape coerced by blackmail. Sensing that (through his long neglect) corruption and immorality are running away unchecked in his domain, Duke Vincentio of Vienna pretends to leave the city in the charge of his deputy Angelo, known for his purity of life and inflexible moral principles. He does not leave, however, but, having disguised himself as a friar, evaluates the lower aspects of the city life for himself, while keeping an eye on what Angelo is doing.
And Angelo is not doing well. He almost immediately has one Claudio arrested for fornication, and plans to have him executed. Isabella, Claudio’s sister and a novice in a convent, comes to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. He in his turn offers to exchange Claudio’s life for her chastity. Up to this point we have everything we might need for a tragedy. Only through the covert intervention of the Duke are death and disaster averted.
Angelo’s hypocrisy, the Duke’s apparently cruel manipulation of people and events, and the generally distasteful course of a number of other plot threads, tend to make many viewers and readers uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the play has prodigious thematic integrity, and it speaks with a voice (not entirely dominated by any single character) of forgiveness, free and unexpected, and of the potential redemption of almost everyone. Every major character is tested by his or her own lights. Angelo’s judgment for fornication falls squarely on himself. The Duke must hear (in the person of the friar) various stinging rebukes for the failures of his own rule, while not daring to respond; and Isabella’s potentially facile and opportune commitment to mercy is put to the test as well. The costly crisis of that test remains, to my thinking, one of the great moments in drama of any age.
There was formerly only one production of this play readily available — the BBC Shakespeare version, but fortunately it is magnificently played. Several others have recently come out or are on the way.