Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure, one of those late Shakespeare comedies that critics often call a "problem" play, was presented at the 42nd Street Theater for a New Audience the other night by a very accomplished cast. The theater is a quite small performance space, with just a few rows of seating on the three sides of the stage, so just about every seat provides a good vantage point. We were on the left side as you enter or stage right in the third or fourth row, and we could see everything quite vividly.

But why a problem play? Because as in so many of these later comedies there is scarcely any comedy and a veritable panoply of knotty problems. Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna, of all places, and in the story as Shakespeare tells it, Vienna has become a corrupt place where loose morals and vice run rampant. The Duke of Vienna who exudes an air of sternness but who is actually quite permissive has let things go over time and now he thinks a remedy (a word constantly used in this play) for his city's growing depravity must be found. He leaves control of the city to his cousin Angelo, known for his strict Puritanical morals and sturdy self-discipline, and remains in the city disguised as a monk. Angelo takes the helm gladly and immediately begins to impose some order by shutting down houses of ill repute and jailing petty thieves. One of the citizens he catches in his crimebusting net is a fellow called Claudio who has impregnated his fiancee well in advance of their wedding. The punishment on the Vienna books for this "crime" is death and Angelo plans to enforce it. Enter Isabella, beautiful and virginal sister of Claudio, who pleads for her brother's life, at first to no avail. But as Isabella's beauty and grace slowly melt the icy exterior of Angelo's remote manner, Angelo, whom we all expected to maintain the highest of morals, informs Isabella that he will save her brother only if she agrees to sleep with him - Vienna's most upright citizen.

Of course, in the end, everything turns out all right, thanks in large part to the intercession of the Duke who exposes Angelo for the man he truly is, returns Vienna to a more humane and civil society, and finds himself wooing Isabella as the play concludes. But as in all problem plays, it is the lingering worries about human nature and the means some think are needed to correct a corrupt society that stays with us. The title Measure for Measure, which seems to be a synonym for the dictum an eye for an eye, must ultimately be seen as ironic, for simple and formulaic solutions only seem to mask deeper troubles. Everything is out of joint, you might say, and only the Duke can set it all right. But the solutions seem half-hearted and temporary and this story seems to remind us that fundamentalist panaceas will invariably not only fail but do far more harm than good. That should probably remind us of something, but I've lost track of exactly what. Still, Measure for Measure does stand as a cautionary tale, and we would do well to consider the things that it cautions us against. The law is always a blunt instrument and by itself is never the long-term solution to our deeply ingrained and immensely complex problems.

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