Measuring “Measure for Measure” Again

Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”—ostensibly a comedy—“obsesses over death,” “plays like a funeral march,” “exposes the emptiness of the romantic genre,” “leaves the audience wondering if they just watched a comedy or a tragedy.”

A comedy about death and judgment. You know I am into it.

As you may recall, we covered “Measure for Measure” in some detail in the fall of 2008. But time passes, and a man matures. Back then I called the conclusion a “deus ex machina mess.” What a fool. (Me.)

One theory proposes that Shakespeare wrote “Measure for Measure”—and made it so dark and uncomical—to show the world that he had gotten sick of writing plays in which everyone marries each other in the end. After “Measure for Measure,” the Bard never wrote another comedy.

Meryl Streep as Isabella in Shakespeare in the Park 1976
According to this theory: Earlier comedies have more-satisfying conclusions. When “Much Ado About Nothing”’s Beatrice and Benedict get together, the world shines forth with new luster. When “The Taming of the Shrew’s” Petruchio kisses Kate, birds sing with more perfect harmony than they did before. When Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermia get everything sorted out in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the fairy kingdom rejoices with the human kingdom. We definitely like it when Orlando and Rosalind marry. But when everyone pairs off at the end of “Measure for Measure,” it makes no sense. No subsequent picnic under an arbor fills the imagination. So goes the theory of Shakespeare’s ultimate dissatisfaction with the genre.

Perhaps there is something to this theory. After all, Shakespeare wrote one other non-comedy comedy that involves: 1) an almost unbelievably obtuse husband-to-be, 2) a duke seeking justice, and 3) a cover-of-darkness tryst-bed switcheroo, in which a man intending to fornicate unknowingly sleeps with his own wife. “All’s Well that Ends Well” has all these elements, too. And he wrote that play immediately before he wrote “Measure for Measure.”

But, IMHO, “Measure for Measure” does not crash and burn, like the critics say it does. It crashes and burns in a much more Biblical way.

Continue reading “Measuring “Measure for Measure” Again”

Deus ex Machina for Measure

I know that everyone has been waiting with bated breath for the final word from Vienna about Isabela, Claudio, Angelo, and the disguised Duke of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

We left them all embroiled in the vice-grip of a riveting plot. The stern Angelo was succumbing to temptation and evil hypocrisy. The Duke, disguised as a friar, was trying to get the condemned Claudio to heaven. Claudio was afraid to die. The pure Isabel was heartbroken and confused.

Gulp. Yes, things are tense. But I am not gulping because things are tense. I enjoy tension. I make people tense all the time, without even trying. (Roman collars can have this effect.)

I am gulping because I dread what I must do. A letdown awaits you, dear reader, and I am afraid you are going to cancel your subscription, and I am going to have to send you your money back.

Before we continue, let us try to keep four things in mind. First: In Shakespeare’s day, there were only two kinds of plays, tragedies and comedies. At the end of a tragedy, multiple people died. At the end of a comedy, multiple people got married. Those were the options.

Second, Shakespeare was not paid to be consistent. He was paid to write exciting plays.

Third, Shakespeare never made up his stories out of whole cloth. He always used old tales, legends, or history, and then personalized the story. In all the earlier versions of the Measure for Measure story, Isabela gave in to Angelo in order to save her brother’s life.

Fourth, we need to recall the definition of “Deus ex machina.” This is when the plot of a drama is resolved by something coming out of the woodwork to resolve everything at the very moment when it seems impossible to make everything work out.

In Measure for Measure, Deus comes out of the machina right after we left off. As you recall, Claudio was begging Isabela to give in to Angelo’s villainous ultimatum, and Isabela was mortified.

At that moment the Duke (still dressed as a Franciscan) barges into the cell. He gets Claudio to sober up and face death manfully. Claudio begs his sister’s pardon for suggesting that she compromise her chastity. Then the Duke comes up with one of the most cockamamie plans of all time.

It turns out that the Lord Angelo had previously been engaged to marry a certain Marianna. But the young man heartlessly broke off the engagement when Marianna’s brother (and her dowry) were lost at sea.

The Duke proposes to Isabela that she trick Angelo into consummating marriage with Marianna. All she has to do is go to Angelo and pretend to accede to his conditions for Claudio’s pardon. The Duke will arrange a dark meeting place, and Marianna will appear in Isabela’s place. Then Claudio will be freed, Angelo will have to marry Marianna, and Isabel will be saved from impurity.

The plan unravels when Angelo orders Claudio’s death the following morning anyway. The Duke has to convince the jailer to send the head of a prisoner who died of a fever, but who looked like Claudio.

The Duke then re-enters the city, out of his disguise. Angelo is exposed as a hypocritical villain. Marianna marries him anyway. Claudio is saved and marries his beloved Julietta. Then the Duke proposes to Isabela!

In my humble opinion, this is a lame, totally unbelievable ending. Measure for Measure was the last comedy Shakespeare wrote. He seems to have been sick and tired of writing them.

There is one very beautiful image near the end of the play, however. At one point during the half-hour-long final scene, the Duke condemns Angelo to death for fornication (just as Angelo had condemned Claudio to death for the same crime.) Marianna begs for mercy for her husband, and she asks Isabela to join her.

At this point, Isabela does yet not know that Claudio has been spared by the Duke’s stratagem. She thinks that her brother has been executed. But she kneels down and begs for mercy for Angelo anyway.

After this, it is no wonder the Duke wants to marry her. But hopefully she will go to back to the convent and continue begging for mercy for all of us sinners.