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.
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.