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”

Retiring These…New Bests Above

Best Movie Villain Ever: Darth Vader

Best Chewing Gum:
Wrigley Doublemint

Best Single-Malt Scotch: Lagavulin

Best Plate of Pasta: Spagetti Carbonara

Best Skyscraper: Chrysler Building

Best Pet: None

Best Neil Diamond Song: Sweet Caroline

Best Comic Relief in the History of Theater: When Constable Elbow and Froth enter Angelo’s court in Act II, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Best John Paul II Encyclical:
Fides et Ratio

second best: Evangelium Vitae

third best: Veritatis Splendor

fourth best: Redemptor Hominis

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.

The Plot Thickens EVEN MORE

Back to Vienna…

When yesterday we left the plot of Measure for Measure: The lovable but weak Claudio was on death row, his fiancee pregnant, his sister Isabela shuttling between the convent and the court to plead for mercy. The Duke of Vienna was masquerading as a Franciscan, and the Duke’s deputy Angelo was poised to apply the death penalty to punish fornication for the first time in decades.

The “Lord Angelo” is thought by some of the Viennese citizens to be a paragon of austere virtue. Others regard him as frighteningly frigid. We overhear the following conversation about him on the street in Vienna:

“They say this Angelo was not made by man and woman after the downright way of creation. Is it true, think you? ”
“How should he be made, then?”
“Some report a sea-maid spawned him; some, that he was begot between two stock-fishes. But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true.”

The vice-grip of the plot of Measure for Measure tightens a bit more:

Isabela returns to Angelo’s court, hoping that she has convinced him to be merciful and spare her condemned brother’s life. We know that the stern Angelo is burning with desire for the beautiful aspiring nun.

Angelo stammeringly proposes to Isabela that she might save Claudio. How? By letting Lord Angelo have his way with her.

Isabela refuses–just as adamantly as Angelo has refused mercy to her brother. She threatens to expose Angelo’s hypocritical villainy, but he convinces her that she will never be believed. She runs off, desperate for someone to sympathize with her.

Meanwhile, the Duke masquerading as a priest has visited Claudio to help prepare him to meet his Maker. Claudio has resolved to make a holy death.

Isabela arrives to visit her brother in his cell. When she sees how courageously Claudio faces death, she divulges Angelo’s evil proposition. Claudio collapses and begs her to give in, so that he might live.

Angelo gives Isabela her choice...
Angelo gives Isabela her choice...
…In my book, this is the high point of the drama of this play. All the play’s themes have been stretched to a point of perfect tension:

Laxity breeds endemic vice. But severity masks hypocrisy. Without moral absolutes, no one can know what to do in the face of the evil in this world. But when the law requires perfection, it becomes a tyrant. Good hearts aspire to be noble and bigger than themselves. But they collapse under the weight of passion–especially fear.

With Claudio blubbering for his life and Isabela livid, all of these themes are hanging in the balance. Then the disguised Duke emerges from his hiding place in Claudio’s cell…

Stay tuned!

Monks and Drama in Vienna

Vienna, Austria
Vienna, Austria
I am the proud owner of a small collection of nice vestments to wear for the sacred ceremonies of the Church.

For the past four years, I have also been the custodian of a much larger collection of fine vestments. It is actually TWO collections. Earlier in this unit decade of the twenty-first century, two of our Washington priests decided to resign their pastoral assignments and become monks.

Both of these priests own impressive collections of vestments. Both of them gave their collections to me for safe keeping. I am allowed to use them, and to loan them to other priests to use.

Someday, God forbid, one or both of these priests might decide that they want the vestments back. Please pray that this day never comes.

Both of these brother priests entered an Austrian monastery called Stift Klosterneuberg. Stift is the German word for monastery. Some of us refer to the place as Lobster Newberg.

Anyway, Klosterneuberg is located just outside Vienna.

I would like to do something special in honor of these dear monks, whose vestments I have in my (hopefully perpetual) care. So I am going to give you a profound and captivating essay on Shakespeare’s gripping play Measure for Measure, which is set in Vienna!

The problem is that I do not have time right now to give you the entire essay. These things take hours. Also, I have not yet come up with the profound part or the captivating part.

Let us make a start nonetheless. Just in case you have not recently had a chance to review the play, I will begin by attempting to summarize the plot. Some of the speeches in the play are a little stilted and hard to follow. But the plot is intense–seriously intense.

As the play opens, Vienna has become a city of loose morals. The laws against prostitution have not been enforced for many years.

At this moment, the Duke of Vienna begins a series of strange maneuvers. Throughout the play, he does a number of inexplicable things, as we shall see.

The Duke summons his son Angelo, barely a grown man, and informs him that he is in charge of the city for the foreseeable future. The Duke claims that he MUST go elsewhere. Angelo protests, citing his lack of practical experience, but the Duke insists and leaves the city immediately.

lobster newberg
lobster newberg
Soon we learn that a much-beloved young man of Vienna, Claudio, has been arrested because his fiancée Julietta is pregnant. The now-reigning Angelo intends to make an example of Claudio. Angelo applies the long-standing but never-enforced law against fornication to the case. Under the law, Claudio is subject to the death penalty. Angelo orders his execution.

Meanwhile, the Duke, continuing his inexplicable behavior, leads everyone to believe that he is in Poland. Secretly he takes the habit of a Franciscan and returns in this disguise to Vienna.

The condemned Claudio has a sister named Isabel, who is a postulant in a cloistered convent. (They were ALL cloistered back then. A postulant is a young woman preparing to enter the order, but who has not yet taken the full habit.) Claudio’s friend runs to her and begs her to go to Angelo to implore mercy for her brother.

Lucio begs Isabel to intervene for Claudio's life
Lucio begs Isabel to intervene for Claudio's life
Isabel appears before Angelo and entreats him to spare her condemned brother. At first the stern Angelo is adamant and immovable, but then he mellows and tells the lovely Isabel to come back the next day. After Isabel departs, Angelo admits in a private soliloquy that he is consumed with desire for her.

Ahh…is the plot not THICK?

Will the weak yet lovable Claudio be saved? Will the stern Angelo learn mercy? Will he learn to be human? Will Isabel enter the convent? Will she fall in love?

Can justice and mercy co-exist? Can the law prevent vice without crushing human nature?

Coming soon to Preacher and Big Daddy: Answers to all these questions and more! Stay tuned.

P.S. It is hard for me to get too fired-up about this World Series. Is anybody rooting for one of these teams?