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This Shakespeare Fits Our Era of Puritanical Licentiousness

So why do we have such a problem with it?

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, not readily classified as comedies or tragedies (or histories, or romances), with resolutions that leave the audience with a “that’s not right, is it?” feeling that provides neither catharsis nor satisfaction. But I am beginning to worry that we’re losing track of what the “problem” is.  

One of Shakespeare’s slipperier texts, Measure for Measure appears on the surface to be almost Shavian in its use of characters to explore ideas, in this case ideas about desire and repression, justice and mercy. But it is actually a subtle undermining avant-la-lettre of precisely Shaw’s brand of amoral moralizing, and that should leave the audience more unsettled than comfortable with its resolution, while still unsure how anything could be more satisfactory.

These reflections are prompted by the production currently running at New York’s Theater for a New Audience, for while it benefits from a generally strong cast (and is particularly lucky in its Isabella, the fierce Canadian actress, Cara Ricketts), and stumbles in certain ways all its own (most notably staging the action atop a giant table, which makes entrances and exits persistently awkward), I left the theater dissatisfied in a familiar way from many prior encounters with the play — but not with the generative dissatisfaction that I believe the play should deliver.

The play’s action unfolds like a tale out of the Arabian Nights. The Duke of Vienna abandons his office, leaving his severe and ascetic deputy, Angelo, in charge. He repairs to a monastery, where we learn why he took this course. Licentiousness was out of control in his country, but because it was his lax authority over fourteen years that let things get so bad, he would have seemed tyrannous if he brought the hammer down himself. Therefore, he appointed a deputy to do so in his stead. As well, he wanted to test Angelo, to see whether he would remain upright once in possession of absolute power. So the Duke returns to Vienna disguised as a friar to observe how justice proceeds in his absence.

He learns quickly that it is not proceeding well. Angelo has decided to make an example of Claudio, who is guilty of fornication. Rather than allow the young man to make amends by marrying the girl (which he would be happy to do), Angelo plans to have him executed. A friend of Claudio’s, a local brothel-hound named Lucio, convinces the condemned man’s sister, Isabella, who is about to enter a convent, to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life, which she does, at first with great reluctance. But she takes to her work with increasing confidence and spirit in the first brilliant scene of the play.

Angelo and Isabella are, as described, a kind of perfect pair. Her first lines in the play profess her desire for a more stringent rule, and her first words to Angelo protest how thoroughly she hates her brother’s crime, and her distaste for her own errand of mercy. She begins to warm to it when she realizes that Angelo is arguing as though he were the law, whereas in fact he could be merciful:


O, it is excellent

To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.

Thus begins a peroration on “man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, his glassy essence” which climaxes thus:


Go to your bosom;

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know

That’s like my brother’s fault: if it confess

A natural guiltiness such as is his,

Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue

Against my brother’s life.


[Aside] She speaks, and ’tis

Such sense, that my sense breeds with it. Fare you well.

What is happening here? We are moving from principles to persons. Angelo’s sense (a sensual, and sexual, response to Isabella) breeds because she is speaking to his bosom, to his tongue, to an embodied self who felt the need to seek restriction and severity and to court self-punishment. Which is what she sought as well, which is why her sense needs to come to life in this very same scene, though she may not understand as well as Angelo that this is what is happening. They both come into the scene armed against sensuality with the conviction that such feelings are fundamentally base, and it is not an accident that finding fault in virtue’s heart is precisely what softens each to the other.

And right there is the problem, for a contemporary audience. Too many of us come into the play thinking: we already know this lesson. Of course Angelo, instead of opening his heart to Claudio, is going to pursue his sense and try to seduce Isabella, offering her brother’s life in exchange for her virginity. And of course he will prove murderously hypocritical, reneging on his promises when he thinks his demands have been met. We’ve seen this story over and over again, prominently among politicians who proclaim the importance of family values; it isn’t interesting to us anymore. We think we know the remedy: to get over our hang-ups and repressions and accept our natures as natural.

The play does not support that view, and directors generally know this, and try to present the other face of the puritan/libertine coin as equally problematic, but rarely with true conviction. In this production, the entering audience passes through “Mistress Overdone’s Brothel,” a Disneyland-style diorama of sex toys and perfunctory sadomasochism that provoked primarily titters and eye-rolls. More promisingly, the first time we see the Duke, he’s shooting up — a clear indication that we are to see the sexual license of his Vienna as a species of addiction.

But the play does not then take us on an addict’s journey to recovery—or, more darkly, insinuate that all the Duke’s fantastical stratagems (which take up much of the rest of the play from this point on as, in disguise, he labors to engineer every other character’s comeuppance, vindication and moral progress) are just a veteran addict’s manic manipulations of reality. Such a dark view would be fully justified by the text, which, while extremely funny, is also dark in the extreme. This, after all, is a play where the bawd, Pompey Bum, makes a facile transition to being the agent of the hangman, and where the Duke, when restored to power, pardons the murderer Barnardine not because he has repented, but because he is too drunk to apprehend his own impending execution—and he doesn’t know what else to do with him. But if so, how much has he learned of himself?

Instead, the production condescends to Angelo, portrayed as a thoroughly unappealing prig overcome with a schoolgirl’s excitement at her first crush. It is difficult to imagine Marianna, Angelo’s jilted former fiancée, pining for this man—indeed, it is hard to imagine this Angelo having ever acquired a fiancée to jilt in the first place. And is gentle to the Duke, who, in this production, not only we but several other character know actually merits all of Lucio’s defamation, but for whom we are clearly intended to feel an indulgent affection. No criticism is intended of Thomas Jay Ryan or Jonathan Cake for their respective performances, but the overall interpretation rewards our smug prejudgments more than provoke the expansive sympathy that is Isabella’s great achievement.

But we do still have that achievement to hang on. Ricketts delivers her plea for mercy for Angelo with painful conviction, and when she learns her brother is still living, her tearful embrace leaves no room for any other awareness, most definitely including any reproach of the Duke for his deceptions (or an untimely proposal of marriage); she’s too focused on Claudio to even know the Duke is there. And then, when the Duke repeats his marriage proposal when she can hear it, we see Ricketts make a decision in real time — the decision to follow her sense, and take love full on the lips.

It’s a rare decision these days, and a heartily welcome one. Isabella’s journey takes her from being someone who is reluctant to plead for her own brother because he succumbed to a natural urge, to being someone willing to plead for the man who killed her brother, construing his most repellent actions in the most sympathetic possible manner. If I am going to draw a moral out of this slippery play, it is from that journey. In which case, the conclusion I draw from that kiss is that what makes it possible to trust one’s sense — in both Shakespearean senses, of one’s reason and of one’s desire — is the expansiveness of one’s imaginative sympathy. And that, in the end, is probably as satisfactory as anything I can imagine.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.



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