I feel myself indebted to a YouTube channel called Herodotus MK2 The Father of History for posting a wealth of fascinating historical documentaries. One of the series that was uploaded was called The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History which focuses on the later plays of William Shakespeare and the early years of James I’s reign. In the first episode, it discussed a play of Shakespeare’s that I was unfamiliar with, Measure for Measure. The plot of the play intrigued me, so I decided to pick up a used copy of it at Wicked Good Books in downtown Salem.
Measure for Measure focuses on Duke Vincentio of Vienna, who decides to take a break from governing and mix among his people, disguised as a priest. He leaves authority with Angelo, his harsh and puritanical deputy. Angelo seeks to crack down on sexual immorality by closing down the Viennese brothels and by executing those found guilty of fornication, including a young man named Claudio, who has gotten his fiancee, Juliet or Julietta, pregnant. Claudio enlists the help of his sister, Isabella or Isabel, a novice nun known for being an eloquent and persuasive speaker.
I have noticed that Shakespeare tends to do this weird thing with the names of his characters where he gives two different versions of the name: Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sometimes called Helen, Cressida in Troilus and Cressida is often referred to as Cresside, the name of the titular shrew in The Taming of the Shrew alternates between Katherine and Katerina.
The plot of Measure for Measure thickens when Angelo agrees to spare Claudio’s life if the fiercely chaste Isabella agrees to give herself to him. As you can imagine, she will have none of it. Claudio and Isabella start off as sympathetic characters; Claudio seems like a nice guy who wants to marry his pregnant girlfriend and help raise their child but is condemned to die because of an unjust law; Isabella is a sweet and smart girl who wants to save her life of her brother. But the introduction of Angelo’s ultimatum puts them into a worse light. He originally starts off saying that he would rather die than have his sister degrade herself, but then breaks down into sniveling cowardice and pleads with Isabella to give into Angelo’s demands. She insists that his execution is preferable to the loss of her virginity. A possible interpretation of Isabella is that she is little different than the hypocritical and self serving Angelo and would rather throw her own brother under the bus to save her own saintly reputation.
Measure for Measure describes a world filled with corruption and weakness. Those in charge are unjust (like Angelo) or possibly incompetent (like The Duke), and the lower orders are a vice ridden bunch of madams, pimps, and drunkards. The two main heroic characters, the Duke and Isabella, are pretty morally dubious when you think about it. The only person in the story who comes across as perfectly noble is Marianna, Angelo’s former fiancee. Marianna still loves Angelo, although he jilted her after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck (this trope of the girl still loving and easily forgiving the guy even though he treated her like garbage has always bothered me) and agrees to go to bed with him in Isabella’s place, which obliges him to marry her. She has an unshakeable, if misguided, devotion to Angelo and makes a sacrifice for someone else, something that the so called heroine, Isabella, refuses to do.
If you are a fan of Shakespeare and do not mind moral greyness, then I would recommend this play.