Thoughts on “Measure for Measure”

So, another comedy, and again the comedies have been hit and miss for me (this is a recording) and I’m coming off a comedy that I really disliked.  And “Measure for Measure” commits some of the same sins as “All’s Well that Ends Well”, which is not going to make me pleasantly disposed towards it.  So is this going to be another play that I very much dislike?

The main plot is that the duke of a city leaves it for a while and leaves it in the hands of the person he seems to be mentoring, Angelo.  The duke in some sense seems to want to do this because he wants to tighten up the discipline in the city — especially over sexual matters — but doesn’t want the people to get mad at him over it.  Angelo all unwittingly fulfills his role by sentencing Claudio to death for sex outside of marriage.  Claudio appeals to his sister Isabella to plead for his life, but when she comes to do so Angelo is struck by her and offers to spare Claudio if she will sleep with him.  Meanwhile, the duke returns disguised as a friar to see how things are working out and hears about the plot, and decides to get Isabella to agree to the deal but secretly substitute a woman that Angelo was supposed to marry but whom he completely dropped when her dowry was lost at sea.  Angelo sleeps with this woman thinking that she’s Isabella, but then decides to execute Claudio anyway, which the duke secretly stops.  At the end, all of this is revealed and Angelo has to go off to marry the woman that he wasn’t going to marry, although the duke insists that he should be executed and Angelo seems like he wants to be executed as well, but the woman protests that she really wants to marry Angelo for … some reason and so he is spared.

Angelo’s character is very much like Bertram’s in “All’s Well that Ends Well”, but he doesn’t annoy me as much because he’s not really supposed to be a likeable character.  Interestingly, the play does spend a fair amount of time with his inner thoughts making it clear that he’s more torn over these actions that we might expect, but then doesn’t follow through with that.  Still, he’s clearly more the main antagonist for the real main characters than a main character himself, and the woman he is forced to marry is also not a main character, so with Claudio alive and reunited with his sister we can be happy with how things turned out.  That being said, if they had just followed through with the character that was hinted at at times even this could have been fixed.  Make it clear that the Duke chose him because he was so strict and prudish and so would indeed enforce those laws very strictly.  Then have Angelo be incredibly tempted by Isabella and come up with the idea to trade sex for her brother’s life.  If you want to have him not keep up his end of the bargain, have him justify that by feeling guilty for what he’s done but rationalize it on the basis that if he doesn’t actually trade justice for that sex then he didn’t really sin and it’s all on her.  Yes, that would be hypocritical, but we could understand if not support his actions there.  At the end, then, he could end up in that marriage and accept it while making a rueful point about finally understanding how tempting the pleasures of the flesh can be, justifying the mercy that had typically been shown to people like Claudio — who was in love with and wanted to marry his paramour — and the mercy that Angelo himself receives.

There’s also a subplot with Lucio, Claudio’s friend, who meets the duke while the duke is in disguise and badmouths the duke, only to accuse the duke as friar of doing that, and is revealed to have gotten a woman pregnant that he abandoned, so the duke makes him marry her.  I didn’t care for this subplot because as Claudio’s friend who did make much effort to help him Lucio is somewhat sympathetic, and the rest of it is completely irrelevant to anything else.  So all it does is make a sympathetic character less reputable for no real reason.

Ultimately, though, I’m pretty neutral on the play.  I didn’t find it all that funny but also didn’t hate it.  I managed to get through it in a little less than an hour and a half but neither dislike nor like it.

Now, interestingly, in looking up to make sure that this was a comedy, I came across a comment that this is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it is ambiguous, as it contains elements of his tragedies as well as his comedies.  I have complained about that before in some of his early plays.  That being said, I don’t really see that here.  While the plot involves executions and the like and some character introspection, you can indeed do that in a comedy and I felt that those elements here are there just to move the plot along and set up the stakes rather than as something to be focused on in and of themselves.  If there’s any reason to consider this one ambiguous, it would be because Shakespeare has a tendency to put banter in his dramas and tragedies and so you could ask whether there’s enough banter here to make it a comedy rather than a drama.  Either way, though, that’s probably one reason why I find it rather “blah”, as if it can be considered ambiguous it would be either an inferior drama due to having too many comedic elements or an inferior comedy due to too many dramatic and tragic elements.  Still, I’m personally comfortable treating it as a comedy.

Up next, we return to the dramas with one that I have heard a lot about but never read or watched in “Othello”, which means I can finally start to look forward to reading the next play again.


3 Responses to “Thoughts on “Measure for Measure””

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Othello is one of my favorites, but then so is A Midsummer Night’s Dream so who knows?

  2. Thoughts on “Othello, The Moor of Venice” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] be something that any of my audience would be anticipating, but it turns out that this is one of long-time commenter malcolmthecynic’s favourite Shakespeare plays , and since I didn’t care for one of his other favourites — “A Midsummer […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: