Tickets to Measure for Measure were the only ones I could get at late notice; Richard III was sold out. Measure for Measure had never been of any particular interest to me. I'd never heard it quoted. I'd never seen a performance of it. To my knowledge no producer had tackled it with the kind of blockbuster recreation that would give it new life. But I rented my chair cushion and off we went to the Globe for an afternoon of being transported, hopefully, to the nearest thing we could get to a performance at Shakespeare's real Globe Theater. Off we went for a four hour session, thankful for our cushions and amazed at the performance, which still lingers in my mind.
Measure for Measure is described as a problem play rather than a comedy or romance, I suppose because it presents a problem to the viewer, like what the heck is this play supposed to be about?
Here's the problem M for M presented me with: How did Shakespeare write such strong roles for women? The set up for this problem play is simple: The Duke of Vienna decides he's been too slack, so he pretends to leave town, delegating the job of tidying up the low moral standards of his town to his reliable buddy Angelo, who turns out to be a creep. He immediately condemns Claudio to death for getting his fiance pregnant. (They were almost married -- there was a legal complication. They intend to marry.) Claudio sends a friend off to urge his sister Isabella, who is on the verge of becoming a nun the next day, to argue on her brother's behalf. Evidently she's a regular golden tongued Portia.
So she begs for mercy for her brother from cold hearted, self-righteous Angelo, who promptly falls in love with her. He offers her a bargain. If she sleeps with him, he will release her brother. She sees this as a choice between her brother's immediate execution and her eternal damnation, and eternal damnation doesn't look that good to her. Of course, it looks OK to her brother.
There are some fun comic characters in M for M, but for the most part, the real drama of the play all revolves around Isabella and the choice she must make. The brother is, for the most part, offstage. The Duke is almost a zany, with his bedtricks and headtricks. The court fop is an absurdity.
The women, by contrast, are victims:
- Claudio's fiancee Juliet is almost at term, and Angelo has condemned Claudio to death.
- Angelo's former fiancee Mariana was dumped five years earlier by Angelo when her brother and her dowry went down in the same catastrophic wreck at sea. Angelo never spoke to her again.
- Isabella is expected to sacrifice herself for her brother. This is the real problem of this play. Should a woman allow herself to be victimized for another, to the extent of submitting to what she believes will be eternal damnation?
The framework of the play, the comic relief supplied by Mistress Overdone and Elbow's errant wife, only served to emphasize what Isabella's position would be in society if she gave herself to Angelo. The fact that he admitted in an aside that he had no intention of freeing her brother afterwards only emphasized her need for strength.
The play was beautifully presented and I thoroughly enjoyed being in the Globe. But I came away that evening feeling that I had just seen a play dealing with women's issues to an extent one rarely finds in literature today. That night I went to my friend Google and typed "Shakespeare was a woman". Amelia Bassano's name popped up in the Globe and Mail article, "Was Shakespeare a Woman."