Measure for Measure
By: William Shakespeare
Format/Source: Mass market paperback; my copy
My first review of the play
Although performed before King James I in 1604, the text of Measure, For Measure was not published until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. This First Folio text, printed from a transcript by King’s Mens scrivener Ralph Crane of Shakespeare’s own foul papers, preserves Shakespeare’s authorial process, including his changes in plot, character, theme and structure. As such it offers a unique view of the author’s writing and rewriting of his own play. Once dismissed as an ‘assembled’ text or as a ‘darkened’ text, adapted or botched by later revisers, the Folio text instead presents a superbly written play about intensely complex issues, including the uses of morality and sexuality. The original and genuine text of Measure, For Measure offers Shakespeare at his most brilliant and intricate.
So I read this book sometime in the first half of 2015 and thought it interesting if not also problematic and a bit of a head scratcher. Strangely enough though it sort of stuck in my mind long after I read the text so I decided to re-read it in the latter half of 2015 in hopes of gaining some more insight about the play and the characters and the themes of the story (rather OT but poor book review kept getting pushed back later and later, as you can see by the date; oops). Contains spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the play/are not familiar with it!
So I’ve re-read it. And I’m still perplexed by it! On the one hand it does open much dialogue on a number of issues: justice and how it is carried out, law and governance, the flexibility/inflexibility of people, hypocrisy (big time!!!), sin, principles, corruption, and relationships. In a way it’s a very timely play in our day and age and some of the issues that our society is facing these days, and like our society, the characters in this play all have their own opinion of the matter. But the way that the plot plays out, the decisions and stances that the characters take: it’s just baffling, infuriating, and downright ponderous.
For starters, I still find the Duke relatively spineless, leaving his kingdom the way he did to Angelo, and later berating him when Angelo commits grave crimes of his own. I’m not at all supporting Angelo, what he did was wrong and he is no victim here (except to his own failures) especially after he examined his own behaviour and still decided to go through with his proposition to Isabelle, abusing his authority as ruler in the Duke’s stead. I still stand by the parallels that I can see between the Duke and Angelo to Richard II and Bolingbroke in Richard II (review) in the way they rule and the principles in which they conduct themselves with. But I don’t really understand why the Duke acted the way he did, which he continued to use trickery and misdirection and omitted truths to maneuver people around (well, I sort of did after the following paragraph, but still).
And while I admit Isabelle for standing by her principles unwaveringly, I think she was also being super harsh with her brother. Maybe it’s my own big sisterness kicking in, but she seemed ready to toss her brother off and be done with because of a mistake that caught him at hair’s breath on the wrong side of Angelo’s new regime. I felt she could’ve tried a bit harder to save him (Angelo’s gross suggestion aside). She also was rather unfeeling of her brother’s situation, that he was facing death, that in retrospect her steadfastness because something of a coldness to her character.
On a lighter note, lmao at Barnardine for not wanting to go along with the Duke’s plan and dying–I don’t blame him.
What’s cool about the Signet classics edition are the essays that accompany the text, which are really informative (as pretty as the RSC editions are, they could use another essay–or five), especially in this case. One essay looked at the play from the perspective of Christian teaching; using that frame of reference, I can see how and why matters were dealt the way they were, how the Duke resorted to half-truths and evasively maneuvering around all of the characters to get them to confront their own failings, even the rigid Isabelle. Not entirely satisfying, but it made for a certain logic. Another essay encouraged readers and the audience to approach the play as a kind of fairy tale, with a moral story associated to it and things ending up happily ever after, justice handed out, etc. Again, I’m not entirely satisfied by that approach, but again the logic makes sense. All in all, the message I seem to get from the essays is that you need to approach this kind of play from a different perspective or using a particular framework in order for it to make some sense.
While the re-read highlighed a few more things about the story and the characters, I’m still just as ponderous about the book as I was the first time. Nonetheless it was interesting to revisit the play and ponder on it further. Maybe I’ll revisit it again one day in the future, maybe discover something I missed or approach it from a different perspective.