“Measure for Measure,” from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare

Apologies–internet went out or this would’ve been posted late Christmas Day for my “12 days of Shakespeare”. Anyhoo…

Measure for Measure is probably the best of the plays featuring complex scheming and bait-and-switch that I’ve read so far. I love the characters for the most part, even the despicable ones because their nature is quite clear to the audience.

Isabella is the main character, in that whatever happens revolves around her decisions and her relationships to the other characters. She’s a virtuous young woman who is about to enter a nunnery, at least until she gets word that her brother, Claudio, has been arrested for impregnating his lover, Juliet, before marriage. Lord Angelo, the temporary ruler in the Duke’s absence, decides to make a moral example of Claudio and execute him. Angelo feels that Vienna has gotten too morally lax and the morality laws must be enforced. The Duke is actually present, but spends most of the play disguised as a Friar so he can understand the events that are going on in his kingdom and watch how Angelo acts while in power.

Claudio’s friends try to intervene on his behalf, and the last is Isabella, engaging in some fantastic tete-a-tete that only makes her more attractive to Angelo over the conversation. He eventually agrees to have her brother released if she gives her virginity to him. Appalled, she refuses, and this is the catalyst for everything that follows.

Measure for Measure is definitely a morality play, but not a preachy one. It is more questioning, and makes the characters (and audience) ask what is moral or less moral regarding love, sex, authority, and promises. Angelo is meant to be hypocritical and despicable, and his actions follow, especially what we learn regarding Angelo’s jilted fiance, Mariana.

Isabella’s refusal could sound a bit cold to a modern audience (which thanks to over-saturation in pop culture) that seems to think so little of consensual sex. However, as the play goes on and characters are motivated to act…let’s just say it’s a good idea she didn’t sleep with Angelo.

Claudio and Juliet are the difficult ones to pin down. Claudio’s relationship with Juliet was consensual, and they were all but officially married, and yet there’s little on how he truly feels for Juliet in his words and actions. You don’t see them together speaking (at least, not alone) and there’s little from Juliet at all regarding her feelings for Claudio, except little asides at how sorry she is about their fate and the impending execution of her near-husband.

I think this is a good play to read, and would love to see it performed. I’m sure there’d be more physical dialogue that would help some of the more confusing relationships out. Worth a read.

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