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Measure for Measure

November 20, 2009 at 2:30 pm
By Collin Hazlett

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is a tricky play to stage, but the Carleton Players managed to pull it off with style to spare this term.

Measure for Measure is often called one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," because, while it was originally billed as a comedy, it is pretty serious and dark for a comedy. It involves (I'm going to spoil the plot now, so don't read this if you don't want to be spoiled) two engaged lovers in Vienna, who conceive a child out of wedlock. Normally, the Viennese legal system would not go too hard on them for this, but the easygoing Duke of Vienna is out of town, and has been temporarily replaced by Lord Angelo, who takes a firm stance against that sort of thing. In fact, he sentences the father, Claudio, to death. Claudio's sister, the nun-to-be Isabella, goes to Angelo to plead her brother's case, and he, the supposed moral hard-liner, suggests that she sleep with him if she wants her brother to live.

Not the funniest material in the world.

Of course, there is ample opportunity for comedy later: Angelo is tricked into sleeping with a woman he dislikes who is actually technically married to him, then when he orders Claudio executed anyway, he is tricked into believing that Claudio has been beheaded when he has not, and the helpful friar turns out to be the Duke in disguise, who, having witnessed Angelo's crimes, is able to punish him for them.

But still. It's pretty morally weighty and unpleasant for a comedy.

And the Players really played up the darkness and moral ambiguity. Most of the characters, especially Claudio and Isabella, go through an emotional wringer in the play, and this was fully reflected in the production, with plenty of realistic distress emanating from both those characters. Also, Angelo was portrayed not as a complete monster but as an outwardly reasonable man who is being turned into a monster by his inability to control his passions.

And, distinctively, the costumes are modern: Angelo and the Duke are dressed in suits and ties, a few of their assistants are secretaries with clipboards, and the more seedy characters wear denim and studded leather. The fact that the play is apparently taking place in the modern age makes the darker parts even more unnerving.

Within the Carleton English department, Shakespeare falls under the academic jurisdiction of Pierre Hecker, who gave a presentation a week before the play's debut exploring some of the questions surrounding Measure for Measure. I can't possibly write about all the things that Pierre talked about, but one of the more intriguing things he discussed was that, in the script, there is no indication of how Isabella is supposed to respond to the Duke's marriage proposal at the end. She has no lines or stage directions that would give any hint of how she is supposed to react. It's up to the director to decide whether she happily accepts, angrily storms out, or drops dead on the spot from shock. Pierre Hecker said in his presentation that he's seen it done many different ways, but that ultimately her choice at the end has to be consistent with the way she's been played up to that point.

In the Players production, this is what happened: Isabella looked stunned and was motionless when the Duke first hinted at a marriage proposal, and then, when he finally got around to proposing, there was an extremely long, dramatically awkward pause. It was probably at least ten seconds long. Finally, she crossed the stage and hugged him. When I saw the play, there was an audible sigh afterward as all the audience members stopped holding their breaths.

Regardless of whether or not that was the ending that the original cast of Measure for Measure performed, it certainly was consistent with the hesitant personality of the Players' Isabella and the emotional drama of the rest of the play.

So, all in all, the Players' Measure for Measure was a comedy with more morally ambiguity and emotionally intensity than you might expect. Well played, Players.