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In the 400 years since this play was written, many people more qualified than myself have ventured their opinions on it. In the new millennium, there are some who would argue it has lost its relevance, but I am not amongst that number. Besides, it’s a play that’s full of fun. See what you think ….
PLOT SUMMARY (with some minor details deliberately withheld)
In the opening scene of Act I we see the main character of the play, the Duke of Vienna, making arrangements for a period of absence. His deputy, Angelo, is to be fully empowered to act on his behalf. The Duke appears unsure of the decision and is wondering how his deputy will perform. Another character, Escalus, thinks that this appointment is well made. Angelo is initially hesitant and protests that he is not ready for the responsibility, but he is quickly silenced by the Duke who emphasizes to Angelo that he should “enforce or qualify the laws as to your soul seems good”.
Angelo uses his new-found authority to clamp down on prostitution within the city, and enforces a neglected law which effectively prohibits sex before marriage. He chooses to make an example of Claudio, whose intended wife, Juliet, is pregnant but who is technically not married as there has been a delay in transferring the dowry. Claudio is arrested and sentenced to be executed within 3 days. Through a friend (Lucio), Claudio contacts his sister Isabella who is on the verge of entering a closed order of nuns and persuades her to appeal to Angelo for Claudio’s life.
The Duke’s absence from Vienna, however, is only feigned. The Duke asks a friar of a local monastery to supply him with a habit and train him so that he may pass himself off as a true friar. His purpose is to go about Vienna meeting both “prince and people” in cognito. In his conversation with the friar, the Duke laments that he has allowed many laws to be disregarded through his failure to enforce them, and admits that he has set Angelo up to take action, but he clearly also doubts Angelo’s judgment ability.
At the start of Act II, Escalus is beginning to doubt and question Angelo’s judgment. He attempts to persuade Angelo to pardon Claudio but is unsuccessful. We also learn about how prevalent prostitution is within Vienna and how commonplace the practice of conceiving a child before marriage has become. Plenty of opportunity is there for Shakespeare to delight in the bawdiness. Escalus can see the wisdom in taking some action but does not approve of Angelo’s choice of Claudio as an example.
When Isabella entreats Angelo to pardon Claudio it has the unexpected result that Angelo is overcome with feelings of lust for her. He still refuses to pardon Claudio but invites her to return the next day to satisfy his own infatuation. When she does so, Angelo propositions her. He offers her the chance to save her brother’s life if she agrees to sleep with him. Isabella is understandably outraged and threatens to tell the world about Angelo’s behaviour. But Angelo is quick to point out to her that people would be unlikely to believe her.
The Duke uses his disguise to visit Juliet in prison who confesses her part in the crime for which Claudio is sentenced to die.
At the start of Act III we again see the Duke in his disguise as the friar, this time visiting Claudio, and shortly thereafter being in a position to overhear Isabella visiting Claudio and relating her experiences with Angelo. This is a turning point in the play as the Duke’s energy is thereafter devoted to exposing Angelo’s unjust treatment of Isabella and achieving justice for Claudio and Juliet. It transpires that the Duke was already aware that Angelo had previously been betrothed to a lady Mariana who had miscarried a child, and when it had become apparent that there would be no dowry, Angelo had claimed the child was not his and put an end to the marriage thereby disgracing Mariana. This is Angelo’s skeleton-in-the-cupboard.
There is much humour as Shakespeare exploits the farcical situations that arise as a result of the Duke’s disguise. He encounters both Lucio and Escalus. Lucio, unaware of the Duke’s identity, proceeds to slander the Duke, egged on by the Duke himself, whereas Escalus acts with much greater fidelity, wisdom and wit.
Act IV is full of action with very many short scenes. The Duke meets with Isabella and Mariana to gain their participation in a plot to trick Angelo. The Duke revisits the prison this time to interfere with the preparations being made for the executions of Claudio and another man, a drunken murderer. At one point the Duke is able to prove that he is acting on the authority of the Duke, without breaking his cover as a friar. Actions are taken to keep Claudio alive but to convince Angelo that Claudio is dead. Angelo receives notification of the Duke’s imminent return. The Duke engages another friar to help cover for him as a friar when he must shed his friar’s robe to return to his role as the Duke. Mariana and Isabella together try to make sense of the Duke’s instructions to them for his forthcoming return in which they are requested to play a part.
Act V sees the Duke fully back in control. He has planned his return and all the others play their roles either in line with his instructions or, in the case of Angelo and Lucio, quite unwittingly. There are very many twists and turns as each of the characters gets the opportunity to behave according to their nature, and gets to receive the Duke’s form of justice as a result. Handing out measure for measure, the Duke ensures that Angelo receives his come-uppance, that Mariana’s honour is restored, and that Claudio and Juliet get a chance to live happily ever after. As for the unfortunate Lucio who slandered the Duke while he was in disguise listening, there is a very humorous part where he switches to badmouthing the friar to the Duke still quite unaware of the friar’s identity. The highest honour is awarded to Isabella but interpretations differ as to what exactly happens at the end.
When I started reading Measure for Measure, it was purely to satisfy a superficial curiosity. I wanted to know what the play was about. I soon got sucked into the plot and found reading it for the first time as gripping as a thriller novel. Would Claudio who was clearly a nice guy who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time survive? The odds were stacked against him. How far would Angelo abuse his power particularly with regard to Isabella? The odds were stacked against her. And even at the end when most of the tensions seemed to have been resolved satisfactorily, I was left still wanting to know for sure what would happen next.
I have now read the play many times, and each time I find new details that passed me by on earlier readings. The language was quite hard at first, but as you get to know the characters it is easier on re-reading.
The characters are so well done that they do not categorise easily into Hero and Villain. The Duke may mastermind just solutions and be loved by his people as a result, but the means by which he achieves his ends are highly dubious, and by his own standards his rule prior to the period of the play had been a failure. Angelo may have had a murky past and clearly abuses his position with regard to Isabella, but he was at least trying to do what he thought was right to restore the laws of the land after a period of neglect by the Duke. Even Lucio, for whom one can only have contempt, performs a vital role in the plot as if he had not managed to get to the nunnery quickly and persuade Isabella that she needed to come, there would have been nobody to plead for Claudio’s life. While Isabella emerges as the Heroine without competition, it is hard to have sympathy for some of her reasoning for not helping her brother more in the early stages of the play.
The plot lacks plausibility on many counts, but it doesn’t matter. Theatre does not need to echo reality to that extent. Many of the issues raised are real and the situations have parallels even in our lives today. To what extent do ends justify means? What qualities are desirable in our leaders? The answers found in this play, however, do not readily transfer back to real life. But then Shakespeare never promised that they would. He provided a means of entertainment, a mix of things to think about and things to laugh about. Measure for Measure has plenty of both.