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Performance Activity for Measure for Measure 2.4
Ellen Summers

Once students learn that performance choices help define and communicate a character, they need to consider how those choices affect (and effect) later action and character development throughout the play. At the end of Measurefor Measure, the Duke has the opportunity to pardon several people--Angelo and Lucio, most significantly, but also the Provost and to propose to Isabella. How he has related to these characters earlier will have a significant effect on the ending of the play. This exercise is designed to provide students with an opportunity to experiment with several readings/scenarios from early in the play and then to discover how the earlier readings will affect later stagings (as well as later audience perception). In each case, an early scene is given with several possibilities. Then, the appropriate sections from Act 5 are noted. Have the students develop each scenario; then have the class discuss the various presentations. Next, have the group present the section from Act 5 and discuss how the earlier readings affect that final moment.

First Reading: Angelo, a polished sexual extortionist, stalks a helpless Isabella. Angelo shows a knack for legalistic manipulation, and Isabella realizes what he is up to too late to save herself. Angelo may pursue Isabella physically by repeatedly attempting to close the physical distance between them; Isabella may counter by evading his advances. Isabella perceives his drift very late in the conversation; her outrage is swallowed in her terror at his apparently irresistible malice . The encounter may end in an embrace, that Isabella forcibly breaks. Angelo is clearly in control of the interview, and has little to fear from his interlocutor. Isabella may be dissolved in confusion, fear, or helpless vacillations of emotion throughout.

Second Reading: Angelo (sadist) nails Isabella (masochist) to the wall. A quasi-rape. Angelo is excited at tracking his prey; whether cold or increasingly uncontrolled, he is driven by a desire to torment his helpless victim. Isabella seems to egg him on, however unconsciously; her very helplessness and innocence show a kind of submission, a willingness to play victim. She never dominates or even scores a point in their verbal exchanges; she may cringe, try to ingratiate herself with him; she may kneel or be otherwise brought to her knees. Throughout, Angelo dominates the stage in an exaggerated fashion. Isabella seems destined for physical humiliation by the end, and her ineffectiveness in resisting Angelo's games looks like collusion.

Third Reading: Isabella intimidates and humiliates an ineffective "tyrant." Isabella takes the initiative in the interview; clearly Angelo and not she is on trial. Angelo cannot maintain control of the conversation for long. Isabella turns most of his statements and questions into indictments of him personally and of men in general. Although he tries to regain the lead throughout their exchanges, Isabella does not give an inch. His final threats fall flat, as an unintimidated Isabella contemptuously brushes it away. She is devoid of fear and draws her energy from a sense of moral superiority. Isabella claims the stronger stage position and dispossesses Angelo of them whenever he momentarily attains them.

Fourth Reading: Virginal Angelo, lacking the savoir-faire to seduce, improvises legal manipulation, while Isabella unconsciously encourages him. Angelo, timid, inexperienced in courtship, cannot arouse the interest he seeks in his beloved. Although he returns to his key question five times, never does he accomplish that perfect wording, the subtle yet unmistakable overture that communicates to her all that he longs to convey. He seems reluctant to deal with the proposition directly, and his moves are always indirect, as if he were afraid of being rejected. Everything Isabella does piques Angelo's desire for her, though she has no idea that this is happening. She seems unaware that her attitude of modesty, deference, and submission and her attempts to touch, wheedle, or otherwise please Angelo make her unlikely to succeed in obtaining a pardon on her terms.

Thus, the self-defeating ineptitude of both characters may make much of the scene seem bizarrely comic. Angelo tries to take strong positions onstage but finds it impossible to keep them, for verbally he is defeated over and over by Isabella's incomprehension of his design. When he finally overcomes his timidity to blurt out that he loves Isabella, her surprise is genuine if overly naive. In fact, this is an encounter of two naifs. Angelo may be trying to turn it into a genuine love scene, perhaps even an honorable proposal of marriage; but it would be hard to imagine taking such a man seriously as a lover. His last speech may express hurt at being rejected more than a desire for control.
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