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Kneelings, Pardons, and Other Actions: Charting Options in Act 5 of Measure for Measure
Edward L. Rocklin


(1) To explore how a playtext--this playtext--uses repeated key actions, such as kneelings and pardons to shape and project a design. (Another way to say this, which Audrey Stanley suggests, is to note that this activity looks at the structure of the scene, the bones, if you will, of what is, when fully fleshed out, an enormously complex act, which can take 45 minutes or more in performance.) (2) To have students engage in actor-like exploration of the wide range options offered by such a design; and learn to debate which actions are mandated, which actions delimited, and which actions are open to the actors' invention. (3) Conversely, to explore the pressure for having the suite of options selected form some larger pattern. (4) To explore how actors and director might select among these options to create a specific closure in production. (5) And to learn about the ways in which the design of this play permits, indeed invites, contrasting or even contradictory closures. (6) To reflect on the question "What does the ending of a play do?" This activity has two main virtues: first, it makes us attend to a crucial pattern of action that is inherent in the design of Act 5; but second, as we explore what may initially seem the constraining nature of the pattern, we discover how much it opens up the scene: attending to the specific choices proves to be a generative act, stimulating many further inventions by the students, and thus revealing the amazing richness of possibility in this scene.

NUMBER OF STUDENTS This is a whole class activity which also means you can do it with very few students. If you use this as a prelude to performance, then you need eleven people to perform the scene undoubled: Duke, Isabella, Escalus, Angelo, Mariana, Claudio, Juliet, Lucio, Provost, Friar Thomas, and Barnadine; but the opening SD calls for Varrius, Lords, Officers, and Citizens, so you can get a quite large class into the act. Rather than performing the whole act, however, you are probably better off performing several segments with smaller clusters of actors.

EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES Copies of the text-and, if you like the Folio text also. And either a board or a flip chart where you can diagram at least some of the basic pattern students discern. Flip charts have the advantage of giving you a permanent record you can use later on--but if you use the board you can also ask one or two students to be recorders.

CLASS TIME NEEDED This takes at least 30 minutes just to move through the scene with a quick charting, because once the participants really engage in the task they come to perceive many cues and options besides the (relatively) few obvious ones they will have noted in their individual reading of the scene. And of course this can be used as the concluding activity for study of the play as a whole You certainly can spend an hour not only doing the activity but having students formulate what they learned from their own exploration.


1. The first step should be a homework assignment, namely that the students re-read the scene and mark all the places where they believe one or more of the characters kneel, and the moments when the Duke pardons one or more of the characters. This can be done in class, but then allow sufficient time.

2. On the board or flip chart, you should have already constructed a chart that will record their suggestions. A simple chart will look like this (for purposes of this presentation I have marked the scene in 20 line segments; with more space, you can mark it in 10 line segments; and you may want to shift from 20 to 10 line segments after the moment when the Friar is revealed as the Duke; if you use the Folio, then you can use the TLNs):


Line #s


3. I begin by asking for the first kneeling that anyone has noted; and each time someone offers the first kneeling I ask "Has anyone marked an earlier kneeling?" I do this whether or not I think the class has "missed" an implicit stage direction, so that the question is genuinely open, serving to invite contrasting perceptions of the implicit SD and the design.

4. You can keep the chart simple with just these three categories; but if the discussion warrants it or if students prompt it, you can add other repeated actions, such as the unveilings and proposals of or orders for marriage. But even with just the three categories the chart is likely to become surprisingly dense, especially in the second half of the scene.


There is no way to enumerate all the points that emerge from this activity: as students note the kneelings and then the causes for the kneelings, but a few crucial ones are clear: First, students discover how pervasive the cues for kneeling and the pardons are in this scene--and they will eventually wonder what is the relation between the Duke's design and the playwright's design. Eventually, they should recognize almost everyone in the scene either kneels or must resist a cue to kneel, and, even more striking, that by the time the scene ends the Duke has in effect pardoned almost the entire cast of characters--in a sense pardoned all of Vienna which has come to celebrate his return. If they have not wondered about this before, perception of this pattern will impel someone to wonder if the Duke himself is in need ot or can be imagined seeking pardon, or kneeling, and if so from whom, to whom? This activity usually also raises issues about the nature of the comedy (if any) in this scene: for one thing, once they start seeing how many optional cues that could provoke kneelings there are, students recognize a potential for an almost farcical quality to the scene, with people kneeling and rising in a laughter inducing rhythm. Most of all, starting with this relatively external focus on activity nonetheless leads directly to the exploration of more complex questions of motive and character, and of making choices. And the question of timing also emerges, particularly in relation to Isabellašs decision to join Mariana in asking the Duke to pardon Angelo. At this point, you can note that in the famous Peter Brook production of 1950, Isabella took 35 seconds before she decided to join Mariana in kneeling for Angelo's pardon--and a quick performance of this segment will let everyone experience what an extraordinarily long time that must have seemed in performance.

As a way of initiating the next phase of discussion, I use a prompt that I use in many situations when I want to shift from exploration to reflection, "One thing that is becoming clear to me about the design of this scene is..." You can make this prompt even more specific, of course, depending both on how the discussion has played out and your own purposes.


The sources here are, first of all, the design of scene itself with its quite intriguing explicit and implicit stage directions; second, seeing productions of the scene and reading reviews of production; third, Philip McGuire's exploration of the ending in Chapter 4 of Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences (University of California, 1985).

Penny Gay, As She Likes It. Shakespeare's Unruly Women (Routledge, 1994) Chapter 4 "Measure for Measure: Sex and power in a patriarchal society."

Robert Hapgood, Shakespeare the Theatre Poet (Oxford, 1998), Chapter 7 models the practice of conducting "imaginary rehearsals."

Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, editors. Players of Shakespeare 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Players of Shakespeare 3 (CUP, 1993). Each volume has an essay by an actor who has played the Duke.

Graham Nichols, Measure for Measure: Text and Performance (Macmillan, 1986).

Carol Rutter, et. al., Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today (Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, 1989) Chapter 2 "Isabella: Virtue Betrayed?"


As noted, you can create more complex variations simply by putting more of the key mandated actions in the chart to begin with. You can also, of course, develop a number of writing prompts and assignments based on this charting.
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