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Measure for Measure at the RSC: 1994-95
Alan C. Dessen

A large percentage of today's directorial cuts and adjustments when staging Shakespeare and his contemporaries are linked to concerns about economy (so as to avoid the four hours traffic of the stage) and obscurity (so as to eliminate hard words, difficult syntax, mythological allusions, and other features opaque to auditors without access to an Arden or Revels edition). Sometimes changes are occasioned by theatrical exigencies, most notably limits in personnel. More controversial are comparable changes that take out recalcitrant elements that jar with a director's interpretation. Consider Steven Pimlott's RSC production of Measure for Measure as remounted at the Barbican, a show that had the distinction of presenting an Isabella (Stella Gonet) who at the end both slaps and kisses the duke. This director made a variety of cuts (e.g., Pompey's soliloquy that begins 4.3), but two struck me as provocative. First, all the appearances of Friar Peter in 4.5, 4.6, and 5.1 were gone. To dispense with this friar's lines in the complex final scene (see 5.1.137-62) is to save some running time at the expense of narrative continuity and theatrical rhythm, a trade-off I question but not one of monumental importance to most playgoers. An unexpected result of Friar Peter's erasure, however (as pointed out to me by Homer Swander), was to change radically the terms of Barnadine's pardon. In Pimlott's version, the duke's initial lines to Barnadine were included ("Thou'rt condemned; / But, for those earthly faults, I quit them all, / And pray thee take this mercy to provide / For better times to come"--5.1.478-81) but, for obvious reasons, what follows was cut: "Friar, advise him: / I leave him to your hand" (481-82). With no visible churchly presence in this Vienna after Friar Lodowick is gone, Barnadine gets the kind of carte blanche mercy associated with the previous sixteen years under the duke (or with Escalus' failed handling of Pompey in 2.1) rather than being left (not a completely "free" man) in the care of the friar so that he can come to terms with heavenly matters. Barnadine may not be a central concern to many playgoers, but Boyd's change significantly affected any evaluation of the duke's judgment which as played here represented a step backwards rather than forwards.

Even more telling was the omission of an exchange between Michael Feast's quirky, troubled duke and Isabella, a passage that clearly stood in the way of the desired interpretation but one that for me serves as a litmus test of any reading of this difficult scene. Between the departure of Angelo and Mariana to be married and their return the duke explains to Isabella why he allowed Claudio to die (supposedly "the swift celerity of his death" forestalled his efforts), a sequence that builds to "but peace be with him. / That life is better life past fearing death, / Than that which lives to fear. Make it your comfort, / So happy is your brother" to which she responds "I do, my lord" (5.1.390-95). As played here, these lines were linked to a growing anger on Isabella's part, including an obvious irritation at "make it your comfort" that eventually led to her ripping a crucifix from his costume and the slap. Earlier in this same beat, however, in response to the duke's "I am still / Attorneyed at your service," the Folio has her reply: "O, give me pardon, / That I, your vassal, have employed and pained / Your unknown sovereignty" to which he responds: "You are pardoned, Isabel" (380-83).

For whatever reason, this begging and granting of pardon were gone. After all, what woman of spirit (and Isabella is surely that) would not bridle at "comfort" from a supposed authority figure who was too slow on the uptake to save her brother? Why should she, the injured party, ask for pardon for employing and paining his sovereignty, known or unknown? But the "make it your comfort" line (treated negatively by this Isabella) is a clear echo of the lengthy "be absolute for death" discourse Friar Lodowick delivers to Claudio in 3.1 and has a sound theological basis that would be fully apparent to a would-be nun. Moreover, although many 1990s readers and playgoers may disapprove, Shakespeare's Isabella clearly does beg pardon, an action that conveys something significant, however interpreted, about deeply engrained assumptions about hierarchy and authority. Isabella may still end up hostile to or ambiguous about the duke's offer of marriage, but how are we to assess an interpretation (or a build to the slap) that can only be sustained by eliminating a significant piece of evidence?

The changes made by Pimlott, linked as they are to the gender politics of the 1990s, strike me as belonging to a different category. Measure generates controversy among both academics and general playgoers; it contains silences and problems that can lead interpreters in very different directions. For some audiences, the script can prove unacceptable. How then should playgoers view "improvements" in the received texts that make possible an interpretation more suitable to today's prevailing sensibilities? Are such directorial choices a sign of creative energy and ingenuity in combating the ravages time has wrought on historically specific onstage situations? Or do such choices display a lapse in creative imagination wherein a thesis takes precedence over the evidence (a situation not unknown in the scholarly world)? Are Isabella's request for pardon a throwaway item easily discarded by the director-as-playwright or is it an essential ingredient for any interpretation? Who is to decide? Clearly, playgoing in the 1990s (to borrow from Brutus) "craves wary walking" (2.1.15).

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