Main Menu - HomePage - The Play

Measure for Measure: Making a Play for the Maid
Edward L. Rocklin


In his thoughtful meditation "Reviewing Shakespeare for the Record," Alan Dessen offers a useful anatomy of "basic problems and pitfalls [that] continue to bedevil the reviewer for the record:

"Consider first a problem inherent in all writing but particularly in writing reviews: the need for a balance between the general and the specific so as to combine inclusiveness (coverage, abundance of detail) with selectivity and control (not all details are significant or useful). At one extreme lies a verbal account equivalent to a film of the show (an iamb-by-iamb description).... At the other extreme lies the judgmental court review (x is innocent, y is guilty) that provides no sense of the performance at all but reveals a great deal about the reviewer's likes and dislikes. To be readable, a review must have some limits, but what are to be the criteria for inclusion or exclusion (again, a problem inherent in all kinds of criticism but especially thorny when dealing with a rich, "busy," three-hour long production that most readers will not have seen?)"

Similarly, he enumerates a set of six issues he finds compelling in writing his own reviews, and notes that "provocative choices by actors and directors should be part of the record." But the production I am about to examine (and this piece is not going to be a "review" within the mainstream version of that genre) is one that seems to demand that a reviewer do both things. For given the density of its provocative choices (from a preshow to an extra-textual ending), I have found myself trying to write an iamb-by-iamb record of what proved to be dozens, perhaps over one hundred provocative choices. There were, in fact, so many provocative choices, small and large, that it often seemed to me and those with whom I discussed the production (which I saw twice in one day), that its inventiveness overwhelmed any possible coherence. In particular, the ending of the play raised interpretive challenges with an intensity that is rare even in a time when productions of Measure for Measure have been noted for the challenges they present to their audiences.

In order to present my analysis I need to say a bit about earlier parts of the production. I can do this by simply enumerating a number of key elements that contributed to the shaping of the ending, and thus to how we were invited to make meaning from our experience of that ending. First, when we looked at the program, we discovered that the last three dramatis personae were Elbow's Wife, Death, and the Young Duke--figures who neither appear in the Folio text nor in the enumeration at the end of that text. Second, when we entered the theater, we saw the whole stage open to the building's back wall, with props and costumes and clutter everywhere. Third, there was a "Preshow," which consisted of little bits of the show, performed mostly by Constable Elbow, Mistress Overdone, and other inhabitants of the underworld. This Preshow seemed to end as we were plunged into darkness, but in that darkness we heard moaning which quickly became erotic, the voices of women and men presumably rising to orgasm. Fourth, when the play opened, the Duke entered wearing a loose gray sweater and baggy tartan pants like those of a clown, and he began packing two suitcases, into which he tried to cram a globe. Fifth, at some point after 1.3, the Duke established himself in an upstage area, against the back wall, sitting with a loose-leaf notebook, and surrounded by a clutter of objects. Sixth, when he became a Friar the Duke also put on dark glasses and acquired a cane with which he went tapping around the stage, as if he were blind. With these pieces in place, I turn to describing the ending.

Going beyond the measure: exploding the ending(s)

As 5.1 began, the returning Duke entered in the clothes he had worn when leaving in 1.1, carrying the suitcases and the globe. He seemed to be laughing at what those naughty boys Angelo and Escalus had done while he was away. As the Duke spoke his greetings, he began to distribute presents: there was a white, near-life-size angel paper figure for Angelo, which the Duke set up on the judgment seat next to the deputy; shoes or slippers for Escalus; and so on. Furthermore, throughout the scene the Duke seemed very much a stage manager, sometimes miming signals such as "hurry up" to various speakers.

Towards the end of the scene, at the moment when Lucio unmasked the Friar as the Duke, Lucio broke the cane and tripped the Friar-Duke while others piled on to strip his robes. Of course the onstage characters were shocked, but so were we--because while we knew who the Friar really was, we had no idea that he had changed his costume, and that underneath his robe this time he was wearing the black tights and open-throated white shirt often taken to be Elizabethan or Jacobean dress. Furthermore, as the scene continued he seemed to become a figure of genuine power in a way we had never seen before, his voice rising in volume as it dropped in pitch to fill the theater with the "Measure still for Measure" couplet. At this moment, the now-married Angelo put his head on the block (again)--and this time the headsman raised the ax so that it was hovering a mere foot above Angelo's neck. This was a frozen moment, with all of the characters grouped around the block, and it showed either the onstage director, the Duke, or the offstage director, Yossi Yzraely, pushing the play--and if not the play, then certainly Angelo--as close to tragedy as it could get. All eyes turned to Isabel as Mariana begged her to kneel. It was a long, long moment until she did kneel, and the tension prompted the desperate Mariana to shout out an extra-textual "Isabel!" And thus we arrived at the silences of Barnardine, Claudio, Juliet, and Isabella, as well as at meeting the added dramatis personae.

Barnardine's silence actually had two elements, separated by most of the remaining lines of the play. When the Provost brought in Barnardine and Claudio they were both "muffled" with shopping bags over their heads. While being pardoned, Barnardine shook his head "No!" so that in this production Barnardine's silence was completed as a rejection of the Duke's act of pardon. Thus we were left to decide the efficacy of the Duke's action and the worthiness of Barnardine to receive pardon--or, conversely, to reassess the action of the Duke and the validity of issuing that pardon at all.

When the paper bag was removed from Claudio's head, Juliet, who had come on, from upstage right, in her shift, and Isabella, now standing upstage center, converged on Claudio downstage left-center. Juliet got there first and she and Claudio embraced while both ignored Isabella. Thus the gap between brother and sister opened in their encounter in 3.1 was not closed, and Isabella was confronted with the fact that she had apparently lost her brother to his anger at her choice, as well as losing him to her new sister-in-law.

When the Duke uttered his first proposal, "Give me your hand, and say you will be mine" (492), Isabella started back, surprised, then horrified. The Duke covered her response by saying "But fitter time for that" (493) as he turned quickly to the others, moving into the festive ending he seemed to have planned.

And here another surprise jolted us as Barnardine (also) broke his silence with an extra-textual speech. The Duke completed pardoning his subjects as he ordered Lucio married, whipped, and hanged, and then spared him. Friar Peter audibly married Lucio to Kate Keepdown as they stood waist deep in the trap downstage left--and their wedding was celebrated as the entire underworld emerged from that trap after them, the crowd erupting in wild laughter. As he spoke the exhortations, pardons, and commands that constitute his effort to complete his festive design, the Duke also renewed the present-giving with which he had opened the scene. Meanwhile, a woman whom we inferred must be Elbow's Wife, as announced in the program, appeared with a baby. And Lucio, unhappy at being married but relieved at not being hanged, and with a look in his face that tried to say "Ha, ha! that old Duke of dark corners was only joking!" even as it also showed the still-fading coal of mortal fear, began applauding. He was joined by the other underworld characters--and then the entire underworld turned to urge us to join the applause. But even as this applause rose to a crescendo, Barnardine picked up one of hundreds of papers strewn on the floor and shouted "Measure for Measure--a play directed by Yossi Yzraely!" The derisive energy of speech was matched by the violent scorn with which he ripped up this program.

Despite this surprising outburst, the Duke nonetheless renewed his proposal, beginning the last six lines of the Folio text: "Dear Isabel, / I have a motion much imports your good" (534-535). Again, however, Isabella backed off, and this time she sought to escape, circling the whole stage clockwise, hiding amidst the crowd as the Duke pursued her. Three times the Duke cried out "Isabel!" but she would not stop. As she completed her third circle, the Duke rushed upstage to the open area and there he picked up what we, perhaps at some earlier point or perhaps only now, realized was a replica of the theater itself. He raced back down, and offered it to her as he said "What's mine is yours, and what is yours mine."

This striking image was also the means by which the director riveted our eyes, so that we did not notice the new figure, hooded and dressed all in black, who emerged from behind the block on which Angelo had waited to be executed, and moved slowly down stage to confront the Duke. Here, obviously, was the second of those three surprising names on the program, Death. As he advanced, he shook out a black object which, as it unfurled, revealed itself as a trash bag. Death stood stage right facing the Duke who stood stage left, and slowly pulled the trash bag over the model of the theater, closed the bag, and, with that little motion that we all know from our experience--flip!--sealed it with a twister-seal. Horrified, the Duke again raced upstage, grabbed the loose-leaf notebook, raced back downstage center, fell to his knees, opened the rings of the binder, and began frantically to toss out pages, as if searching for something in the script to save his own play--or else as if admitting that his script was now superseded. He began laughing wildly, then crying, then the laughing-crying came over the speakers, as if from a soundtrack, rising to a crescendo--perhaps the counterpart of the orgasmic moan of the opening preshow. Meanwhile, Death seized the hand of one of the minor figures and started a dance, twisting all over the stage. As the dance began, furthermore, Isabel also disrobed, partially, stripping her sleeves to reveal a more "Elizabeth" costume.

And then the back doors to the whole theater, upstage left, leading out the landing dock, opened--and in the matinee performance letting the daylight flood in as a spectacular shaft of natural light. (In the evening performance what the door opened onto was the darkness and perhaps faint light from the stars.) The dance went on, with Death leading the dancers out of the wide doors. As they danced, a figure, who must be the last of the added characters, the Young Duke, appeared on the catwalk above the front of the stage. Isabel, who had become the final dancer in the chain, grabbed the Duke's hand, her look one of wild laughter, perhaps relief, his look more stunned, agonized, bemused. And linked now as the last partners on Death's chain, they danced out the door, Isabella looking at the Duke, the Duke glancing away from Isabella to look longingly up at the figure of the Young Duke on the catwalk. Steam had started earlier, blowing from hidden pipes and out the door, solidifying the shaft of light, but now it reversed itself, blowing in with a wind from outside, a wind that also blew the leaves of the Duke's script around and around--as the Young Duke slowly exited from the cat walk above the stage, above us. The stage was empty, the doors closed slowly-- and we were left, our earlier applause subdued or spent, and with no curtain call to conclude the action, in a world that was suddenly darker than before. One way to understand the play as a whole and the ending in particular, it seemd to me, was to perceive the Duke as making a play for the maid--and having his design blow up in his face. But while this offered a certain coherence, it still left the question, "Who was Yossi Yzraely making his play for?" And what were we, in turn, to make of what Yossi Yzraely had made?


I began by stating that "There were, in fact, so many provocative choices, small and large, that it often seemed to me and those with whom I discussed the production, that its inventiveness overwhelmed any possible coherence," and I hope I have conveyed some of the avalanche-like experience of witnessing this inventive ending. Indeed, in my oscillating responses to the production over the years since I saw it, I have often concluded that that was the point--that whatever else he was doing, the director was determined to explode the ending of the play. For the effect, as I and others experienced it, was that we were offered much too much closure and none at all, with each seeming closure abruptly exploding the previous apparent closure, so that, finally, the experience of ruptured closure was itself what we were left with. It was, in some ways, like the climax of a long, long pyrotechnic display, with the most spectacular string of fireworks, the loudest and most deafening, the brightest and most blinding, going off in such rapid succession as to leave viewers saturated in light and sound--or else holding their hands over their ears while staring in mesmerized fascination. The point was that these cascading inventions would make us even hungrier than we normally are for closure, while the repeated rupture of each successive apparent closure intensified our frustration. Whether success in this endeavor prompted spectators to intense meditation on what Frank Kermode has defined as our hunger for "the sense of an ending" or intense condemnation of the director's wilfull disruption as being senseless in its pyrotechnic display is a question to be asked. Did Yossi Yzraely achieve a successful frustration or a frustrating success? It was evident from our stunned silence that either successful frustration or frustrating success is surely a high-risk strategy--but a strategy that produces an intriguing theatrical experience, and may well provoke an engagement that is hard to dissolve or complete. It is also an experience that if frequently repeated would, I suspect, bring rapdily diminishing returns. For me, however, it remains a production that over a decade later still provokes strong and usefully conflicting responses.

Main Menu - HomePage - The Play