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Measure for Measure at the RSC 1983-84
Steve Vineberg

(A version of this review appeared in The Threepenny Review (Winter) 1993.)

Measure for Measure, like All's Well That Ends Well, contains major characters who can be read as unsympathetic (and often are, in these deconstructive days). All's Well has its Bertram; Measure has Isabella and the Duke of Vienna. The Duke proclaims his intention to go on a journey and leave the run of the city to his deputy, Angelo, until his return; then he takes on the disguise of a benevolent friar and watches carefully to see how his deputy copes with his new power. Angelo immediately begins to enforce an old law against fornication, and the first offender he imprisons and sentences to death is Claudio, whose "guilt" is highly visible in his pregnant fiancee. Isabella is Claudio's sister, a novice nun who leaves the convent to beg Angelo for mercy in her brother's case. He tells her he'll grant it - but only if she sacrifices her own purity to his lust. Isabella refuses; her chastity, she insists, is of more value to her than even her brother's life. But the Duke, in the person of the Friar, devises a scheme to rescue both brother and sister and entrap the deputy in his own machinations, exposing his hypocrisy. He takes what seems like an unconscionably long time to set things right, however, and meanwhile poor Isabella, who believes her brother has been hanged, is on the rack. The long final scene can strike an audience as sadistic - towards Isabella and Mariana, the woman Angelo was betrothed to and spurned, whom the Duke employs to effect the bed-trick that will let Isabella off the hook and bind Mariana to Angelo. And when, at the end of it, the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, after all he's put her through, you may wonder what Shakespeare could have been thinking of. Moreover, Isabella's choice to take the moral higher ground at her brother's expense can come across as a very chilly kind of virtuousness.

Not surprisingly, this text has aroused considerable interest among feminist scholars who see Shakespeare's Vienna as a patriarchal society that places Isabella, a celibate woman, at a considerable disadvantage. And though my instincts tell me that's not what Measure for Measure is about, I did see one production with this slant (at U.C. Berkeley, directed by David McCandless) that made sense of that reading without sacrificing any of the characters to it. McCandless presented an Angelo was agonizingly enslaved to his own sexual impulses (and his inability to comprehend them, let alone bring them in line with his puritanical policies) and dramatized the moment when the Duke falls in love with Isabella - a moment that Shakespeare doesn't specifically provide. And he left the play open-ended. Shakespeare doesn't give Isabella a reply to the Duke's proposal. When Martha Henry played the part, in Robin Phillips's Stratford, Ontario production in 1975, she remained on stage, alone, after the Duke had led the court off, and slowly, very slowly, she turned and removed her wimple. The student actress in McCandless's production stood undeclared - mystified, it seemed to me - while the Duke knelt to her and stretched out her hands.

Adrian Noble's production at Stratford, England in 1984 (which I've seen on videotape) has a formal, highly conceptual opening: the Duke stands before a full-length gilded mirror while his valet removes his robe and replaced it with another (his official court robe). The mirror stays upstage of the actors throughout the play. It's a very clever idea - too clever by half, I thought for the first twenty minutes or so, when I was reminded of other self-conscious uses of mirrors, like the scene in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid where Garrett, having shot down his old friend Billy, turns his gun on his own image in the mirror and shoots into it. After a while, though, you stop focusing on the mirror itself in Noble's production and start to notice how much of Shakespeare's play is reflected in it: how many lines there are about appearances and seeing, how many of the characters are playing roles or concealing secrets. The mirror opens the play up to us. When Isabella stands before it in her first scene, next to one of the other, confirmed nuns (who is dressed differently), we see the woman Isabella longs to be. Imploring Angelo on behalf of her brother, Isabella reminds him of what he is:

. . . man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured -
His glassy essence - like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep. . . .

When Angelo, after hearing Isabella's plea, soliloquizes on the feelings she's stirred in him, we see the part of him he's suppressed under the cold justice he dispenses; then the Friar passes, on his way to prison to visit Claudio, and we see, of course, the Duke behind the Friar's costume. Angelo, trying to work his sexual blackmail on Isabella, assures her he's serious: "Believe me, on mine honor, / My words express my purpose." And she replies, "Hah! little honor to be much believed, / And most pernicious purpose. Seeming, seeming!" Mariana "unmasks" (her word) before the mirror, showing Angelo which woman he really slept with when he thought he was making love to Isabella; moments later, the Friar does the same, revealing himself as the Duke and shaming the deputy with the infamy he's committed under cover of the office the Duke has loaned him.

Noble solves the sympathy problem largely through his casting. Juliet Stevenson, the star of the marvelous British film Truly Madly Deeply, and a stunningly modernist Nora in the fine BBC production of A Doll's House, must be one of the most gifted actresses working right now. She gives off a heady blend of emotional and intellectual energy in her performances that isn't remotely like anything you see from anyone else. Her Isabella is more warm-blooded and life-affirming than either of the other two women I've loved in the role (Martha Henry, and Kate Nelligan on television) chose to play her. She's capable of both hot flashes of anger - not the indignation, the outraged purity, that Nelligan (the best of the conventional Isabellas) presented, but a much more personal and secular kind of fury - and genuine intimacy. When she first appears to Angelo (David Schofield, in a supremely intelligent performance), she begs him, "[G]o to your bosom, / Knock there and ask your heart what it doth know / That's like my brother's fault . . . " The staging emphasizes Isabella's audacity here. She and Angelo are seated opposite each other, each at a desk, in an area that looks like a courtroom: she is making a formal suit to the city's administrator of the laws. But when she speaks these lines, she crosses the area between the desks and reaches into his private space to touch his heart - and she does. Noble and Schofield make perfect sense of Angelo's horrifying treatment of Isabella: she gets beyond the cool ruler to the part he's concealed beneath his role, and he's so ill equipped to deal with his own buried sexuality that it comes out twisted and he becomes a sexual tyrant.

Isabella asks the Friar to help, and he responds to her passion, her emotional fullness; he falls in love with her, too, but his love isn't tyrannical, and Stevenson suggests that Isabella feels the impulse to answer it, though she checks that impulse. (Their scenes together are played with a touch of the what-am-I-feeling-now farce that bubbles up out of Shakespeare's cross-dressing romantic comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.) Daniel Massey, with his fragile, multi-colored, Gielgudish line readings, supplies the beating heart of this production; he's the most movingly human Duke I've seen. He's slow to act on Angelo's corruption, not because he's a sadist or because he enjoys playing God, but because he's slow to believe it: Angelo is a man he's trusted, a minister he's had faith in, a friend.

The last scene takes so long to wrap up because the Duke, to be just to Angelo, has to see exactly how this deputy comports himself when Isabella and Mariana accuse him publicly, and because there's one thing about Isabella the Duke has yet to learn before he can ask her to be his wife. He's seen her love for her brother, her sense of justice, her self-righteous anger, but he hasn't any evidence that she's capable of generosity - of moving beyond her own injuries to act on another's behalf. That's why, having commanded Angelo to wed Mariana, he then sentences the deputy to death and ignores Mariana's plea to spare him ("O, my most gracious lord, / I hope you will not mock me with a husband"): he wants to see what Isabella will do when Mariana, inevitably, asks her friend to add her voice to the call for mercy.

Stevenson plays this moment for all it's worth. Her Isabella has to grapple with her baser emotions; how could she feel anything but satisfaction at the doom the Duke has pronounced on her tormentor? But finally she approaches the Duke and kneels quietly to him. The mirror reflects her best self, as well as the intimacy of her petition, which recalls the yet unspoken link between Isabella and the Duke. Interviewed in Carol Rutter's book Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today, Stevenson (who'd played the role once before) says:

But you know, there isn't a fixed end to a play. The script ends. The words run out. But the ending - that's something that has to be renegotiated every performance.

The performance recorded by the Royal Shakespeare Company archivists ends with the Duke stooping to ask for Isabella's hand, and her rising to his "dear Isabel," touching his face, tenderly, and receiving his kiss.

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