Thursday, July 15, 2010

Measure for Measure

The June 17 post asked questions of three plays: The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure. In that post I responded to the Shrew and Merchant questions.
This is the question about Measure for Measure: Why does Isabella say nothing at the end of MEASURE--is the Duke her true match or is she being misused?

All plays cast lifestuff into storytelling form. The form gives meaning to and communicates the stuff. The playwright is ever concerned with how to stay true to the realities of lifestuff while accommodating the conventions of story form. Part of the continuing engagement of the audience with a play is their experience of the interaction between truth to lifestuff and the requirements of story form. How far is the audience willing to let Truth to Life strain in order to get the most theatrical engagement from Story Form?

With parts of Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, truth to lifestuff and the conventions of story find an uneasy balance. But Shakespeare mines gold from such seeming problems; for example, the fairytale silliness of the caskets codicil in Signiore Belmont’s will dramatizes something about wealth and entitlement in a play where mercantilism and privilege play significant roles.

Some critics think that by the time he wrote Measure for Measure, Shakespeare had outgrown the form of romantic comedy epitomized by Twelfth Night and As You Like It; that perhaps with M4M he wanted to demonstrate the shortcomings of the form. We happily celebrate the partnerings at the finales of Twelfth Night and As You Like It because the stories of these plays are about the rocky paths to love and because the form demands that the characters end the play in couples. But the story of M4M is not about the difficulties of coupling, except literally and even then only legally. It is not a romantic comedy. And yet it ends with the romantic comedy coupling convention. Uneasy fit.
But I think it’s best to embrace the so-called problems with this play and see where they might lead. If form is meaning, perhaps those problems and the uneasiness between Life and Story are part of its meaning.

M4M is a genius example of Life asserting itself against Form and Form pushing back to give meaning to Life. It dramatizes the struggle between the power of sex and the force of legal restraint, both secular and religious. Society must make laws that regulate the citizenry and those laws often regulate sexual behavior; but the earth must be peopled and that rule is enforced by the irresistible complex driving force of sex.
Measure for Measure says (pace Michael Crichton) “Sex finds a way”.

Almost all critical attention on this play is devoted to the Duke/Angelo/Isabella story and most of the performing interest is with Angelo and Isabella: I want to do Measure for Measure—you know, Angelo and Isabella and okay the Duke too, but then, rats, I have to include all that Pompey/Overdone/Elbow/Abhorson/Barnardine/Froth/Lucio stuff, though of course, I can cut a lot of that since it’s just comic relief with old jokes that nobody gets anyway.
We thus run the risk of concluding that the real play, the real meaning, happens only in the grave scenes of dark corners. But what the whole play is dramatizing includes the roisterous comedy subplot that takes more stage time and has more characters than such plots in any of the other comedies. Why is this? If it were just for the comedy, just to give the clowns in the company something to entertain the groundlings with, the play would need much less of it.
We avoid this substory, I think, because we don’t think it’s funny and because productions create with these scenes not comedy but tedium. Too often actors present detailed characterizations that demonstrate how inventive the actors can be when Shakespeare asks only for single-stroke clowns who focus on the situation and not on character complexity. Too often we get clever, charming Alfred Doolittles when Shakespeare asks for simple Elbows and unimaginative Pompeys.
Alvina Krause’s description of the mechanicals in her discussions of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream applies to the clowns of M4M (See blog posts for May 20 and May 22). And Beyond the Fringe, the comedy review that introduced Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook to the world, offers two wonderful tracks: So That’s the Way You Like It is a brilliant parody of Shakespeare, attention to which can yield insights into creating the several aspects of Shakespearean production, including clown characters. Sitting on the Bench is a hilarious monologue by a simple, literal, unimaginative working class man—a Shakespeare clown. 
Then into the mix of clowns toss Lucio the fool with his lordly blinders on, let him stir things up, and you get raunchy hilarious comedy.
With a point.
As Lucio and Pompey both say, Execute those who have sex outside of marriage and you will soon have an empty town. 
When the Provost offers Pompey the Tapster Bawd a chance to become Abhorson the Executioner’s Helper (too many executions recently for one man to handle), he says If it keeps me out of prison, I’ll happily take the morally upstanding legal profession of Executioner of Human Life over the venal illegal one of Procurer of Human Sex. 
Barnardine, the drunken criminal long forgotten by the criminal justice system, refuses to be executed at just anybody’s whim.
And Froth, the gentleman who may have done something untoward with/to Constable Elbow’s wife. Or maybe not.
And all the characters who don’t actually appear--Master Rash, Master Caper, young Dizzy, Master Shoe-tie, and more—all of whose stories multiply the sense of life lived with vigor in Vienna beneath, beyond, around the rules.
Religion and Government create rules of clear, clean absolutes and humanity is expected to live within those artificial moral and legal grids. But in the streets of M4M’s Vienna, life is messier than the law can ever order. Each comic scene makes an implicit comment on the serious scenes that surround it—a sort of yes, but you’ve forgotten something. It all adds up to a teeming, complex human society with life and sex lived energetically outside the box, outside the lines, all over the grid. No laws either secular or religious can contain the sheer inventive vitality of the power of sex in human life.

Try to stifle that power within yourself as the Duke and Angelo and Isabella have done and it will assert itself aggressively (see Euripides’ Hippolytus) as these three discover publicly by the end of the play.

The Law versus Human Sexual Behavior opposition exists along a continuum from Complete License on one end to Stifling Restraint on the other with Responsible Freedom somewhere at the midpoint. In M4M, the Duke, having allowed society to move into Complete License, is trying to find a way to get things closer to Stifling Restraint by having his deputy Angelo step in to enforce strict, rigid laws he has let go slack. The plan is then for him to return to rule without having seemed to waffle. He makes no mention of Responsible Freedom.
The Duke goes undercover to observe the governing and the governed but soon finds himself working behind the scenes not only to keep his government functioning but to prevent Angelo from abusing it, and eventually publicly to reveal Angelo’s moral duplicity.

The story form of the ruler secretly moving among his people must needs end with the ruler learning lessons from the people and, armed with insights, setting everything to rights, which in the conventions of romantic comedy includes the ultimate partnering of the main characters. M4M’s Duke has a lot to learn about people and how they truly behave. He’s no Prospero and Vienna isn’t an enchanted island under his magical sway. At every turn people assert themselves and subvert the Duke’s plans—even as he improvises on-the-spot solutions to breaking crises. In their determined vitality, the characters threaten to subvert the very conventional givens of the story form they find themselves in. Be absolute for death, the Duke/Friar tells a receptive Claudio, but the moment Claudio senses the surest chance of living, he chucks the Friar’s counsel and begs his sister to give up her virginity for his life. Once Angelo thinks he’s bedded Isabella, the Duke assures the Provost that he, Angelo, will pardon Claudio. That’s the way the story should go; but Angelo doesn’t play by the rules, so the Duke improvises a decision to execute the criminal Barnardine in Claudio’s place (a grotesque mirroring of the conventional bed trick the Duke employs to deal with the Angelo and Isabella dilemma), but Barnardine simply refuses: he’s hung over and he’s not dying today.
And throughout it all Lucio, the gadfly in the Duke/Friar’s plotting ointment, buzzes about to keep things from ever settling into predictability.

For a play that dramatizes the power of sexuality (resistance is futile), Shakespeare chooses as his main protagonists a head of government who has a complete bosom (a protected heart) that the dribbling dart of love cannot pierce; a young woman who avoids life and sex by entering a strict religious order whose law she wishes had a more strict restraint upon the sisterhood; a deputy who has repressed his sexual urges and turned his blood to ice water and who doth rebate and blunt his natural edge/With profits of the mind: study and fast.
But sex finds a way.
The icicley deputy cracks first because, while previous experience may have prompted his carnal retreat, it also etched a fault line in his defenses.

Both Angelo and Isabella begin their interview with formal, passionless interchanges. Isabella can’t even say the words for sexual activity. And were she here alone, she would leave after Angelo’s first refusal and Claudio would die. But boundaryless Lucio urges her on. She gets more aggressive. Angelo remains cold and civil. Isabel retreats. But Lucio urges, insists, infuses her with energy and finally her passion asserts itself. She speaks fervently, moves forcefully, eventually perhaps a lock of hair comes loose from beneath her wimple. Her chest heaves with her breathing. She falls to her knees, her hands clasped in prayer to the high heavens. When she says Go to your bosom, she may be close enough to him to lay her flat hand on his chest.
Even Lucio is impressed.
And after she leaves, the upright bloodless deputy has been knocked off balance: What’s happening to me? And am I responsible? or is she?
Ohmygod, what is it that I am thinking?

Angelo finds himself overwhelmed by sexual need--Now I give my sensual race the rein--and he gives Isabella the utimatum:  fuck me and save your brother; refuse and he dies.
At the jail, why, after counseling Claudio to accept death, does the Duke stay and eavesdrop on Isabella’s conference with him? How interesting that the Duke makes a point of calling the Provost in just so that he can tell him to leave him here. And the first thing he says to Isabella after the Provost leaves is that she is beautiful (to a near-nun). Then he adds that she is good. Did he stay out of simple curiosity or has something about Isabella intrigued him? 
How might a production communicate this?
And such a production might stage Isabella’s passionate outburst with Claudio so that it mirrors her outburst with Angelo, linking the two in the audience’s imaginations and suggesting a similarity between her effect on Angelo and, in a subtler and as yet nonconscious way, on the Duke.
In a flash the Duke comes up with the bed trick as the best way to trap Angelo. Story form indeed.
And Isabella agrees to it—something the Isabella who asked for more restraints from Sister Francesca would not do.
Eventually this all leads to the scene outside the jail when, learning that Claudio has been executed, Isabella weeps and I think falls, even if only momentarily, into the Duke/Friar’s arms. Something happens here. To both of them. With Angelo she falls to her knees, perhaps touches him. Here she falls into the Friar’s arms and sobs.
Is this the first time such a thing has happened to the Duke of dark corners? To Isabella?
And what an image of novice and friar.
Over the course of the play, Isabella and the Duke share more intimacy with the each other than either has ever shared with anyone. By the time of the public meeting of Act V both have been changed by their immersion in the messy complexities of life, especially of sex.

Of course, the critic may write in authoritative conceptual terms, but the theatre practitioner must ask: What will communicate this to the audience? What cumulative sequences of experiences will take the audience meaningfully from Isabella’s There is a vice that most I do abhor to her shouting out in the public square Virgin-violator! Fornication! Concupiscible intemperate lust!
What photo-op moments will lead the audience experientially from the Duke’s I have ever lov’d the life removed… I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes to For your lovely sake, give me your hand, and say you will be mine before all his people present in the public square?

The public finale begins with Isabella’s passionate denunciation of Angelo and the Duke’s feigned refusal to believe her. Then comes Mariana and her seemingly unsuccessful charge against Angelo. Then the Duke hands questioning over to Escalus as he, the Duke, “must leave for a while”—at which, surely the audience laughs, being as it is a confidante in the working out of the story. The sequent unmasking of the Friar/Duke leads to Angelo’s wish for speedy execution and the Duke’s ruling that Angelo must marry Mariana. Then he says to Isabella, I am still attorneyed to your service, and she replies with a deference that indicates how all respond to their sovereign ruler in this formal public setting: O, give me pardon,/That I, your vassal, have employ’d and pain’d/Your unknown sovereignty!
So far so good.
But still the Duke pretends that Claudio is dead. He’s got a great Claudio reveal moment planned. Why does he push executing Angelo as “measure for measure” with the execution of Claudio when Claudio is alive? (I love that in the situation that is the only mention of the title there is actually no equitable measure for measure.) Mariana begs Isabella to intercede. The Duke ups the ante. Mariana presses and Isabella does the passionate, Grace-full thing, both of them reminding us of Lucio and Isabella in Angelo’s chamber. And Isabella raises herself above everyone else in the play for generosity of spirit, of Grace, of forgivingness.
Something big, I think, happens to the Duke in response to Isabella as something earlier had happened to Angelo. And I think the Duke has been pushing for it even if he’s not quite certain what “it” actually will be.
(And as always the theatre practitioner within me asks of the critic, And how is this dramatized and communicated in production?)

What I find more intriguing than Isabella’s silence here is the Duke’s decision outside the jail to tell her that Claudio has been beheaded with the rationale that she’ll be so much happier when she finds out that it’s not true. At this moment Lifestuff and Story Form merge. As the one who’s making all this happen, the Duke practically addresses the audience directly, practically says: It’ll make such a great climax to hold off telling her and keep the genie in the bottle a little longer; I’ll get a bigger payoff from her reaction when she finally finds out. And so will you. The play would fail as a story if the Duke were to reveal the truth to Isabella at the jail, even if truth to lifestuff suggests that that is when it would happen. The audience delights in their confederacy manipulating lifestuff for the promise of greater story delight to come. And when in this final public scene the Duke pretends still that Claudio is dead, delaying the reveal even further, the audience is still his collaborator, heightening the anticipation of Isabella’s response.
When finally it comes, it is wordless.
In Shakespeare.
The Claudio reveal astonishes everyone, not just Isabella. The scene is alive with gasps and movement and vocalizations. But no poetry, no words. The play gives her no opportunity to speak with Claudio, as the Duke immediately tops in with his proposal.
I think the Duke is nearly as surprised as Isabel is at his voicing his proposal to her at this precise moment. And it’s that mutual surprise, rather than some sensed negative response from Isabella, that prompts his But fitter time for that.
Another way of imagining this moment: What happens during the close-up on Isabella after the Duke’s proposal? I think the answer is: Not much. For the instant after Claudio is unhooded her attention is on him, her mind reeling with all that has led to this moment. The Duke says what he says. Cut to a close-up of Isabella whose focus goes to the Duke as she registers what the Duke is saying. Then BAM a close-up on the Duke as he also hears himself saying it and registers his own surprise. And then perhaps a shared understanding from which comes But fitter time for that.
Just as this is not the occasion for Isabella to speak with Claudio--they will have lots to say to each other after this public gathering, whose central figure of absolute authority is the Duke--so it is not the time for so personal an interchange between her and the Duke. While it may be the occasion for passionate public denunciation of Angelo and a passionate plea for saving his life, this is not the place for intimate exchange. The Duke acknowledges as much with his But fitter time for that and moments later if you’ll a willing ear incline.

I think audiences who are experiencing the play in performance have less difficulty with Isabella's silence than do play readers and theatre practitioners. In production, the impact of the “problem” of Isabella’s lack of a response depends upon how the play has led up to that moment and how the last section of the play is performed.
I do think, however, that it’s ill-advised to make a definitive statement about “why Isabella is silent” and to provide a clear indication of what Isabella’s full response to the Duke is. At this moment, she surely doesn’t have a full and absolute response. And the Duke is right there with her. This will take some further offstage post-finale discussion.

From here til the end, the play is whirlwindy enough for the production to focus the audience on the fun of wrapping up the story form rather than on further psychologizing the characters. It’s not until now that, having resumed being the Duke, this man has any chance at all of imposing order on the vital chaos of all the lives he governs. He proceeds to the fun of dealing with Lucio, who in this scene practically literalizes the idea that some human passions will not conform to plan.
The final cataloguing of the mandatory couplings functions in the same way that a symphony lets its audience know the music is ending. And the audience freely goes along. There is some reason for the Duke to hope that Angelo and Mariana can make a go of it. His perception of a “quickening” in Angelo when it is revealed that Claudio is alive suggests a bit of joy in the possibility of life and his Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well might suggest that Angelo has indeed softened a bit through his ordeal and perhaps is returning to a former kinder, gentler Angelo; Lucio should do right by the woman he impregnated, though one quick response from him can tell us what the likelihood of that is; the Duke and Isabella have experienced intimacy with each other and as Friar and Novice have discovered compatibility.
While Shakespeare's other comedies end with a promise of a future new world order of love, happiness and stability, Act V of Measure for Measure ends with the promise of an Act VI that will be rambunctious and surprising and just as unwilling to conform to artificial rules and patterns and forms as the rest of the play has been.
Perhaps the uncomfortable fit in this play between Lifestuff and Story Form is part of what’s being dramatized. Perhaps the play is dramatizing the impossibility of making definitive statements/predictions about human behavior as the all-too-pat partnerings at the end of romantic comedy prescribe. Perhaps it’s dramatizing the necessary, constant, continuing struggle between the human need for order, rules, restraint and the relentlessness of Lifestuff’s drives. And perhaps it is dramatizing the futility of assuming that there can ever be anything more than a temporary peace in that struggle.
Life will find a way.