Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Context


Shakespeare's Sources

Two major sources have been identified for the plot of Measure for Measure. The first is Gli Hecatommithi (1565), a 16th-century collection of short tales by Italian novelist Giovanni Battista Giraldi (better known by the nickname Cinthio). Although he was not the originator of the Measure for Measure plot, Cinthio tells a version of the story that closely anticipates Shakespeare's in many respects. Instead of a Duke, Cinthio tells of an Emperor who leaves his deputy in charge of a city, ordering him to enforce the law strictly. Both Cinthio and Shakespeare give this deputy a name with rich symbolic overtones: Cinthio calls him Iuriste, meaning "a person deeply knowledgeable about the law." Shakespeare's Angelo, partly true to his name, is initially shown as almost otherworldly in his purity, making his fall from grace all the more dramatic.

The moral problems encountered in Cinthio's tale are somewhat different from those dramatized by Shakespeare. For one thing, Cinthio's Vico, the counterpart to Claudio, is guilty of rape, whereas the act in Claudio and Juliet's case is consensual. In Measure for Measure, both Claudio and Angelo are pardoned, but in Cinthio's version Vico is executed despite Iuriste's promise to the contrary. If Angelo's pardon is galling in Measure for Measure, the corresponding Hecatommithi episode is even more so, since Iuriste successfully carries out his evil scheme.

The other, more direct, source is English dramatist George Whetstone's play Promos and Cassandra (1578), which was itself adapted from the Hecatommithi story. This play emphasizes the conflict between justice and mercy even more strongly than does Cinthio's version. Like Shakespeare's subsequent adaptation, it also allows for the condemned young man, this time named Andrugio, to be saved from execution. To accomplish this, Whetstone resorts to the "head trick," in which a fellow prisoner's head is presented instead of Andrugio's as "proof" of his demise. A further Shakespearean addition is the "bed trick," in which Mariana, Angelo's long-suffering fiancée, sleeps with him in Isabella's place. The ruse, found neither in Cinthio nor in Whetstone but a frequent feature of Renaissance drama, spares Isabella's virginity and traps Angelo into following through on his promise of marriage to Mariana. Moreover Shakespeare's Isabella does not proceed to marry her abuser, as Whetstone's Cassandra does. Together these alterations allow for Isabella to appear more as a dramatic heroine than as a helpless victim.

A Dark Comedy

Readers acquainted with Shakespeare's earlier works may be startled by the subdued tone of Measure for Measure. The play has moments of sheer silliness, most notably the long Abbott and Costello style of interaction between clumsy Constable Elbow and smooth-talking pimp Pompey Bum in Act 2, Scene 1. Much of the play's fun, however, rings hollow. Lucio, the foppish gentleman introduced mostly for laughs, is initially presented as a carefree character who breezes his way through Vienna's brothels and taverns. His behavior becomes less funny when he starts to brag about being a deadbeat father and compares his child's mother to a rotten piece of fruit (Act 4, Scene 3). Likewise, some of the tricks played by the prison officials—such as showing fake death warrants to the prisoners—are exceptionally cruel. This sort of humor is a far cry from the slapstick humor of The Comedy of Errors (written 1589–94) or the magical antics of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595–96).

Measure for Measure might be described as part of a move away from the "safe" humor of the early comedies toward something darker and more complex. Gestures in this direction are evident in As You Like It (1598–1600), in which rustic cheer and comic matchmaking are undercut by meditations on death. "All the world's a stage," Jaques famously proclaims, before launching into a sobering monologue on aging, mortality, and the inevitability of loss. Similarly the frolicsome Merry Wives of Windsor (1597–1601) might seem to resemble A Midsummer Night's Dream with its emphasis on mischievous pranks. There is, however, a vindictive edge to the play's ending, which shows the antiheroic Falstaff being humiliated before a group of laughing onlookers.

Measure for Measure is often considered one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays—along with All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, the play moves uncomfortably between comedic elements and a darker, more troubling plotline. In addition, in the last decade of his career, Shakespeare increasingly experimented with a blend of tragic and comic motifs, yielding works sometimes called the romances. These plays resemble comedies in that they have generally happy endings, but their plots veer closer to tragedy and involve a greater recognition of loss and vulnerability. Pericles, in the 1606–08 play of the same name, loses his daughter to pirates and is a broken man by the time he reunites with her. Leontes, in The Winter's Tale, is effectively a widower for many years before his wife is revived in a magical episode at the play's end. Neither play comes with a cheerful reassurance that "all shall be well," as Puck says in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although Measure for Measure lacks the romance plays' gestures toward magic and folklore, it nonetheless chips away at comfortable comic reassurances, anticipating the more mature plays to follow.

Textual History

Measure for Measure has a fairly simple textual history, at least by Shakespearean standards. It initially appeared in the 1623 First Folio (a large collection of Shakespeare's plays published after the playwright's death) in a relatively clear and typo-free edition, indicating the likely involvement of professional scrivener Ralph Crane. Subsequent 17th-century folios—the Second (1632), Third (1663), and Fourth (1685)—contain only minor revisions as do the major 18th-century Works of Shakespeare editions. Notably absent are any early editions in quarto: the cheaper, more portable format in which roughly half of Shakespeare's works first appeared. Such editions, when they exist, often vary considerably from one to the next, fueling centuries of debate over how Shakespeare actually intended his dramas to be performed and read. Thus, in a sense, the lack of early quartos of Measure for Measure simplifies the task of editing the play, since there are no major variations to compare and collate. At the same time, the absence of quartos, which are often thought to be barely edited versions of the play as it was originally performed, makes it difficult to tell how much Measure for Measure was edited for publication.

Like most of Shakespeare's plays, Measure for Measure has been adapted over the centuries to suit the changing tastes of theatergoers. The Restoration period (1660–88) saw great demand for new comedies, and elaborate plots were very much in fashion. Aware of this trend, English playwright Sir William Davenant combined material from Measure for Measure and another Shakespeare play, Much Ado about Nothing, to create a "new" play. The resulting comedy, entitled The Law Against Lovers, was first performed in 1662. A hodgepodge of recognizable Shakespearean motifs and original material, it was the first in a long line of Restoration-era adaptations of Shakespeare. Critic Katherine Schell (Philological Quarterly, 1997) calls it a "bizarre and fascinating combination" and describes Davenant's play as written mainly to fill seats rather than make a political or philosophical point. Since the play was not subsequently revived during the Restoration, it is doubtful whether Davenant succeeded in this aim.

Editors and critics in the 19th century were often deeply disturbed by the plot of Measure for Measure. Their dissatisfaction stemmed partly from its sexual subject matter and partly from the apparent lack of justice in the play's ending. The critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), for example, found the play morally "disgusting" and censured its ending in his handwritten notes. Most disquieting for him was Angelo's hypocritical behavior, which is pardoned rather than punished in the final scene. Victorian editors, deeming various facets of the play's plot to be "improper," produced a succession of expurgated editions—as they did for a number of Shakespeare's works. These are usually known as bowdlerized versions, in recognition of their forerunner, Thomas Bowdler's Family Shakespeare. Many were no doubt inspired by Bowdler (1754–1825) and his crusade to produce a family-friendly version of Shakespeare's plays for home reading.

Modern editors, less afraid of exposing their readers to racy material, have largely reverted to the First Folio text as the basis for their editions. There has, however, been some disagreement as to whether Shakespeare worked alone in producing the text of Measure for Measure found in the Folio. Those who answer in the negative generally identify Thomas Middleton (1580–1627)—like Shakespeare, a popular writer of both tragedies and comedies—as the most probable co-author. Middleton is also believed to have written parts of Macbeth, Timon of Athens, and All's Well That Ends Well. Some critics think the collaboration on Measure for Measure took place during Shakespeare's lifetime, while others suggest that Middleton adapted the play after Shakespeare's death. Gary Taylor and Rory Loughnane, proponents of this "adaptation hypothesis," offer a survey of the relevant issues in The New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion (2017).

Measure for Measure in Performance

The stage history of Measure for Measure parallels its many adaptations in print. After its 1604 premiere, there were no recorded performances for nearly 60 years—at which point it was Davenant's Law Against Lovers, and not Shakespeare's original, that graced the stage. The first major reinterpretation of the play after Davenant was English writer Charles Gildon's Measure for Measure, or, Beauty the Best Advocate, which premiered in 1700. This play, like Davenant's, incorporated song-and-dance routines to entertain the audience. It also made Claudio and Juliet husband and wife from the start, thus doing away with many of the dramatic complexities of the Folio text.

Less heavily altered versions of Measure for Measure remained popular throughout the 18th century, as critic John Klause notes in his introduction to the Evans Edition (2011) of the play. These, like their Victorian successors, often cut many potentially objectionable lines, but they seldom mingled new material with Shakespeare's text as Davenant had done. During the 19th century, the play declined in popularity onstage, even as editors continued to produce more and more sanitized versions of the text. Toward the century's end, however, the grand spectacles and heavily edited play texts of mid-Victorian Shakespeare began to give way. This change created an opening for Measure for Measure, with its smaller cast and urban setting, to experience a modest revival. By 1908 English director William Poel had drawn considerable praise for his "authentic" production, which purported to revive Elizabethan theatrical practices in conjunction with the original Shakespearean script.

Directors in the 20th century have offered a tremendous variety of Measure for Measure interpretations. The Royal Shakespeare Company staged the work nearly a dozen times in the post–World War II era alone, with Isabella generally considered to be the central role. Changes in costume and set design have brought Measure for Measure to settings ranging from the darkly gothic (1974, directed by Keith Hack) to the garishly carnivalesque (1978, directed by Barry Kyle). Other renditions have opted for modern dress, as in the starkly designed 1999 production directed by Michael Boyd. One Indiana theater company, Hoosier Bard, has even produced a version of the play based on the adaptation hypothesis noted above. As professors Terri Bourus and Gary Taylor (2014) report, this alternate Measure for Measure removes all the lines thought to have been written by Middleton. The result is only slightly shorter than the Folio version, but for Bourus and Taylor, the "small changes" add up to a "powerfully different" experience.

Modern productions may also be divided according to their treatment of the play's ending, in which the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. In the First Folio version, Isabella does not reply. During the 19th century, directors sometimes attempted to round things out with an "amorous epilogue," as professor Michael D. Friedman notes in a Shakespeare Quarterly essay (1995). These consisted of 10 or so lines of love poetry in which the Duke makes a stronger case for asking for Isabella's hand in marriage. Friedman points out, however, that 20th-century directors tended to eschew such additions, and 21st-century productions have generally followed suit. Instead, Isabella either has "silently refused," as she controversially did in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1970, or has signaled her acceptance with a nonverbal sign such as a kiss. Lacking clear cues from Shakespeare, directors in future years will likely continue to see the scene as a chance to exercise their creative license.

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