What Jenny's Reading

{September 23, 2015}   Review: Measure for Measure, Pt. 1

At long last, the first part of my Measure for Measure review!  I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with baited breath, ha ha.

This is one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s one of his “problem plays” along with Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well. Some critics include others as well, such as The Winer’s Tale. It’s a comedy, and yet feels more like a tragedy since the subject matter tends to be darker. I know that the saying is a comedy ends with a wedding and a tragedy ends with a funeral, but there’s none of the lightheartedness you’ll find in, say, Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So, our main players are Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna; Angelo, his oily deputy; Claudio and Juliet, technically married; Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a novice nun; and Mariana, Angelo’s fiancée.

The Duke decides to take a trip and the play begins with him giving Angelo a commission to act in his stead while he’s gone. Angelo is all, but how will I be as good as you?? Like trick, please, you’ve been waiting for this day forever and you know it. His secondary, Escalus, is all, okay then, you’re in charge. Yay you! But we need to speak frankly (since you’re likely to fuck this up immediately).

A guy named Lucio and his friends enter. His gentlemen friends manage to dis him pretty spectacularly, essentially implying that he’s a dirty whore covered in syphilis. They snipe at each other for awhile and then finally decide they’re all dirty whores covered in syphilis, no matter how they try to pretend. Anyway, then Mistress Overdone comes in. She’s the local brothel owner, and Lucio is one of her best customers. Personally I wouldn’t want to advertise that my girls were full of sexually transmittable diseases, but I’m not a ye olden tymes brothel madam.

Overdone (I feel certain this is a joke of some kind, but I don’t know what – I am so rusty with Shakespeare!) tells everyone that Claudio is in jail and will be executed in three days, due to fornicating with Juliet, his fiancée slash wife. The men are shocked – shocked, I tell you! – because Claudio was always so punctual. Seriously, I’m not making that up. They seem to think that because he’s usually on time for things, he’d never be arrested for sexing his ladyfriend. So they decide to head over to the prison and chat with Claudio to figure out what’s going on.

What’s interesting is that Claudio and Juliet are apparently married. Or rather, they would be, except for some technicality that the play doesn’t make clear. So that just makes Angelo even worse, I think, since Claudio and Juliet didn’t even think they were doing something wrong.

By the way, Angelo has decreed that all the city’s brothels are to be closed. I’m pretty sure he actually wants them to be burned down. Oh, and Overdone’s name has something to do with her last of a string of husbands – she’s “overdone” with him, ha ha. That’s not sarcasm, I think it’s actually pretty funny.

Next Claudio and Juliet are paraded through the city, because everyone should witness their shame. Maybe this is really Puritan-era America? Or Game of Thrones? Well, probably not, since nobody’s following them with a gong and chanting “Shame!” Also, Claudio’s buddy Lucio stops them and the jailer allows him to chat privately with Claudio. Claudio tells him that Angelo, being new and wanting to make a name for himself while the Duke’s away, has arrested them both for crimes that no one has bothered to enforce for more than ten years. He begs Lucio to go find his sister, because she can surely persuade the oily Angelo to release them. Because boobies, I guess.

The Duke appears again, chatting with a Friar. Turns out that he secretly wants Angelo to enforce these ancient laws. He’s pretending to be in Poland so that when Angelo starts arresting people no one gets mad at the Duke, because it’s the Duke’s fault that no one’s enforced these old laws in years. So I guess he figures he can’t be the one who starts enforcing them again. So politicians were the same even way back then. I guess it’s comforting to know that, even though he should have the balls to stand up and do his own dirty work.

Also, I would think the people of Vienna have a good argument for estoppel, considering how long it’s been since enforcement. Angelo’s not a new ruler who might say he’s bringing back certain punishments for morality’s sake. Rather, he’s the Metatron to the Duke’s God, to use I guess a pretty apt metaphor. I’m not really sure why the Duke thinks that this will help keep people from disliking him. I mean, he’s allowing Angelo to do it, and the buck, as they say, stops with him.

So anyway. The Duke decides he’s going to dress up as a Friar to observe how Angelo handles all this power, because if someone isn’t dressing up to conceal their identity and/or sex, it’s not really a Shakespeare comedy I guess.

Next we head over to meet Isabella. She’s in a convent, because she’s a trainee nun. We find out that Isabella thinks that the nunnery is actually way too lenient with their nuns, giving them all kinds of privileges that we don’t get to know about. Then Lucio’s at the door, and the woman Isabella is speaking to tells her that she’s allowed to answer the door, because Isabella isn’t yet a nun. Once she’s a full blown nun, she won’t be allowed to talk to men except in the presence of a prioress, unless of course she covers her whole face. Because ladies are such temptresses that I guess if a man even just sees her face he’ll be overcome with lust.

Lucio tells Isabella that her brother is in prison for getting Juliet pregnant. Well technically it’s for fornication, but I guess there’d be no proof if she hadn’t gotten pregnant. He’s also exceedingly excited that she’s (Isabella, that is) a virgin, which he decides not because he found her in a nunnery, but because of her lovely complexion. Isabella doesn’t believe this. The prison thing, not the virgin thing.

He assures her that Claudio really is in prison, then tells her a story about how he’s totally all about the whores, it’s just his nature you know, but Isabella is better than them, of course, she’s totally pure and innocent and BARF. Would this be the first instance of the virgin/whore motif?

Okay, I looked it up (obviously). Freud seemed to have dreamed up the Madonna/whore complex, because of fucking course he did. And no, I don’t think Shakespeare dreamed this idea up. There’s a bunch of stuff from medieval times, things about the devil and religion (again: of fucking course, that bastard Peter really hated the ladies, didn’t he?). But this topic is way bigger than this little review so I’ll bypass it. I hate with every fiber of my being this idea that a woman can’t be pure and/or good unless she’s entirely divorced from her sexuality. It’s not even an old fashioned notion that we can shake our heads and laugh about, considering that it’s still everywhere today, even in 2015. It makes me sad that woman can’t own their sexual agency without being seen as sluts or temptresses, and can’t be considered good unless they are virgins.

Isabella’s all, why can’t they just get married then? And Lucio explains that it’s because the Duke is gone, and he grouses about how he was hoping they’d be going to war. So Lucio’s a total bro, I hope we’re all clear on this. So far he’s embodied all the stereotypes: womanizer, chest beater. I won’t be surprised if the next scene we see him in involves him eating a huge quantity of red meat. But let’s return to Isabella’s dilemma. Lucio tells her that the Duke’s left and Angelo’s in charge, and Angelo is a human oil slick with ice in his veins. Lucio thinks that Isabella will be able to persuade him anyway, and she seems pretty optimistic. She departs to see him at once.

Call it a hunch, but I don’t think this is going to go well at all.


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