Friday, August 28, 2009

Shakespeare Confession

Okay, I admit it: my favorite Shakespeare play is Measure for Measure. Yes, I admire Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (although I insist that what Lear needed was an appointment with the cluestick.) But Measure is just so weird, and dark, and twisted, and modern. Is it modern? Can I say that? It was written in 1604, after all.

It is officially a comedy, because it ends with a number of weddings, and nobody gets killed. But various people are threatened with death, and most of those weddings are coerced, which makes the classification as "comedy" a bit unsettling.

The action of the play is driven by the ruler of a city (the Duke), who decides to go away, leaving someone else (named Angelo) in charge, and then sneak back in disguise to see how things go.

Angelo is a cold-hearted bastard, who claims to believe, or honestly thinks he does believe, in Justice.  He decides to enforce certain laws against fornication, which have been on the books for some time but mostly ignored.  Claudio, who got his fiancee pregnant, is therefore condemned to death.  Claudio's sister, Isabella, goes to Angelo to plead for clemency.  Angelo gets the hots for her, and suddenly understands why fornication is to attractive.  He offers to pardon Claudio if Isabella will have sex with him.

Isabella is about to become a nun, which is to say, she places a very high value on chastity.  She says "No!" and rushes off to tell Claudio what happened.  At first Claudio agrees that it would be wrong.  One of the most chilling moments in the play is when he gradually breaks down and ends up begging Isabella to sacrifice her virginity for his life.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
to lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
. . . 'tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
that age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
can lay on nature is a paradise
to what we fear of death.
Now the Duke, disguised as a friar, steps in. But he is a very manipulative guy.  Although he has a plan to  save Claudio's life, he tells him "It's hopeless.  Give up.  You're just going to die."  Apparently this is for the good of his soul.  The Duke also tells Isabella, later, that their plan failed and her brother is dead.  He lets her go on believing this for quite some time.

The Duke's actions bring about justice, but he seems to believe that justice cannot be done without tremendous amounts of deception.  That's just weird.  In short, there are no heroes in the play -- that's what makes it seem modern.

Although this particular play is very obscure, like all Shakespeare's work it generated several quotes which have passed into common discourse (depending, of course, on where you get your discourse from.)  "Be absolute for death," "They say best men are molded out of faults,"  "And the poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great As when a giant dies" are all from Measure for Measure.

Good stuff.

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