“Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare


I re-read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure prior to seeing a performance by Ten Thousand Things. Revisiting this play reminded me just how strange it is. I’d remembered it as a romance, but it’s classified as a comedy, though also a “Problem Play” because of its dark, weird mood.

In it, a duke dresses as a friar, gives all his power to a trusted friend Angelo, who then enforces a long-dormant law and sentences poor, nice Claudio to death because he got his girlfriend pregnant without marrying her legally and completely. Claudio’s sister Isabel, a soon-to-be nun, pleads for his case, Angelo falls in lust with her, the duke/friar runs around meddling, and wacky hijinx ensure.

The play ends with two, or is it three?, marriages. The two that are certain are punishments, and the men in them would prefer death. The third, uncertain marriage, can only be answered by the production. The one we attended last night skirted the possibility of the third marriage altogether.

It’s an unsettling text, and an unsettling play, though it does put forth provocative questions of power, equality, and judgment. I wonder if it might have been a satire in its time, whose sting has been lost with the context. I’m glad to have seen it performed.

Some of my favorite lines:

Mistress Overdone: But what’s his offence?
Pompey: Groping for trouts, in a peculiar river. (I, ii, 82-3)

Lucio: Our doubts are traitors,
And makes us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (I, iv, 77-9)

Duke: Her madness hath the oddest frame of sense. (V, i, 64)

which reminds me of

Polonius: Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t” (Hamlet II.ii.205-206).

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