A girl that I know told me that she felt like she was reading a really old, historical episode of “Gossip Girl” when she read Measure for Measure, what with all the scheming, slut-shaming, and blackmail of these high-status people. Not to mention, the fact that it tries so hard to be serious, and yet, there is something missing and so cheesy about the ultimate resolution that it pushes the whole thing into a melodramatic mess of “are you kidding me right now?” I never thought I’d hear Shakespeare being related to “Gossip Girl”, but the more I think about it, the more the sentiment seems pretty on-point. I know, I know, I sound like I simply hate Shakespeare, what with my many not-so-great words on him lately, but this is not the case; in fact I absolutely love certain works of the Bard! But these days, he’s becoming more and more hit-and-miss for me. And this? This was a miss. Let me explain:
Measure for Measure is often categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” in that it is not strictly a comedy, nor a tragedy, and I can definitely understand the problem that lies in this (then again, Hamlet is often considered a problem play as well, and that I don’t quite get). Measure for Measure is set up to follow the standard plot and resolution of Elizabethan comedies, but it is simply not funny, and the characters fall too far from being likeable enough to allow for their downfalls to be considered tragic. In fact, I found this play to be a bit misanthropic in its distrust of rulers and divine forces, the two-faced natures of those who appear to be loyal on the surface, the conflicting feelings regarding human sexuality, and the idea that the downfall of each gender is the other.
The play itself follows the strict rulings and dealings of a judge, Angelo, who is left in charge of the Vienna government while the Duke, Vincentio, is away for other diplomatic business. Little does Angelo and his supporters know, however, but the Duke is actually just disguising himself as a friar, so as to see how his people and city act when they feel as though his watchful eye is not upon them.
Angelo becomes entangled in a cruel plot against a young man named Claudio, as Angelo’s strict adherence to law does not recognize Claudio as being legally married to his wife. Because fornication outside of marriage was illegal at this time, Claudio is to be sent to death. This results in Claudio’s sister, Isabella, trying to reason with Angelo, only to find that he wants to blackmail her into sleeping with him in order to save her brother. Isabella, however, feels that losing her virtue and bearing that mark for the rest of her life would be worse than losing her brother. Fortunately for Isabella and Claudio, the Duke (still disguised as a friar) is made aware of these plots, and this begins trick upon trick being planned to stop Angelo’s hypocritical morality from reigning free in the city. Of course, due to the fact that the play follows the comedic formula of the Elizabethan age, many marriages come to pass as the play wraps up: some happy, some not as much, but marriages nonetheless.
If I’m being honest, those neat little closings are becoming a bit tiring on me, even if some of the couplings were less desirable than others. But the thing that killed me most about reading this play was the fact that it sets itself up to be a comedy, and yet it is not funny. There is no clever play on words or banter; in fact much of the sentiment throughout is spoken with a cold cruelty. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want serious subjects like those that are found in Measure for Measure to be taken lightly, but despite being serious subjects, it is almost as though they are not treated seriously enough. The Duke wanders around listening to his slanderers in a silly costume, and matters are resolved with ridiculous ploys.
Maybe I just a have a problem with problem plays. Maybe the notion of “problems” is the theme of the work to begin with? Whatever it is, I did not find the language to be all that enthralling in Measure for Measure, and that is often the big draw that I find with Shakespeare’s work. But more than anything, the play didn’t leave me with a very good feeling. In fact, it felt a bit cheap for some reason that I’m not sure I can even fully explain to myself…
[Be sure to check out the Cannonball Read 5 Group Blog for more reviews]