July 13, 2019, Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
There was a moment in Measure for Measure when I felt my spine tingle. The duke of Vienna’s deputy, Angelo, has just offered Isabella, a young nun-in-waiting, to let her brother off the death penalty. She just needs to do one little thing: sleep with him. Isabella, unsurprisingly, is aghast. Shocked and disgusted, she threatens to go public with his sordid behaviour. Angelo’s response is chilling:
“Who will believe thee, Isabel?”
Amongst Shakespeare’s usual complex language, the clarity of these five words stood out unambiguously. No doubt those words, or words to that effect, have been uttered a million times over the centuries by powerful men to vulnerable women. No doubt a million women have expressed Isabella’s dilemma when reflecting on her position: “To whom should I complain?” It’s a truism that, as things change, things stay the same.
The Duke of Vienna decides to take a bit of a break and leave the city’s governance to his hardline deputy, Angelo, and assistant Escalus. His reasons are somewhat complicated. He’s getting fed up of being in the limelight, but he also recognises that Vienna has become something of a lawless state and wants Angelo to reintroduce a bit of law and order.
Angelo takes the job seriously, and immediately starts enforcing the city’s strict promiscuity laws by tearing down the brothels and executing anyone caught having sex before marriage. One of his first victims is Claudio, an otherwise upstanding citizen who has just happened to get his girlfriend, Juliet, pregnant. Claudio is sentenced to death.
Claudio’s friends want to help, and one called Lucio goes to visit Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who is just about to take holy orders and join a convent. Lucio begs Isabella to plead for Claudio to be spared in front of the stern Angelo, even though she herself is less than impressed at her brother’s behaviour.
Something stirs in the moralistic Angelo on hearing Isabella’s pleas. Whether it’s responding to her moral argument or simply that he fancies her, he find himself falling in lust. He doesn’t agree to let Claudio go – but does ask Isabella to come back later. On this second encounter – this time, without witnesses – Angelo makes his offer. Initially he skirts round the issue, talking only hypothetically. But, in the end, he makes his bargain plain: let me shag you and Claudio can be free.
After angrily refusing Angelo’s advances, Isabella heads to see her brother in prison. She tells him what happened, and why she can’t accept. But, in an unbelievable twist, Claudio also begs his sister to give in to Angelo’s demands. Claudio is terrified of death: “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where…” Isabella is shocked to the core, and is at her wit’s end when the Duke – who’s been posing as a friar in secret – steps in. He’s overheard the whole affair and has a plan…
The Duke reveals that Angelo was once engaged to a lady called Mariana, but when her dowry was lost at sea he unceremoniously dumped her. The Duke/Friar convinces Isabella to pretend to take up Angelo’s offer, but for Mariana to take her place. In the dark, one young woman’s body is as good as another. This will get Claudio off his death sentence without sacrificing her virginity. Isabella, with no other options to be fair, agrees.
Just when you think Isabella is getting the upper hand, there’s another shock. Despite the midnight assignation going ahead, Angelo sends orders for Claudio to be killed anyway. Mafia style, he wants no witnesses. He even wants to see Claudio’s severed head as proof. The Duke/Friar is one step ahead again, though. He arranges for another prisoner’s head to be sent in its place, and convinces the Provost – in charge of prisons and executions – to keep Claudio alive for a little bit longer.
Things are all set up for the final denouement. The Duke sends word that he is returning from self-imposed exile. He wants Angelo to meet him at the city gates, to hand over his duties but also to hear from anyone who wants to complain. Angelo is suspicious that he’s been found out, but shows up all the same. When Isabella arrives to accuse him, he wriggles out of it. But when Mariana also arrives and the Friar rips off his habit to reveal he was the Duke all along, Angelo knows the game is up.
The Duke insists that Angelo marry Mariana – as he promised – and then promptly sentences Angelo to death for his crimes. In another breath-stopping scene, it’s Mariana’s turn to plead on another’s behalf, this time amazingly requesting that her new husband Angelo be spared the noose. She calls on Isabella to kneel beside her and we’re all on tenterhooks waiting to see what happens. Of course, the pious Isabella kneels down with Mariana, showing she’s able to show mercy even against those who’ve done her such evil.
The Duke relents and lets Angelo off with his life. He then reveals the Claudio is not in fact dead and finishes the whole piece off by proposing to Isabella, completing her happiness….
And they all lived happily ever after?
Now, come on a minute. Completing her happiness? This is a woman who has been abused, slandered and manipulated by men. So, in the version I saw, and I imagine most modern versions, Isabella’s response to the marriage offer is pretty clear: no way, Jose. This means the play ends on an ambivalent note, and has helped it earn the title of ‘problem play’.
What it also means is that this play feels, perhaps more than ever before, hugely relevant. Despite being performed less often than Shakespeare’s better-known plays, Measure for Measure felt fresh and emotionally-compelling. The staging of the RSC production drew on 1900s Vienna for inspiration, the Vienna of Freud’s theories of sexual repression and Klimt’s glamorous but trapped women. But the situation was, sadly, timeless. #metoo may be a modern phenomenon, but it’s clear that the story that Measure for Measure tells has been repeated countlessly in different societies at different times. I predict there’ll be more performances of this staged more frequently as its pertinence is recognised.
Featured image is Kardinal und Nonne oder Die Liebkosung by Egon Schiele, 1912