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About this book

Measure for Measure generates much debate and is strikingly modern. This introductory guide offers a scene-by-scene theatrically aware commentary, a brief history of the text and first performance, studies of influential performances, a survey of film and TV adaptation, a wide sampling of critical opinion and annotated further reading.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
Measure for Measure has a small cast but it deals with big themes. The play includes some of Shakespeare’s most powerful lines about the terror of death, and few of his plays are more cynical about the business of love. As it probes political corruption and sexual deviance, the play asks angry, insistent questions. Yet the play offers few answers. Some find this troubling and consequently, in modern times, the play has been burdened with the wholly unattractive and inappropriate label ‘problem play’. Hamlet is clearly a tragedy, there is no question that As You Like It is a comedy, but poor, ugly Measure for Measure is treated with puzzlement. There is no such genre as a ‘problem play’. It is we who have the problem.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

2. Commentary

Abstract
The play begins with a certain amount of confusion. The Duke is inexplicably anxious, his speech unnecessarily convoluted, his intentions unclear to his subordinates who are stunned by his unannounced abrogation of power. Although some of the speeches are long, they should be delivered hastily. The Duke is being abstruse and unpredictable. As soon as he has taken Escalus into his confidence, he immediately makes Angelo his Deputy. For Angelo and Escalus and perhaps for the audience as well, the Duke’s behaviour is utterly baffling. Angelo especially seems uncomfortable with his promotion.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

3. The Play’s Intellectual and Cultural Contexts

Abstract
Measure for Measure is based on George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra, written first as a play and then as a novel (1578). Shakespeare would have also known Whetstone’s main source, G. B. Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565). In the extract below, Whetstone summarizes his story in clear, sometimes colourful, language. Shakespeare made some changes, most notably introducing the Marianna subplot so that Isabella makes it to the end of the play with her chastity intact. He reduced the role of the accused brother Andrugio/Claudio and instead created a larger role for the King/Duke, who in Whetstone appears only at the end of the play. In the second extract, Cassandra visits Andrugio in prison to tell him about Promos’s proposal. Shakespeare rewrites the scene in Act III, scene i. However, in his version the brother does not succeed in persuading his sister to save his life and, crucially, he introduces the Duke secretly watching the scene.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
Measure for Measure was hardly staged at all for centuries. The play puzzled critics and actors. Hazlitt, for example, complained that there was ‘a want of passion’ to engender real interest in the play’s moral argument. Nineteenth-century audiences demanded spectacle but Measure for Measure lacked, or seemed to lack, opportunities to dazzle them. If the play was an extended moral debate, ‘full of genius as it is of wisdom’, as Hazlitt generously put it, there was still a problem, because the play’s morality was confusing. Marianna gets to marry Angelo ‘whom we hate’, Isabella is too ‘rigid’ and the Duke too ‘absorbed’. At some point in the twentieth century, attitudes to the play shifted as a series of performances, most notably Peter Brook’s 1950 production for the RSC, showed that the play could be spectacular and that its moral complexity had something to say to modern audiences. Left to languish in the margins of the performance canon since the sixteenth century, Measure for Measure was recovered in the twentieth century as a very modern exploration of power and sexual politics: arguably, it is the most modern of all Shakespeare’s plays and in the theatre it has been open to all manner of topical interpretations.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Even though its themes are surprisingly contemporary, Measure for Measure has never been filmed (not in English at any rate — there was an Italian version made in the 1940s, but the print is believed lost). This is surely a missed opportunity, as the play is certainly a more promising prospect for the cinema than Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2 Henry IV and Titus Andronicus, all of which have been made into films. In an age when American presidents are impeached for lying about sexual affairs, when the media trades on kiss-and-tell stories, there is plenty of cultural material about to make a stunning Measure for Measure film — but since Hollywood producers are also frequently accused of using their casting couches for sexual bargains, perhaps such a film would hit too close to home.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
A kindly father or a teasing sadist, a responsible human or a hopeless dupe? Harold Bloom and G. Wilson Knight’s critical assessments seem so far apart that it is hard to imagine that they are writing about the same play. Would a reader who did not know that the Duke is also called Vincentio in the dramatis personae even realise that these two statements are about the same character? Here is Shakespeare’s ‘double-written’ play exposed, two dukes appealing to two critical sensibilities, one so paternal he is almost touching divinity and may even be Christ, the other a cruel, obsessively nihilistic sexual sadist. It is worth pausing over these statements for a moment to reflect on how startling it is that they are so different. It is easy to blandly accept them as unremarkable instances of two different critics having different opinions (undergraduates might reasonably protest that they’ve never read two critics who shared the same opinion). But does anyone seriously argue that Lear is an understanding father, that Macbeth is a good host or that Falstaff is abstemious? How is Measure for Measure able to provoke such different and extreme interpretations of its main characters?
Stuart Hampton-Reeves
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