By William Shakespeare (1604)
Riverside Studios, London, May 1979
Riverside Studios, London, May 1979
In 1898 Bernard Shaw, no friend of Shakespeare’s, compared his own work, the Plays Unpleasant, to “such unpopular plays as All’s Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida” where “we find [Shakespeare] ready and willing to start at the twentieth century if the seventeenth would only let him”. That these were three plays in which the young Mirren appeared can be explained away as coincidence; but perhaps the old rogue was onto something else. He had the foresight to predict that Measure for Measure, in particular, would find new and receptive audiences in the next hundred years. We have a tolerance for difficulty, for moral irresolution, for messy endings, that our Victorian ancestors lacked.
And so much in this play is murky. Why does the Duke absent himself from Vienna? In the scene with Friar Thomas (I.iii) where he establishes his disguise, he gives several reasons, not entirely consistent one with another. We learn that he is a reluctant public figure, who has “ever lov’d the life remov’d”. He tells us that he has let slip the “strict statutes and most biting laws” of the state, that a clean-up operation is needed, but that it would seem “tyranny” if he were to do it himself. So he has appointed a deputy, “a man of stricture and firm abstinence”, who may be relied on to do the dirty work. Yet this “precise” deputy is himself to be put to the test: “Hence we shall see | If power changes purpose, what our seemers be”. These are complicated motives, complicated further when we consider that he must already know of Angelo’s breach of his marriage contract with Mariana, evidence that the deputy is not as “precise” as he seems.
Is the Duke a cruel manipulator or a dispenser of wisdom? In the 1930s there was a trend in criticism, inaugurated by G Wilson Knight, to view the Duke as the prophet of an “enlightened ethic”, a Christ-like figure who preaches a new order of justice and forgiveness. The clue is in the play’s title, a reference to Matthew 7:1-2:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
But if he’s a supreme moralist, why does he prolong the sufferings of the other characters so, letting Isabella believe her brother has been executed, telling Juliet that the father of her child is to die “tomorrow” when he has no intention of allowing the execution to occur? Why does he lie to them? Whilst we can hold these contradictions in our heads when reading the play, we generally look to a stage production to offer a line of interpretation.
And Isabella? If All’s Well is about a woman who yearns to lose her virginity and resorts to the ‘bed trick’ to accomplish it, Measure for Measure gives us a woman desperate to preserve her virginity who succeeds by the same means. Do we admire her? Some might say her dedication to chastity, which she values above her brother’s life, is revealed as an ethical absolutism as unbending as that of Angelo when he’s first installed in office. There’s a suggestion that it may proceed from sexual anxieties as much as selfless piety. Long before psychoanalysis was born in Vienna, Erasmus in his Encomium Matrimonii was troubling over young neophytes who would “profess and vow perpetual chastity before they sufficiently know themselves and the infirmity of their nature”.
The final scene raises more questions. This was never going to resolve in a neat comedy of pairings. There are marriages in prospect, but hardly the result of mutual romantic yearnings. Angelo is married off to a woman he has cast aside. He has shown his true colours by abusing his authority to proposition another woman. Like Helena in All’s Well, his new bride has unaccountably loved her man all along despite his unworthiness and indifference towards her. The foppish Lucio is married off to his ‘punk’ as a punishment. The Duke, a hitherto confirmed bachelor, meanwhile proposes to the novice nun Isabella. We don’t know her response – she has no lines after her intercession on Angelo’s behalf – but it would be hard for her to turn down such a public proposal from the head of state. In fact, this sudden offer of marriage from an authority figure she hardly knows – her previous encounters with him had been in his role as celibate friar – might suggest he’s exercising a kind of marital droit de seigneur, a tactic that would occur more naturally to his less principled deputy.
According to the Revels Accounts, a play called ‘Mesur for Mesur’ by ‘Shaxberd’ was acted in the banqueting hall, Whitehall, on St Stephen’s Night (26 December) 1604: the first known performance. We can never know what King James and the courtiers made of it. Some have suggested that the version we have, first printed in the Folio of 1623, is a later revision, even by another hand. Perhaps such textual anomalies would account for disjunctions in the play, those abrupt modulations, those suspended chords that never quite resolve. Or perhaps they were built in from the start, intentional subversions of tradition by one of literature’s greatest rule-breakers.
Much as I admire this play and enjoy fretting over its complexities, I find it flawed. The strongest scenes by far are the two meetings between Isabella and Angelo in which the deputy’s dark motives take shape, a surprise even to himself, and the prison scene between Isabella and Claudio, where the novitiate is startled to discover that her brother values his life more highly than her virginity. Is it fanciful to suppose that the psychological depths here are what drew ‘Shaxberd’ to this material? Like the good scriptwriter that he was, he then adapted the material to a ‘comedy’ format by grafting on motifs from fairy tale (the Absent Ruler, the Substitute Bride) and ensuring the whole thing ended in multiple marriages, however unhappy their prospects.
History has not been kind to the 1979 Riverside production. It doesn’t even merit a mention in Graham Nicholls’s study, published in 1986, of the play in performance. His Isabellas of note are Estelle Kohler (Stratford, 1970), Ciaran Madden (Open Space, 1975), Paola Dionisotti (Stratford, 1978) and Kate Nelligan (BBC TV, 1979). Peter Gill had made a reputation at Riverside Studios for shedding new light on old plays by stripping them bare, by avoiding what one critic called “obfuscating directing and otiose gloss”. Whilst this approach had worked in The Changeling, which he staged the previous year, reviewers felt it was inappropriate for this text, a ‘problem play’ whose problems the director needed to confront in some fashion. Gill presented the action on a bare quarry-tile floor against a stark brick background:
On a wide bare stage, in dusty-looking doublet and hose, the play is presented with a business like briskness. It is not unenjoyable, but hardly fires the imagination. (Daily Telegraph)
For Peter Stothard this was “a prime example of the ‘theatre of purity’ gone mad… The cutting back of directorial accretions has meant a virtual copping out of all the play’s problems.” The Observer concurred: “If this play is about anything, it is about moral testing; with that dimension lost, all tension gradually seeps out of the play.” Some critics harked back to Peter Brook’s famous production of 1950 which, as John Barber suggested, had revealed this as the “most Freudian of Shakespeare’s plays, with its revelations of suppressed desires, subconscious motives and nightmare fantasies”. (One 1975 production, by Robert Phillips in Stratford, Ontario, had made this explicit by moving the action from the seventeenth-century city to Vienna in 1912.) But for Robert Cushman the Riverside version was a “bridled” Vienna, with little sign of “corruption boil[ing] and bubbl[ing] till it o’er run the stew”.
So theatre critics missed Gill’s customary clarity of direction, regretting that too few of the characters emerged with any colour or distinctiveness. They were, however, united in singling out Mirren’s performance. For the Daily Telegraph Isabella was the only character in the production who
might belong to a comedy of deeply moral implications and not an antiquated relic. In Nile green velvet with white cuffs, a crucifix on her magnificent bosom, she commands the fierce chastity of a Titian Madonna, and is hardly less beautiful. She speaks in cold horror of stooping to “abhorred… pollution” – with a telling pause before she can bring herself to utter the noun. If the actress will put to better use the good deep notes in her voice, a remarkable performance could become a great one.
Plays and Players agreed:
Helen Mirren has at least carved out for herself a role that is absolutely coherent; a more than usually reluctant entrant to the convent, she grows suddenly, inflexibly moral and in the end accepts marriage to the Duke as a softening fall to normality. Her performance has a tough, physical, almost balletic quality. At the first entreating of Angelo for Claudio’s life, she moves in and out from him in the strictest straight lines, as though approaching the hub of a wheel along each spoke in turn. Once Angelo is within her power her path changes from its pattern of advance and retreat to a spiralling encirclement of her prey. Dressed in slate-grey, floor-length velvet, she seems to glide rather than walk; and she stops dead with a timing that keeps you glued to her every movement, lest you miss its ending.
For the Guardian, Mirren’s Isabella was “the strongest thing in the evening”:
Grey frocked and with her hair swept severely back, she is an unapologetic moralist exuding the odour of sanctity. She prods Angelo’s bosom with her little finger in a manner that would unnerve a saint, prowls round him like an excited Baskerville muttering the word “Seeming seeming” and on the notorious “more than our brother is our chastity” she flings her arms wide in a declaration of faith. As a portrait of inflexible religious morality, it is undeniably impressive.
Among the academic critics, David McCandless understood her portrayal as “defining chastity as an act of resistance against a normative femininity synonymous with sexual availability on male terms” (p189). It’s significant that Mirren (like Judi Dench in 1962 or Juliet Stevenson in a later RSC production) was never seen in the nun’s habit. In Michael Scott’s words,
her decision for celibacy or sexuality was involved with an almost secular awareness of the dignity of her own being… Here was a determined Isabella whom Angelo encountered at his peril, only his power offering any form of protection. Miss Mirren’s Isabella was a woman affronted by a male-dominated world. Her dignity as a human being was the price she was asked to pay and she refused to do so. (pp67-9)
At Stratford in 1970 Estelle Kohler had brusquely ignored the Duke’s offers of marriage, and at the end of the play was left alone on stage to gaze out at the audience in obvious shock and bewilderment. Mirren, by contrast, “quickly and decisively accepted the Duke’s proposal” (Bawcutt, pp39-40). I wish I’d seen the Riverside production. Mirren’s Isabella sounds feisty and independent-minded to the core. But without having seen it, how is one to judge that rapid acceptance of the Duke from someone hitherto “affronted by a male-dominated world”? On the page, the rest is silence.
John Barber, ‘Measure for Measure’, Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1979
NW Bawcutt, ‘General Introduction’, ‘Measure for Measure’: The Oxford Shakespeare (1991)
Michael Billington, ‘First night: Measure for Measure’, Guardian, 24 May 1979
Robert Cushman, ‘Open door’, Observer, 27 May 1979
Erasmus, A ryght frutefull Epystle… in laude and prayse of matrimony, tr. R Tavernour (1532)
David McCandless, Gender and Performance in Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies (1997)
Graham Nicholls, ‘Measure for Measure’: Text and Performance (1986)
Michael Scott, Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience (1982)
George Bernard Shaw, Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898), I, xxi
Peter Stothard, ‘Measure for Measure’, Plays and Players, June 1979, 21-2
G Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930)