Telling his followers he is leaving the city on affairs of state, the Duke of Vienna appoints the puritanical Angelo to govern in his absence. Will Angelo prove as virtuous as he seems once power is in his hands? Roaming the city disguised as a friar, the duke looks on as Angelo's lust for the virtuous Isabella sweeps him into the corruption he has so sternly condemned in others. The duke's manipulation at last produces a happy ending for this dark comedy, with its brilliant exploration of the themes of justice and mercy. Roger Allam plays the duke and Simon Russell Beale is Angelo. Isabella is played by Stella Gonet.
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“Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, Nothing goes right; we would and we would not.” ― William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
Let me start this review with a personal bias -- I PREFER it when politicos pretend to be priests, rather than when priests pretend to be politicos. Apparently, Shakespeare is on MY side. "Measure for Measure" is one of Shakespeare's "dark comedies" or "problem plays" like Troilus and Cressida and All's Well That Ends Well. It is certainly dark. It could easily be a funky beer or dark chocolate xocolātl. It feels like Shakespeare has reached that point of his career/life where he just doesn't give an F. He is all elbows and any need to surrender to societal platitudes and moral veneer seem to be fully expunged. He is all about tearing off the scabs of hypocrisy, and popping the boils of false prophets. But as with most of Shakespeare's best, nothing is direct, everything is oblique. Truth comes at you sideways and even when you catch it, you have to be careful it isn't going to explode.
Oh, oh, also, the names. Mistress Overdone? Pompey Bum? So perfect.
There is a line I love from Philip K Dick that says, “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Shakespeare seems to agree, but it seems the most sane person in "Measure for Measure", the one most adjusted to Shakespeare's Vienna is Barnardine, the everdrunk. So, perhaps, we can re-write PKD's quote (at least remeasure it to read: It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to get sloppy-a$$ drunk"). In a world where everyone seems to be concerned about death, justice, confinement, authority, sexuality, etc., Barnardine, like Honeybadger, just don't give a sh!t. I feel you Barnardine. I feel you.
Anyway, the play is unsettling. Shakespeare even makes the play's "happy ending" seem a bit dirty, like climbing out of a polluted pool. There isn't a moist towelette large enough to clean the soiled linen of Vienna. This is a play that, with the right characters, the right amount of alcohol could possibly start a riot. It pushes everyone right to the end and then yanks you back, not to "save you" but to keep the audience unbalanced. While it shares little directly with Crime and Punishment (except for, well, a crime and a punishment), I did keep getting images of Dostoevsky in my head while reading this. Shakespeare isn't as serious as Dostoevsky, but with an absurdity and dark, gallows humor, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure seems just as dangerous as anything Dostoevsky later delivered.
So, perhaps, I'll end with another Dostoevsky thought. Like Hesse's warning to readers of Dostoevsky, I too caution that looking too deep into Shakespeare's problem plays gives the reader both a taste of Western Civilization's decadent decline, and a "glimpse into the havoc". Bottoms up Biatches!
― “I had as lief have the foppery of freedom as the morality of imprisonment.” (Act 1, Scene 2).
― “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” (Act 1, Scene 4).
― “But man, proud man, Dress'd in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd— His glassy essence—like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens, Would all themselves laugh mortal.” (Act 2, Scene 2).
― “The miserable have no other medicine But only hope: I have hope to live, and am prepared to die.” (Act 3, Scene 1).
― “To sue to live, I find I seek to die; And, seeking death, find life.” (Act 3, Scene 1).