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When the Duke of Vienna takes a mysterious leave of absence and leaves the strict Angelo in charge, things couldn't be worse for Claudio, who is sentenced to death for premarital sex. His sister, Isabella (a nun-in-training), however, is a very persuasive pleader. She goes to Angelo, but instead of freeing her brother, she gets an offer from Angelo to save Claudio's life if Isabella sleeps with him. The only sympathetic friend Isabella has is a priest who, in actuality, is the Duke in disguise...and he has a plan. Written by
As moving and poetic as any of Shakespeare's well-known tragedies.
Originally listed as one of William Shakespeare's comedies, Measure for Measure is now relegated to the status of being a "problem" play, meaning either that it doesn't fit into any box or that its content and message is a problem for orthodox interpreters of William Shakespeare's biography. Whether or not the play is a comedy, a problem play, or a tragi-comedy, it is a powerful work and one of Shakespeare's best. In the late 1970s, BBC and Time-Life produced the only filmed version of Measure for Measure in their series of 37 Shakespeare's plays. Although I have not seen more than a handful of BBC, Time-Life productions, this production stands out for the quality of the acting and the impeccable direction by Desmond Davis.
Kenneth Colley is an appealing Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, who, dissatisfied with the corruption in the city, announces that he plans to visit Poland, handing over governing to his chief deputy, the rigidly puritanical Angelo, convincingly performed by Tim Piggot-Smith, who will be assisted by his wise counselor Escalus (Kevin Stoney). To observe how the city will fare, however, Vincentio travels to a monastery where he is provided with a hooded monk's robe which allows him to return to Vienna disguised as a priest, keeping his face partially covered by his hood.
Taking over the reins of government, Angelo proceeds to enforce every statute, closing the houses of prostitution and arresting Claudio, a young nobleman (Christopher Strauli), for fornication by getting his lover Juliet (Yolanda Vazquez) pregnant, even though he had agreed to marry her. Under Angelo's order, he is to be executed in three days. On hearing the news, Claudio's friend Lucio (John McEnery) tells Claudio's sister, Isabella (Kate Nelligan), who is studying to be a nun, to go to Angelo and use all her power to convince Angelo to spare her brother's life.
While Isabella, as portrayed by Nelligan, is cold and aloof, she is also intelligent and attractive, telling Angelo that "it is excellent to have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant." The hypocritical Angelo falls for Isabella, offering to go to bed with her in exchange for Claudio's life. Meanwhile, the "meddling" priest sets it up so that Isabella can escape the humiliation of having to sleep with Angelo by substituting Mariana (Jacqueline Pearce) in a bed-trick to be performed in the pitch-black night.
Mariana is Angelo's former lover whom he had agreed to marry but backed out because "her reputation was disvalued in levity", though no details are provided. Duke Vincentio (still disguised as a friar) tells Mariana she will commit no sin by sleeping with Angelo because "he is your husband on a pre-contract." While Measure for Measure borrows from Cinthio's Epitia and Promos and Cassandra by George Whetstone, the play is a profoundly autobiographical work. If the Oxfordian theory is correct, the play speaks to a poignant episode in Oxford's life when, upon his returning home after his trip to Italy in 1576, his mind was poisoned by his cousin Henry Howard and his receiver, Rowland Yorke, both Catholics and enemies of the Protestant regime, to the effect that his wife Anne Cecil had been unfaithful to him.
They told him that the daughter Anne had just given birth to could not be his since the last time he had slept with her was twelve months ago in October. Indeed, Oxford had not been told that his wife was pregnant until March and word of the baby's birth was not given to him until September, not by his wife but by her father, William Cecil. As a result of Anne's suspected infidelity, Oxford was estranged from his wife for over five years and only later in life became remorseful, reconciling with Anne and accepting Elizabeth Vere as his daughter. As far as the bed-trick is concerned, two separate sources recorded that de Vere conceived his first child by unknowingly sleeping with his wife when he thought he was with a mistress.
One story circulated in The Histories of Essex in 1836 that Anne had been substituted by her father William for one of the Earl's mistresses when the Earl was in a drunken state. Whether this story is true or not (how anyone, no matter how dark it is nor how drunk they are could not know who they are sleeping with boggles the mind), Shakespeare was apparently able to see its dramatic potential, using the bed trick as a device in both Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well. Likewise, in play after play, the male protagonist conceives a strong animosity toward a devoted wife, imagining her unfaithful to him on flimsy grounds, only to be later overwhelmed with remorse: Imogen in Cymbeline, Hermoine in The Winter's Tale, and Desdemona in Othello.
In Measure for Measure, Vincentio and Angelo may represent two sides of the author's character, the noble and good-natured Duke, and the judgmental and unforgiving Angelo. It is a self appraisal in which the author does not escape indictment, though his misdeeds are eventually forgiven - as they were in life (but only after he was imprisoned in the Tower like Claudio for impregnating courtesan Anne Vavasour). While the themes eventually play out to everyone's advantage, the getting there is where the genius lies and the final act of Measure for Measure is every bit as moving and poetic as any of Shakespeare's well-known tragedies.
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