A friend of mine, a novelist, told me he wants to create a character like Humpty Dumpty, with so many sides and contradictions you can’t glue him back together. Or, in doing so, you’d have to finesse nagging details that don’t jibe.
“Oh,” I replied, “you mean like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure?”
Over the years, critics have disagreed so vehemently about this “comedy,” it would be easier to reassemble Humpty Dumpty than find common ground. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “The comic and tragic parts equally border on the hateful.” A.W. Schlegel, another biggie, appreciated “the triumph of mercy over strict justice.” In our day, Harold Bloom calls it “authentically outrageous,” since it pushes comedy “beyond all possible limits...almost past irony at its most savage.”
The Duke has ruled Vienna 19 years. Actually, “ruled” is a misnomer. He favored license over law. Brothels and diseases abound, and children are born out of wedlock. “T’was my fault to give the people scope,” he confesses. But to make a sudden change would be “tyranny.” So, to rebalance things, he goes on hiatus. He asks young Angelo, who admits he isn’t ready, to be his proxy. If the Duke favored frolic, Angelo would flourish at the Inquisition. He’s supposedly a saint, “whose blood is very snow-broth,” and “when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice.”
Were the Duke to continue, the population of Vienna would double in no time. Were Angelo to have his way, fornication would cease: he “will unpeople the province with continency.” Angelo’s first act is to demolish all houses of ill-repute in the suburbs (which was happening in London when Shakespeare wrote the play around 1603–’04). His second: enforce a musty old law against lechery. Young Claudio must die for impregnating Juliet, even though they are betrothed (and legal lovers). And, since Angelo wants to set an abrupt example of his stern new policy, Claudio must die soon.
But does the penalty fit the crime? Does it offer a straight across, measure for measure? The play unfolds like tilting scales of justice, or a teeter-totter, where one side’s always higher than the other. And at the puzzling conclusion, which scatters most critics like autumn leaves in a Santa Ana, the teeter still totters.
When we first see Isabella, Claudio’s sister, she wants to become a nun. But she’s worried that the order she chose might not be strict enough. When we last see Isabella, she’s run a gauntlet through the smarmy, sex-crazed world she rejected at the beginning: a “saint” (named “Angel” no less) tried to seduce her to save her brother; her brother urged her to have sex with Angelo (“What sin you do to save a brother’s life, nature dispenses with the deed so far that it becomes a virtue”); and a Duke disguised as a friar, manipulated lives and deaths, ordered three hopelessly mismatched marriages, and now wants to marry her? You’d think, after all Isabella has seen, she’d hie herself hence to the strictest Carmelite order in Vienna.
In the text, Isabella doesn’t reply. That gap is the theatrical equivalent of the Mona Lisa’s unfathomable smile. What is Isabella thinking?
In the Old Globe’s Measure for Measure a few summers back, as he exited the stage, the Duke turned and held out his hand. Isabella paused, spread “Oh, gosh, gee, what the heck” across her face, and skipped after him. In his mighty staging at the Globe (1988), John Hirsch set the play in Sigmund Freud’s Vienna, a dark, steamy locale rife with spiderwebby subtexts and psychological malignancy (over which, in Ralph Funicello’s brilliant set, a giant cross gazed down). By play’s end, Hirsch’s Isabella was ready either for a nunnery — the religious kind — or a nuthouse.
For the USD/Old Globe Theatre’s production, which closed last Sunday, director Ray Chambers smartly left Isabella onstage at the end, stuffed with confusion. As lights dimmed, you could almost see Measure for Measure spin like a Rolodex in Whitney Wakimoto’s eyes. She was split, as Isabella says earlier, “twixt will and will not.”
Up to this point, the production favored “will.” Led by Jeremy Fisher’s goofy Lucio, in a candy-stripe coat, the comic spirit held sway. Actors performed in a straightforward, post-Freudian style (which made Matthew Bellows’s Angelo too bland, and his coming-out scene with Isabella — the sudden thaw of his repressed sexuality — a letdown). Christopher Salazar’s Duke was a well-intended gent. If he erred, or seemed over-controlling, he meant well (and was well-spoken). Two actors gave the piece deeper tones. Adam Gerber’s imprisoned Claudio had an eloquent grief, and Danielle O’Farrell’s Escalus a pointed ferocity.
So many of the play’s characters feel at least two-sided, and flit from the one to the other. To complicate Escalus, costume designer Elisa Benzoni decked her in a mid-17th-century dress with battleship-sized panniers. No matter what O’Farrell said, trying to move about in a costume as wide below the waist as she is tall, was comical.
From the start, Sean Fanning’s set suggested darker matters. A marble, checkerboard floor and low walls had edges so sharp you feared for the actors’ shins. Chris Rynne’s moody lighting draped various hues across the stone.
Were one to have polled the audience at intermission, a majority would have said they were watching another Twelfth Night or As You Like It. All problems looked surmountable. At the end, however, Isabella’s perplexity turned the entire play upside-down. And all the Duke’s horses and all of his men, well... ■
Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare
The Old Globe/University of San Diego Graduate Theatre Program, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Ray Chambers; cast: Christopher Salazar, Whitney Wakimoto, Danielle O’Farrell, Adam Gerber, Erin Elizabeth Adams, Matthew Bellows, Meaghan Boeing, Jeremy Fisher, Kushtrim Hoxha, Stephen Hu, Allison Layman, Robbie Simpson, Stephanie Roetzel; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Elisa Benzoni; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound and original music, Kevin Anthenil. Run concluded.