Posts Tagged ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Lockdown Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

May 3, 2020

Last year I saw a radically different The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford, in which all the genders had been swapped; it was a very uncomfortable experience for men in the audience, this one included, and raised all sorts of questions about this most dubious of Shakespeare’s plays.

So I decided to watch a more traditional version yesterday afternoon: the BBC Shakespeare one, from 1980, with John Cleese as Petruchio. Now the BBC Shakespeare has always seemed a very strange kettle of fish to me: a prestige project to film all of the plays as theatre performances, with some very well-known names, and in ‘traditional’ costumes and settings, almost as an archive for all time. It now seems more like a museum: the productions and performances are stilted and frozen in time, and not in a good way, it seems to me. And this one was another of those. I have to say that the only thing worth watching was what Cleese brought, sometimes in a Pythonesque way, to a traditional performance. The hysterics of the women and the fopperies of the men were just about tolerable. Then watching the famous Act 5 ‘submission’ speech, not believing my eyes and ears.

A number of Shakespeare’s plays are regarded as ‘problem’ plays, for different reasons; some just don’t work in our age, I have come to feel. The anti-semitism of The Merchant of Venice can be challenged at various points in the performance and some occasional sympathy can be elicited for Shylock, but he is a pretty dreadful character, considered as a whole; I have seen a couple of performances that worked well. But the outright sexism, the male chauvinism, the vileness of father and suitors, the treating of women as chattels and objects to be sold to the highest bidder? I do not see how these aspects of The Taming of the Shrew can be made palatable or acceptable, and I’ve yet to be convinced that after two hours and more of this, that that submission speech may be delivered in a twentieth-century, would-be feminist manner, acceptable to a contemporary audience. The BBC version ended with the characters singing a hymn together, which lauded the traditional virtues of a wife!

I’ve sometimes wondered about the bardolatry, the hagiography of our national playwright: can he do no wrong? Even today? He was of his time, and pace Ben Jonson, not always and in everything for all time. I’ve regularly found Shakespearean comedy difficult, rarely enjoyed teaching it, with the exception of Twelfth Night. Seventeenth-century audiences found different things funny and entertaining; they enjoyed public executions, for goodness’ sake… for me, a play like The Taming of the Shrew may have been a good play, a successful play in its time, but I think it’s not one that can work today. Back with last year’s gender-swapped production: if it had me squirming and feeling uncomfortable, then how many women spectators will have been appalled at previous performances? Suspending my disbelief was not really an option: the play is now offensive.

The Taming of The Shrew at Stratford

May 23, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew is not a play I know particularly well – I’ve never taught it – and I’ve only ever seen one (school) production previously, so perhaps this was not an ideal version as my first professional performance. The Christopher Sly induction was cut completely, although I can’t say this affected the play for me; some think there was a counterbalancing section, now lost, that originally closed the play, in which case I might have seen the point.

It’s a very problematic play, in terms of attitudes to women, creating real issues for contemporary productions of the play, much as The Merchant of Venice does in terms of anti-Jewishness in the text. So there was a very real challenge to the audience at Stratford in the director’s decision to reverse the gender of all the characters… For me, this didn’t get the play off to a very good start as the (admittedly stunning) costumes of the now female main characters dropped everything into what felt like a Restoration Comedy setting, and Shrew isn’t a Restoration Comedy. Shaking this incongruousness off eventually, I concentrated on enjoying the play; it made me think a lot, but overall didn’t leave a very positive impression.

Here’s why: above all there was a real imbalance in the performances of Petruchia and Kate (yes, his name wasn’t changed to a masculine version, for there isn’t one). Hers was a virtuoso one, his just faded into the background, he was a man basically being tormented and abused, and he was unable to show any sense of love – or any real feeling – developing for his partner. The crucial speech in the final scene felt like concession only, without any of the edge a skilful performance is capable of giving it. And this is where I decided, after ruminating overnight, was the major flaw in the director’s conception: although we may not like it, there is a well-known model for a shrewish female which we will ‘accept’ for the purpose of performance; there is no available male counterpart for this, which leaves the gender-swapped role merely hollowed-out and empty; possibilities for comedy are removed, and there is only suffering. The main character became a non-character.

The other side of this, for which the conception deserves credit, is just how awkward the entire gender-role reversal made this male member of the audience feel, and that is important in itself: the outrageousness of some attitudes and behaviours towards women was powerfully brought home.

However, the performance lacked coherence for me, and I cannot in the end get away from the feeling that what was obviously intended as a challenge to the audience was more of a gimmick than anything else.

On Shakespeare’s birthday

April 23, 2019

I don’t recall meeting any of Shakespeare’s plays until I got to the fourth form and began my O Level Eng Lit course: we studied The Merchant of Venice, with an inspirational English teacher who wasn’t afraid back then to explain everything, including the bawdy bits. I was fascinated to finally be reading this writer whose fame and reputation I’d heard so much about, and I came to love the moral complexities in that play. I can still reel off vast sections which I must have learnt by heart as I revised. It wasn’t until years later that I actually got to see it onstage, and the most memorable performance was one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the 1990s, where Portia was played as a woman who was old enough to be worried about being left an old maid, and Bassanio was clearly also no longer in the prime of youth and an evident gold-digger… Sadly, I only had a couple of opportunities to teach the play in my entire career.

A Level brought two tragedies, King Lear and Othello. The former still moves me to tears when I read it and I look forward one day to seeing a decent performance onstage; the only one I’ve seen so far was truly abysmal and best forgotten. Othello I loved, too, and have taught more times than I care to remember; I’ve seen a number of memorable performances including a couple at Stratford with the RSC, though I still like Willard White paired with Ian McKellen best of all, a TV performance I’ve watched countless times with students. Iago’s cold, calculating and incomprehensible evil comes across so powerfully as he struts in his corporal’s uniform, and you have to be really quick in the closing moments to see the brief and sinister darkening of the moustache…

I was lucky enough, at school, to have been taken to see plays at what was then the revolutionary – in more ways than one – new Nottingham Playhouse, where I was fortunate to see one of Ian McKellen’s first, if not his first, performances as Hamlet. In the end, however, that was a play that I never really warmed to, just as I always found Macbeth somehow unsatisfactory, although if you look up my post on the performance I saw at Stratford last year, you will see that I finally got to see a performance that transformed my appreciation of that play.

Although I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare enormously, it was always against the backdrop of examinations, especially with younger students whose enjoyment I feel was sometimes marred by the need to ‘get it right’ for an examiner. I particularly hated having to teach plays for the SATs at age 14 (now long gone, thank God) and felt constrained when Romeo and Juliet was up for testing as it was rather a challenge explaining all the obscenities to students that young… it’s a play much more suited to GCSE. But grinding thorough Julius Caesar or Macbeth with a 75-minute examination in view also felt like a bit of a chore, and at times I wondered how much of a love for the bard the students would end up with.

Obviously when students have chosen to study Eng Lit in the sixth form, it’s all rather different: there’s more time to do justice to a play, and students are more thoughtful and mature in their approach, and we could enjoy the language and the jokes, the wit and the vulgarity to the full. We could explore alternative possibilities and interpretations and this was positively encouraged by the syllabus at times. This is where I came to love two plays above all: Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; ask me one day which is my ‘favourite’ Shakespeare play and it will be one of these two, depending on whether there is an ‘r’ in the month or which way the wind is blowing. Why? Othello for the evil of Iago, the innocence of Othello and the shock when everything that was perfect is turned to dust for him, and the feistiness of Desdemona, until she cannot understand what is happening to her and her husband any more… Antony and Cleopatra for the passion of age that is not youth, and the giving up of worlds for that passion… Both plays for the sublimity of the language.

Sometimes I engage briefly with the scholarly arguments about who wrote the plays; most of the time I do not care. Someone – William Shakespeare, most probably – wove and knitted words so magically some four centuries ago that they can take us to places, take us inside people, show us feelings that can take us far beyond ourselves, can entertain us, make us think, move us to tears. It’s all invention, and it’s all wonderful.

Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

Jeremy Black: Mapping Shakespeare

August 22, 2018

51g9Yxn9jjL._AC_US218_A combination of Shakespeare and my enthusiasm for mapping and cartography is likely to be a sure-fire winner with me… and so I really enjoyed this book.

It’s a good deal more than a coffee-table book. Written by a historian, and gathering together a wonderful collection of old maps, organised thematically around Shakespeare’s times and his work, it is a delight. Black’s commentary and analysis is detailed and carefully written, and fully linked to a vast range of geographical references in Shakespeare’s plays. Some countries, especially his own, the dramatist was knowledgeable about and accurate, others he was rather more cavalier about, such as giving Bohemia, one of the most landlocked nations in Europe, a coastline, as he does in The Winter’s Tale, for instance. And some places he knew almost nothing about – such as China and Japan, reflecting the relative state of knowledge in his times – and so they do not get more than passing references, if that…

Shakespeare was as un-PC as some are in our own times, and far less likely to be challenged: Moors, Turks and Africans were a short-hand for exoticism, sometimes barbarity and cruelty (consider their presentation in Othello and Titus Andronicus; Spaniards and Italians were a by-word for scheming, plotting and politics (in the underhand, Machiavellian – another Italian! – sense). Look at the national stereotypes revealed in Portia’s listing of her suitors in The Merchant of Venice.

As the book’s scope broadened, I sometimes felt that the links with Shakespeare became a little more tenuous, but overall I got a very good picture of how the world was seen, known and interpreted in Shakespeare’s time, and his and his audience’s responses to it.

RSC: The Merchant of Venice (2015)

November 18, 2016

51jd-sfgbl-_ac_us160_The Merchant of Venice really is quite a difficult play; in Shakespeare’s time it might have been an anti-semitic and Jew-baiting piece, but it really isn’t possible to play it that way in the post-Holocaust twenty-first century. This sets directors a challenge, but also seems to open up the play to more complex and interesting interpretations than Shakespeare might have dreamed of…

I saw the RSC performance that I’m writing about here, in 2015: it stunned me then, and was easily the best interpretation I’ve seen. So I bought the DVD (in fact, I must have enjoyed the performance so much that I accidentally bought the DVD twice) and came back to it the other evening. It’s quite a fast-paced production – sometimes Portia is rather too prone to gabble, but that’s a minor complaint, honestly. It’s a modern-dress performance, though the setting feels timeless, really.

A number of things stand out for me. The Venetians all come across as money-grubbing, fortune-seeking, shallow personalities. Bassanio is a gold-digger, who knows how to say the right things to the right people. Portia is young and frustrated by her father’s will, rather than the ageing woman fearing being left on the shelf as she has occasionally (and convincingly) been played. She clearly fancies Bassanio and gives him obvious hints about the right casket, which he convincingly feigns ignoring…

Shylock is played as someone who’s had enough of the racist taunting and seizes a proffered opportunity to get even: this is understandable and convincing. So far, so good, so obvious: what did the performance do for me that was different, and thought-provoking? Antonio, for starters: a young man, passionately in love with Bassanio – they have clearly been lovers – who is distraught that his lover – bisexual Bassanio – is about to quite that phase of his youth and move rather more seriously into heterosexual fortune-hunting, nevertheless helps him in his quest by signing up to the bond. His looks, gestures, facial expressions and tearfulness say it all: we feel for him. And then he is truly vile to Shylock. So when in the trial scene Shylock advances on him with his knife ready to take the forfeit, we are torn, but we feel his torment and anguish at the approaching doom. And there is a priceless moment as the disguised Portia witnesses the passionate farewell kiss between the two men and realises what their relationship was…

Watching the play again this time, I was struck by how much the play seemed to be about loneliness: Shylock after the trial, Antonio suffering in the happy world of Belmont as his lover abandons him, and – often overlooked – the sadness and loneliness of Jessica who has abandoned father, family and faith for Lorenzo and his Christian yahoo mates, who ignore her, because after all she is still really Jewish… even Lorenzo’s attitude is ambivalent at best. Belmont is not really the place of happy ever after that we might have thought it was; this is a superb version of the play, bringing out the best of both comic and tragic elements of Shakespeare’s creation.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.

51uUn84EtSL._AC_US160_

Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

Shakespeare: Measure For Measure

December 18, 2015

510ADQNZXKL._AA160_I’ve re-read Measure For Measure several times, and I still can’t completely fathom it; it’s a tragicomedy, seemingly, as dark as The Merchant of Venice, but much more unclear in terms of where blame or guilt may be apportioned for the sorry state of affairs which is ultimately, and perhaps rather unsatisfactorily, put to rights – of some kind.

There are so many questions. Why does the Duke disappear (or pretend to), leaving full powers to a man (Angelo) less experienced than another (Escalus)? There seems a weakness, a remissness in the Duke’s behaviour here, and remissness is a serious flaw in a ruler. And this weakness seems to have affected the way he has ruled, but contrasted with Angelo’s rigour, we become less sure about this; again we compare Angelo with Escalus, and we feel the subplots also call his approach into question.

Then there’s the main, Claudio and Juliet story: Claudio’s (apparent) crime isn’t fully a crime as they were promised to each other, and certainly does not seem to merit the death penalty. Justice and mercy are set face-to-face as in The Merchant of Venice; the issue is complicated by Claudio’s weakness (or his human-ness?) – he wants to live, and would therefore persuade his sister to give herself to Angelo. Is her outrage, and rectitude something we are meant to approve of? Or is she too harsh? Is our response a twenty-first century one, and at odds with the way a seventeenth century audience would have viewed things?

Then there’s Angelo himself: very sure in his sense of right and wrong, and meting out justice with great confidence, but then apparently tormented by his lust, revealing a (slightly) more complex aspect to his character in soliloquies, taken over by his evil side. Is it frailty and human weakness, or wickedness, or a sense of guilt at his previous treatment of Mariana?

The Duke’s behaviour meanwhile grows more and more questionable: pretending to be a friar and usurping the religious privileges and duties of one, he is drawn deeper and deeper into a web of deceit which will go nowhere – just a Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet steps outside the bounds of his religious order (except he really is a friar). In a situation where we are surely prepared to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the drama, the performances with the faked executions and letters and so on become less and less believable…

I realise that this post is basically a series of questions, and will come to a close with another: where is Shakespeare taking his audience with all this? And I should attempt an answer, which is about as far as I have got with this play: Shakespeare is constantly showing his audience that nothing, no case of right or wrong, no person, whether apparently good or wicked, is as simple as appears on the surface; he is forever turning a situation on its head to have his audience think further, or to make them uncomfortable with the upsetting of their simple responses… will that do?

 

 

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