Measure for Measure: Lily Brayton as Isabella, 1907. Photographer: Lallie Charles. Rotary Photo.
STAGING MEASURE FOR MEASURE
This play has traditionally been regarded as distasteful because of its preoccupation with sexuality, and the harsh reactions to it by the play’s leading roles: the novice nun Isabella (2.2.29-42; 3.1.135-46)) and her harasser the magistrate Angelo (2.2.161-86). The voyeurism of the manipulative Duke disguised as a Friar also arouses distaste (3.1.180-279). However, in the increasingly open society of the second half of the twentieth century, the play’s exploitation of the stress and humor of aberrant sexuality became more customary and the play is now more frequently performed and appreciated, often reset in a modern political environment (Galleries 5.2.19; 6.2.1-2). Its title (taken from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel) stresses that the script approximates to the genre of the morality play, and many of the characters verge on allegorical roles, particularly in the series of intense debates between Isabella and Angelo over the execution of her brother for fornication, which presents them as advocates of Mercy and Justice respectively (2.2, 2.4: see clip in Video Gallery) . The play has several other comparable moments of intense, even tragic feeling (as in Claudio’s discussion of his death sentence with the Duke, 3.1.1-43), and many critics regret the resolution of this tension by the Duke’s trickery, even though this happy outcome approximates to the Christian theme of universal forgiveness, and matches the Renaissance concept of tragicomedy favored by other popular dramatists such as Lope de Vega. Such issues seem appropriate to Shakespeare’s fresh choice of setting, compared to his sources: Reformation Vienna saw confrontations between Lutheranism and the Holy Roman Emperors. HMR
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