I'm currently working on a production of Measure for Measure. Note that--working on, not in. Sigh. My job? Editor, as always, and assistant director. This play is, of course, known as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. It's called a comedy, but it's not particularly comic; it just lands in that category because of the classic definition of a comedy as a play that ends with marriage(s). It's not really a tragedy, either--no one has a tragic fall, there is no great character's death. Instead, it's mostly about a moral debate--how far should a character compromise her own values to do something important?
Do you know MforM, as we familiarly call it? If not, let me recap quickly: Duke Vincenzio has not been much of an enforcer during his reign over Vienna, and therefore the city has run out of control. He knows something needs to be done, but rather than lay down the law himself, decides to "disappear" while putting his rigid, law-abiding deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo begins to enforce the laws harshly, including resurrecting an old law that says a man who gets a woman he is not married to pregnant should be executed. The first one to suffer under this is Claudio, who got his fiance, Juliet pregnant. Isabel, Claudio's sister and a novice at a convent, is called in to plead Claudio's case to Angelo. He is surprised to find he is attracted to her and proposes that if she sleeps with him, he'll free Claudio. Isabel decides that she can't go through with it, but hopes that Claudio will understand that her action, while it might save him, would subject her to damnation. Claudio at first agrees, but upon contemplating death, pleads with her to change her mind--he's sure that God would understand that what she was doing was in the service of good. The Duke, in disguise as a friar, hears all this and devises a plan that has Isabel seem to agree to Angelo's demand, but really slip into Angelo's bed Mariana, the fiancee he abandoned when her dowry was lost. After this all goes through, the Duke returns and the truth is revealed to Angelo. He is forced to marry Mariana and save her honor, and the Duke marries Isabel.
Okay, maybe that wasn't the quickest recap, and probably not the finest (be warned, kids, don't use the above to study for your English exam). But I included it because I wanted to bring up what I find most problematic about this problem play. It's not the question of "is it a comedy or a tragedy" that is often discussed. Actually, we decided we were going to make this obviously a tragedy; I cut almost all the comic bits between the lower-class characters (which, to be honest, aren't that comic anymore--most of the jokes revolve around wordplay with Elizabethan slang. If I have to check footnotes for almost every line to get the jokes, it's not going to entertain audiences that much) and we're staging the end so it is apparent that these are not the happiest of marriages; let's be honest, Isabel and Angelo are really made for each other. In my favorite monologue in the play, at the end of II.ii, Angelo talks about how "the strumpet,/With all her double vigour, art and nature" never attracted him, but "this virtuous maid/Subdues me quite. Her goodness makes her hot, as they might say in these days (this monologue also has my favorite line from the play, when Angelo, who had seemingly never understood love realizes that he has been struck: "Even till now,/When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how." This is the final line of the monologue, and it is brilliant in its bemusement and suddenness). Meanwhile, Isabel, when first confronted by Angelo's unyielding interpretation of the law at least respects him and understands his point; it is only when he shows his own moral failing, when he offers her the sex for her brother's life proposition that she becomes angry at him.
So we have these two intriguing characters who now have to negotiate this trap set by Shakespeare. But this is where the play has a major problem--what should be the most important scenes happen offstage: Isabel going to Angelo and telling him (falsely) that she has agreed to sleep with him, and even more crucially, a monologue in which Angelo considers what is about to happen. The former seems like an opportunity for a great seduction scene, or one of those scenes Shakespeare was so fond of, where everyone is an actor and playing a role. But the latter is more interesting to me. This should have been such a great soliloquoy for Angelo. Here is a man who has been described by others as made of ice, and not human, who probably thought of love as a weakness, or at least never understood its meaning (as seen above in the lines I quoted from II.ii). Now he does have those feelings (and let's just note here that love and lust are used interchangeably in Shakespeare's work) and wonder of wonders, the woman he wants has agreed to have sex with him. So suddenly he's gotten what he wished for, which hadn't seemed possible. How does he feel? It's always a terrifying thing when you get what you wished for. But he's gotten that wish through immoral means--he has essentially forced Isabel into the agreement. It's not love if one party isn't willing, nor is it much of a victory. Moreover, Angelo has let his desire for Isabel overcome what he held highest about himself, his strict moral code; he is suddenly no better than the people whose licentiousness he has condemned. How does he feel about that?
Do you see what I mean? With all that great material, how did Shakespeare neglect to write this monologue? Is there a meaning in the fact that the seemingly most crucial scenes in this play take place offstage? Or--do I dare hope--they exist somewhere, were written, but now are just lost, though maybe still to be discovered. Wouldn't that be wonderful?
I hope our production is good. Or at least that everyone learns their lines.