Measure For Measure, by William Shakespeare
I have been reading a few of Shakespeare’s plays (all of which I have read before, some multiple times) in the Modern Library collection in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company , and it has proven to be an interesting experience. One reason I chose this particular series to read was that it includes a great deal of commentary on the reception of the play over time as well as how some contemporary directors and actors have staged the plays recently, and what contemporary concerns they brought to the material. I feel this adds some layers to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward reading experience to me, given that the play is already one I am familiar with. In fact, Measure For Measure may be my favorite Shakespeare play, as I am very fond of his “problem” plays and this one definitely is a problem play, without question. And it is those problems and the way that they are staged that I find particularly interesting, although it is somewhat tedious to see how often people read in their own psychological or political biases into a work like this one, which is inevitable given the ubiquity of both psychology and politics in the contemporary world.
This book begins with an introduction that discusses themes of judgment, the enigmatic nature of the Duke of Vienna, and Shakespearean morality. After that there are some notes about the text and some key facts before the text of Measure For Measure takes up about 100 pages, more than half of the total of the book as a whole. After this there are some brief textual notes, a thoughtful scene-by-scene analysis, and a discussion of Measure For Measure in performance. He the directors of various runs and actors demonstrate the way that they approached the problems of dealing with the character of the Duke, the sordid nature of the Vienna of the play, and the matter of the Duke’s unanswered marriage proposal to Isabella at the end of the play. After this the book has a discussion of Shakespeare’s career in the theater (which is shared by the entire series) as well as a discussion of the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, some suggestions for further reading and viewing, along with references and acknowledgements as additional supplementary material for the interested reader of this play.
Reading this version of the play allowed me at least some time to think of why I like the play so much. Certainly the political realism of the play, where the Duke outsources the blame and unpleasantness of having a self-righteous Puritan enforce morality laws on a decadent society before seeking to recover the moral high ground by being the merciful “good cop” is something I appreciate and approach I think would be worthwhile in our own contemporary decadent society. Likewise, I find the complex balance and the view of marriage as an alternative to capital punishment as deeply interesting if fascinatingly problematic. Generally speaking, I find myself fascinated by problematic things. Likewise, I find the political viewpoint of the play to be fascinating, as Shakespeare engages in some early feminism by showing a strong and morally upright woman, punctures the moral superiority of much of Puritanism, and also provokes some serious reflection about the obligation of those who can serve the wider public to use their gifts for the good of the general population rather than to seek to use their skills and knowledge for only private intellectual pursuits, as Isabella and the Duke have both done in their own ways. All in all, this is an excellent version of an excellent play even if the staging of the play has some serious issues because of the political worldview of the people doing it.
 See, for example: