Measure for Measure Review

“O what may man within him hide, though angel on the outward side!”

The laws of man and the laws of nature frequently come into conflict in Shakespeare’s works, particularly in relation to a love affair that exerts a force of its own. Usually it’s in the guise of a personal drama or a tragedy, but sometimes – as in the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where a pair of lovers run off to escape from harsh Athenian law – it can done well in the context of a comedy. What’s unusual about Measure for Measure is that it’s a play that takes the question into a wider social context and probes abuse in the exercise of power, but it’s also a great dramatic comedy.

What is problematic about the law in the Vienna of Measure for Measure is not so much the laws themselves, but how they are applied. The Duke is aware that the rod of the law is “more mock’d than fear’d”, particularly in the area of public morals which are being abused with the proliferation of bawdy houses and drunken licentious behaviour in the city. Wanting to put the laws to the test, the Duke decides to temporarily withdraw as arbiter of the law and leave Lord Angelo in his place to enact them as he sees fit. Meanwhile he disguises himself as a religious friar in order to observe the application of the law under another ruler and whether “power change purpose”. He’s not impressed by what he sees.

As funny as it may be, Shakespeare’s raucous depiction of the behaviour in the brothels and bawdy houses run by the likes of Pompey and Mistress Overdone leaves you in no doubt that Vienna has a serious problem, but what is to be done about it? When he sentences a young man for the crime of fornication, Angelo however would appear to be applying the letter of the law far beyond its presumed intent. Claudio’s wife Juliet is pregnant, but even though this has occurred within the context a loving relationship, the couple are not yet married, and Angelo intends to apply the full rigour of the law and make an example of the young man by sentencing him to death.

The situation of Claudio illustrates a complex social issue, one that questions the authority of the law to condemn or rule over some basic points of human nature. It’s an issue that Shakespeare establishes well in the contrast between the social problems faced by Vienna and the innocent individual who inadvertently falls foul of them. It has to be said however that Measure for Measure is not the playwright’s most subtle or poetic examination of the exercise of power, nor indeed does its resolution really establish where the quality of mercy fits in with the application of the law. It’s neither Julius Caesar nor The Merchant of Venice in this regard, but neither would you expect it to be. Measure for Measure is after all “A Comedy in Five Acts”.

As a comedy, there’s no better place to bring that out than in a Dominic Dromgoole production at the Globe. It’s true that all Shakespeare’s plays are given an appropriate treatment at the replica round theatre on London’s Southbank, but the comedies do tend to really come to life there in the close proximity and in the interaction with the audience. There’s quite a bit of comedy played out even above the written text here, in the slapstick, in the bawdy behaviour of Mistress Overdone and her flyaway skirts and in the characterisation of some of the comic performances, with Dean Nolan in particular making much of the familiar Shakespearean over-officious but stupid officer of the law, here as Elbow.

The problem with Measure for Measure however is not so much that the Globe overplay the comic content of the play, as much as Shakespeare doesn’t apply the same full rigour to resolution of the problematic social questions that he has raised. In Claudio and particularly in his sister Isabella who pleads for his release, we are left in no doubt as to the severity of the situation or its impact on the individual. Claudio’s observation that “Death is a fearful thing” reminds us that “the weariest and most loathed worldly life (…) is a paradise” compared to lying “in cold obstruction and to rot“, but Angelo’s weakness for Isabella and his shameful deceit of the maiden doesn’t really tell us anything more than that power corrupts and that we are all under the sway of human nature. And should we be tried for that?

Measure for Measure never really comes up with an answer to that question, other than suggesting that obviously you need to apply a little common sense, reason and human compassion. “He who the sword of heaven will bear must be holy as severe“, the Duke observes and his exercise of the wisdom learned from his sabattical at least brings about a satisfactory dramatic resolution to the work, even if some of his judgements still seem somewhat heavy-handed and motivated by personal grudges. It’s also one those elaborate lengthy resolutions with multiple revelations that would become popular in the Bard’s later Romances – Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale – but it doesn’t quite have a similar redemptive quality or address the higher purpose where love survives the ravages of fate and the unjust laws of man.

Like those later Romances however, Measure for Measure can be admired purely for the brilliance of its dramatic construction, for its characterisation, and – in this case – for the opportunities it presents for comic interplay. The Globe are traditionally good with this type of dynamic, playing with verve and interacting well with the audience to bring out the full meaning and the inherent entertainment that lies in such a rich work. This Measure for Measure is no exception. This is pure entertainment for the audience present at this performance, and it comes across very well indeed in this live recording for the screen.

Globe on Screen’s Measure for Measure is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.

As with most recent years, all the 2015 Globe on Screen productions – Richard II, The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure are released on DVD only. In the case of Measure for Measure the video quality is reasonably good within the limits of the NTSC Standard Definition encoding of a live theatre performance. The image is relatively clear and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. Anyone more used to High Definition presentations on larger screens will find that the detail isn’t all there and colours are a little oversaturated. On the whole though, the transfer is more than acceptable, only showing its limitations through longer shots when the lack of High Definition detail becomes noticeable, and more so when the evening darkens in the open-air Globe Theatre.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, but I found that the volume on Measure for Measure was quite low for the dialogue. It’s recorded well and is audible throughout when the volume level is adjusted, but this also has the effect of making music and stage noise louder. This is of course a live recording in an open-air theatre, so the variable sound levels are going to be difficult to mix.

Optional white subtitles are available for hard of hearing or should you just enjoy reading Shakespeare’s text, which is always worth exploring. Subtitles are white and in English only. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet has good essay on the social context of the work which was written in a period of new puritanical and religious influence. There is also a synopsis of the plot.

Measure for Measure is an often neglected Shakespeare play, but it has an intriguing and ambitious premise that considers the difficulty of trying to draw a legislative line between morality and basic human behaviour, between the exercise of power and the flaws of the human nature. It’s not so much that the comic playing of the situation fails to address the question as much as the necessity of providing a dramatic resolution that takes Measure for Measure away from these important considerations. The Globe’s 2015 production doesn’t find any way to redress the imbalance, but it plays it wonderfully with great verve on both comic and dramatic fronts.


Updated: Sep 04, 2016

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