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"Measure for Measure" at Shakespeare in the Park

Although the oppressive heat during Friday night’s performance of “Measure for Measure” was downright hellish, issuing from the very bowels of Satan himself (it’s okay to say bowels, Shakespeare used it all the time), the title of the play actually comes from Jesus, from his Sermon on the Mount, in which he outlined his moral code as being distinctly different from the “eye for an eye” routine of the Old Testament days. The basic plot and characters of the play are borrowed, too. Not from Jesus, but from George Whetstone, a minor writer whose work Shakespeare also dipped into for “Much Ado About Nothing.” Whetstone’s “History of Promos and Cassandra” includes a hypocritical minister of the law who asks a virtuous young nun to give him her virginity in exchange for her brother’s life, and the righteous duke who returns in the end to sort everything out. But Shakespeare complicates the easy moral vision of the original story in a great many ways, most famously when the Duke saves the virginity of Isabella, the nun, with one of those nifty little bed tricks Shakespeare so loved and then follows that up by asking her to marry him when all she really wants to do is get back to the nunnery and complete her vows.

Like “All’s Well That Ends Well,” the other play put on by The Public for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park series, “Measure for Measure” is one of the problem plays – it doesn’t seem to know if it’s a tragedy or a comedy. It can be played either way, and has, though with all the bawdy jokes (there are butt jokes, boob jokes, dick jokes, fart jokes – nothing the body can ingest or expel is spared) it’s usually played for laughs. The exception is Isabella, the only character truly devoted to the moral dilemma at hand. The real tragedy is that she’s stuck in this play with nothing but fools, whores, cowards, drunks and men, both good and evil, who just want to get her into bed.

At the end, however, Shakespeare gives her a choice. When the Duke asks for her hand in marriage she doesn’t reply. There’s no dialogue in the text to indicate a yes or a no. Some productions provide the audience with a clear answer; She either embraces the Duke joyfully or goes running back to Mother Superior. Director David Esbjornson takes the more common (but necessarily bad) route, in which Isabella warily takes the Duke’s hand and gives the audience a fretful look as the proverbial curtain closes.

There’s a subtle and rather unfunny comedy at work here. It’s been supposed that by the time Shakespeare wrote “Measure for Measure” in 1604 he had grown tired of the traditional comic ending, the one in which everyone gets paired up and happily married off. In fact, after writing “Measure for Measure” he nearly gave up comedies entirely, producing seven consecutive histories and tragedies until 1608. The uneasy marriage between the Duke and Isabella, as well as the other two unhappy couplings arranged by the Duke between Lucio and a whore he knocked up a few years back and between Angelo and a woman he once proposed to but then dumped once he found out she had lost all her money. This is Shakespeare’s way of a having a wry little laugh at the type of romantic comedy he had become so well-known for, but with the exception of a few funny sex jokes, he’s the only one laughing.