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.
Shakespeare in the Park
Given director Daniel Sullivan’s surprising use of comedy in last year’s production of Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park, I thought for sure he would treat audiences to a more surprising interpretation of All’s Well That Ends Well, which runs through July side by side with Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. However, Sullivan’s rendition swings wildly between hammy and flat, and the few moments of good acting (mostly from Annie Parisse as Helena, Dakin Matthews as Lafew and Carson Elrod as the highly entertaining Interpreter) get lost in the shuffle. Those with a comedic role play up their parts to the point of being utterly obnoxious: the clown is too buffoonish, the braggart Parolles revels much too much in his swaggering Frenchiness and Bertram’s comic timing and intonations are more in line with an ABC sitcom than with Shakespeare.
The inclusion of “The Merchant of Venice” amongst Shakespeare’s comedies has often puzzled scholars. The overriding themes of revenge, hatred and punishment leave little room for the bawdiness and levity that marks the bard’s better known comedic works like “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But those puzzled scholars need only look to director Daniel Sullivan’s take on “Merchant” to find the humor absent from nearly all other productions.
The Public must be feeling brave. For this summer’s annual Shakespeare in the Park the company has chosen to stage the problematic “The Winter’s Tale” and the dark, depressing and downright un-summery “The Merchant of Venice.” “Merchant” gets some help from Al Pacino, whose having another go at Shylock, a role he played opposite Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes in the 2004 film of the same name. “Merchant” may not be the bawdy romp in the woods summertime audiences oftentimes prefer, but “The Winter’s Tale” somewhat makes up for the lack of Elizabethan bathroom humor.
In the Public Theater’s production of Twelfth Night for Shakespeare in the Park, cross-dressing gets Viola many things but death isn’t among them. For Pentheus (Anthony Mackie), the unlucky King of Thebes in The Bacchae, donning a dress, heels and a wig gets him torn apart, limb from limb, by his own mother who then saunters about the stage with his bloody head. It’s a bit of a change from the happy-go-lucky ending of Twelfth Night, but then again this is Greek tragedy.