William Shakespeare died 399 years ago. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever have another new Shakespeare play to read, view, and enjoy.
And yet each of us can discover Shakespeare’s plays, and then re-discover them, for ourselves. Most amazing to me is Shakespeare’s utter refusal to be pinned down by a moral, a philosophy, or even (as George Bernard Shaw points out) a conscience. Nothing is ever simple in Shakespeare – villains like Macbeth and Iago are delicious and deep, while even the purest of heroes, Henry V and Edgar, are deeply ambiguous.
My discovery over the past week has been a play I knew essentially nothing of until I started reading it – the extraordinary Measure for Measure.
In this play, no one is likeable. Yet a great many characters are deeply memorable. The morality of the play is not our own, but neither is it the “official” morality of Shakespeare’s time. Rather, it is very human – bawdy, hypocritical, struggling to be rational and as a result becoming all the more irrational. It is a deeply sexual play, a violent play in which virtually no violence is actually shown, a play with an ending that is so awkward and unsatisfying that you feel as though you’ve been somehow duped and yet, in a certain sad sense, deeply enlightened.
The most intriguing character in the play is certainly Isabella, sister to the condemned Claudio. When Claudio’s fiancee Juliet becomes pregnant, Claudio is sentenced to death to serve as an example and rein in the rampant immorality found in the city. Isabella goes to Angelo, the acting ruler of the city, to beg for her brother’s life, only to be told that she herself must surrender her body to Angelo or see her brother not only killed but tortured, as well.
The most interesting, and disturbing, struggle in the play becomes how Isabella chooses to deal with this turn of events. Cold and virtuous, Isabella is irresistible to the men she encounters, and in the end this leads to what I see as her personal tragedy. Or maybe not. Or maybe the tragedy is within her all along. Or not.
It is a fascinating play, and has instantly become one of my favorites. It’s a pleasure to live on a planet where I can still discover a Measure for Measure.