Monday, September 18, 2017

The moral cleanup in Measure for Measure

Pompey (Barzin Arkhavan) and Mistress Overdone (Amy Kim Waschke) in the Seattle Shakespeare Company's 2003 production of Measure for Measure
[Image source:]

I wrote in detail about Measure for Measure before.

During an empty Saturday last week I picked up the old Penguin edition in a charity shop in Westbury, sat in the van and re-read J.M. Nosworthy's introduction.

I felt there was a lot of accord between this editor's opinions and mine, but there was one glaring difference. Nosworthy regards it as firmly established that the Vienna of the play is in a state of deplorable moral decay and is in urgent need of reform. Whereas my reading treated this view of Vienna as pretty much a media illusion, a pretext for orators to thunder Something must be done when, actually, nothing can or will be done.

I think really I must have been wrong. Nosworthy argues that, apart from people (such as the Duke) telling us that Vienna's morals have been neglected, the evidence of such neglect is abundantly shown by the presence in the play of Lucio, Pompey, Mistress Overdone ...(Claudio and Juliet even, or the Escalus who protests  at the news of well-born Claudio being made an example of?).  And evidently there's many a production of Measure for Measure that takes great delight in creating a particularly seedy atmosphere. (E.g. Dromgoole's 2015 Globe production .)

Yet... I still find it hard to believe that Vienna in the play is really in a radically bad way. Is it much different to Elizabethan London, where the theatre companies set up on the south bank alongside the brothels, out of reach of the city authorities?

In Hamlet and in Macbeth Shakespeare's poetry creates for us the image of places (Denmark and Scotland) in terminal moral decline. (Such decline is seen as following from the vices of the ruler.) 

But when is Measure for Measure's Vienna ever described in those terms?

On the contrary, don't we see all sorts of redeeming features in the lively social lowlife of the play -- more, even, than in the Eastcheap of Henry IV?

In a way Measure for Measure is quite a soft-hearted play. Yes, it contains a bawd, a madam, a rakish gentleman .... but no actual young prostitute. (Whereas the figure of Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV Part II casts a significantly less merry light on what goes on in Eastcheap, and what happens when there's a crackdown too.)

A lot depends on our reading of the Duke's confidences to Friar Thomas in Act I Scene 3. By that time the moral clean-up is already in operation. The Duke says that this was his intention. Friar Thomas makes the reasonable point that the Duke ought to be leading the moral crusade himself. The Duke's explanation is ingenious but not altogether persuasive. And we are very swiftly given the impression that the real subject of the Duke's experiment is not the people's loose morals but how Angelo takes to his task. Angelo is like one of those volunteers for Psychology research from whom the real purpose of the test is withheld. The Duke has deceived Angelo about the reasons for his own absence. Furthermore in Act I Scene 1 he has conspicuously issued no special orders -- not a word there about Vienna needing a clean-up -- , so Angelo and Escalus are left having to work out the details of government. As Act II Scene 1 shows, Escalus differs largely from Angelo in what ought to be done: contrary to Angelo's expressed wish, he fails to whip any of the characters apprehended by Elbow. (Elbow is a remarkable reprise of Dogberry  - and Escalus' delightful laissez-faire advice to Elbow comes out of the same source..)
The estimable Shmoop tells us that the Duke "is fed up with the sinful ways of his people" ... which is an inference at best, not something he ever says.  The way the Duke tells it, it's with mild regret that the lion has slept for 19 years.

The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Yes.... Bit of a sense of anti-climax there...  Well how do you read it?  Impassioned?... or lip service?



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