Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”–comparing play to performance

Measure for Measure, an “original practices” production at the Guthrie

Seeing the “original practices” production of Measure for Measure changed my interpretation of the play in respect primarily to humor and characters.  Naturally, a change in one’s interpretation will occur, as a production of a play is, in itself, an interpretation. This is manifested by the behavior of the characters in relation to one another, comedic timing, dramatic pauses, etc.

When reading Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure for the first time, it was not clear whether this play was a comedy, a tragedy, or a tragi-comedy.  However, the “original practices” production of Measure for Measure at the Guthrie Theater was without question, a comedy, albeit a dark comedy.  There was a lot of humor in this production, and particular characters, such as the Duke, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone, were especially comical.  The humor that this production generated was somewhat surprising.  Although there are some funny lines and puns in the text (e.g. the references to venereal disease in Act 1, Scene 2), I didn’t realize that this play could at times be so delightfully entertaining.  I perceived the richness to be in the facial expressions, body language, and timing of the delivery of lines by the characters.

Part of the Duke’s comical appeal was his personality change when he went from the Duke to the Friar, and turned from a polished and resolute leader into an awkward, stammering, and flustered, almost clownish type.  He was constantly picking at his feet whenever he arrived somewhere after a long journey by foot.  His timing in his delivery of lines was brilliant, and for the audience, absolutely riotous.  An example of this is when he attempts to comfort Claudio or Isabella, or to speak to other characters while he is the Friar.  His consequent confusion and dissembling are extremely amusing.

One example of this impatient bumbling is from Act 4, Scene 2 when the Duke tells the Provost to send the modified head of Barnardine instead of that of Claudio to Angelo, per his ordered execution:  “O, death’s a great disguiser; and you may add to it.  Shave the head, and tie the beard; and say it was the desire of the penitent to be so bared before his death; you know the course is common.  If anything fall to you upon this, more than thanks and good fortune, by the saint whom I profess, I will plead against it with my life.”  It is difficult to describe what constitutes “humor” because it is largely an individual response.  For example, what is irreverently funny to one person may be offensive to another.  What was perceived, in this example, to be the antithesis of humor on the written page was transmogrified into hilarity in the production. This was funny in a macabre way because the Duke was requesting that a hack job be done to a drunk’s head in order to trick Angelo into thinking the head belonged to Claudio.  In this manner, a disgusting subject, decapitation and the subsequent disguising of the severed head, becomes laughable.

Another example of this dichotomy is from Act 3, Scene 1.  The Duke tells Claudio that Angelo had only been testing Isabella by asking her to bribe him sexually, and that Claudio ought to prepare himself for execution:  “Son, I have overheard what hath passed between you and your sister.  Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt her; only he hath made an assay of her virtue to practice his judgement with the disposition of natures.  She, having the truth of honor in her, hath made him that gracious denial which he is most glad to receive.  I am confessor to Angelo, and I know this to be true; therefore prepare yourself to death.  Do not satisfy your resolution with hopes that are fallible.  Tomorrow you must die; go to your knees, and make ready.”  In the text, these words appear sinister.  In the production, however, the insouciant delivery of these lines by the Duke made them darkly funny, and elicited hearty laughter from the audience.

In reading the play, I had not imagined Isabella as she was portrayed in this production.  First of all, her character was played by a male actor, as would have been the practice in Shakespeare’s time.  Because this production had an all-male cast, as well as other authenticities, such as including music and dancing, I felt like I was watching the play the way it may have been produced for the first time over 400 years ago, which was a very unique experience.  Therefore, because this production was being done the “proper” way, I was drawn into the world of the play without really paying much attention to the fact that Isabella was played by a male actor.  I actually thought that she seemed quite traditionally feminine, for the way she spoke, her movement, her high morals, and her frail appearance.  While reading the play, I saw her as refined and good, but not as the extremely chaste figure that she was in the production.  Isabella’s vulnerability was accentuated by the actor’s brittle portrayal of her.  (Besides stating the obvious, she was dressed in white and Angelo in black.  Her eggshell fragility and virginal demeanor was a comic counterpoint to Angelo’s lustfulness and ribaldry.)  This juxtaposition helped to delineate the characters.

Actors interacted rather minimally with the audience, making occasional eye contact, except for one point when an older woman sitting in the front row of the theater was singled out.  She was the unsuspecting target of some bawdy talk implying that she had been pregnant with Lucio’s child, and was even referred to as a whore by Lucio at the end of Act 5, Scene 1 (line 518).  This changes my interpretation of the play because while reading it I focused on the characters and the plot, just as when I watched the production, until being distracted by the actors engaging an audience member.  In Shakespeare’s day, actors regularly interacted with the audience.  I felt that it added to the enjoyment of the play because it was good-natured teasing and it acknowledged the presence of the audience.  It was refreshing and fun and still employed the use of actual lines, and not improvisation.

At the end of this production the Duke hastily orders Claudio and Juliet, and Angelo and Mariana be married and lets Barnardine free.  The production seemed to emphasize the speed in which the Duke hurried to finalize the recent affairs of the characters in the play.  He seems rushed and perhaps he desires a quick fix that will end all of the drama.

Overall, the production enhanced tremendously my appreciation for Measure for Measure.  Being able to see the play acted out on a stage with such genius was a pleasure to watch.  The attention to detail in this production was superb, and every piece of the play was wonderfully animated.  Every line was delivered expressively and purposefully.  This enlivening of the text through this production changed my interpretation of the play as already discussed.  One’s own imagination is enriched exponentially by the interaction among the characters and the audience’s subsequent reaction.  One interpretation becomes many.  Reading the play myself was a solitary experience relying upon my own imagination.  In seeing the play, I was exposed to the director’s interpretation, as well as the cast members’ interpretation.  By enjoying the show with an audience, I felt like I was celebrating this timeless play along with fellow admirers of Shakespeare.

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