What sort of comedy is Measure for Measure?

EN301: Shakespeare and Selected Dramatists
of his Time
Festive comedy
 In his essay ‘The Argument of Comedy’ (1949), Northrop Frye
identified “a social as well as an individual theme” in the
marriage with which a comedy traditionally concludes:
 “In the last scene, when the dramatist usually tries to get all his
characters on the stage at once, the audience witnesses the birth of a
renewed sense of social integration. … The essential comic resolution,
therefore, is an individual release which is also a social reconciliation.”
(Palmer 1984: 75-6)
 You may remember this pattern from other Shakespearean comedies:
 “…the action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal
world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in
which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal
world.” (Palmer 1984: 80)
Festive comedy
 More recently, Christopher Booker elaborated upon this
formula in his book The Seven Basic Plots. In comedy, says
 “we see a little world in which people have passed under a
shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, and are shut
off from one another;”
 “the confusion gets worse until the pressure of darkness is at
its most acute and everyone is in a nightmarish tangle;”
 “finally, with the coming to light of things not previously
recognised, perceptions are dramatically changed. The
shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously
transformed and the little world is brought together in a state
of joyful union.” (Booker 2004: 150)
Festive comedy and carnival
 The earliest recorded performance of Measure for
Measure was in a festive context: before the King
himself at Whitehall, on 26 December (St. Stephen’s
Day) 1604.
 Like Twelfth Night, it’s a play about the forces of
hedonism and sensuality versus the forces of
repression. But where is the audience positioned?
Carnival and Lent (Pieter Bruegel, 1559)
pre-show reminiscent
of Breughel’s Fight
Between Carnival and
transitional vignettes
between scenes
becoming increasingly
Dominic Dromgoole’s production for Shakespeare’s Globe, 2015
Carnival and Lent in
Measure for Measure
 As Brian Gibbons points out,
 “In Measure for Measure there is a polarisation of social
life into opposed extremes: on the one side serious and
strict isolation – the court, the nunnery, the moated
grange, the prison cells in which Claudio, alone, and
Juliet, alone, are shut up – and on the other side
promiscuous – not to say contagious – crowding: the
alehouse, the house of resort, the streets.” (1991: 24)
Carnival and Lent in
Measure for Measure
 Lenten repression:
DUKE. Lord Angelo … scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone. (1.3.50-3)
ANGELO. What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
 There was a tendency in 2015 productions to play
Isabella’s “Go to your bosom” (2.2.140) as Angelo’s
sexual awakening…
Carnival and Lent in
Measure for Measure
 Isabella’s first appearance in the play shows her desiring “no farther
privileges” but rather “wishing a more strict restraint / Upon the
sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare” (1.4.1-5).
 Claudio seems willing to exploit his sister’s repressed sensuality: “…in her
youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men”
ISABELLA. I’ll to my brother:
Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour. […]
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity. (2.4)
 Juliet Stevenson: “Her line, “More than our brother is our chastity,” is the
trickiest moment of the performance for any actress playing Isabella.”
(Rutter 1988: 26)
Carnival and Lent in
Measure for Measure
RSC, 1978, dir. Barry Kyle
 Paola Dionisotti:
 “My Isabella was very frightened of
sexuality. My Isabella was going to be
a bride of Christ… As a nun, you
marry Christ. He knows everything
about you and he’s always whatever
you want him to be. That’s so safe. But
of course, marrying Christ is one thing;
getting close to another human being
is something different, because human
bodies touch each other.” (Rutter 1988:
Carnival and Lent in
Measure for Measure
 Juliet Stevenson on
the same issue:
 “…she should be
looked at not as a
frigid hysteric with a
big problem about
sex … we should
kick off by exploring
the positive reasons
for entering a
convent.” (Rutter
1988: 40)
RSC, 1983, dir. Adrian Noble
Carnival and Lent in
Measure for Measure
 The play contrasts the Lenten repression of the law and the convent with
the carnivalesque excess of the low-life characters:
ESCALUS. Now, sir, come on, what was done to Elbow’s wife, once more?
POMPEY. Once, sir? There was nothing done to her once. (2.1.135-6)
 “Pompey generally conforms to the spirit of Carnival, uninhibited,
spontaneous, mocking, inverting authority’s forms and procedures, always
choosing the erratic, the discrepant, not the logical or the consistent or
coherent. The scene [2.1] serves more generally as comic burlesque, in
anticipation, of the play’s main events.” (Gibbons 1991: 27)
 Is the Carnival spirit defeated when we see Pompey’s absorption
(alongside numerous former clients) into the punishment system?
 Is Barnadine also a Carnival figure?
Measure for Measure as farce
 Compare the structure of this play with that of other comedies of mistaken
identity such as The Comedy of Errors or Twelfth Night (a key difference is
that Duke has engineered this one).
 Stuart E. Baker gives the following outline of the “basic plot formula” of
farce (NB this is describing 19th-century 3-act farce):
 “In the first act one or more deceptions are planned, started, or
revealed. … The threat of exposure … results in a desperate series of
lies, evasions, and frantic attempts to hide or escape. A bewildering
profusion of quiproquos [mistaken identities] develops, producing such
confusion and misunderstanding among the characters that the
misunderstandings continue … until the problems are more or less
settled.” (1981: 26)
 Playwright Ben Travers on “the general formula for farce: Act II – the
sympathetic and guileless hero is landed into the thick of some grievous
dilemma or adversity. Act I – he gets into it. Act III – he gets out of it”
(1978: 63).
Measure for Measure as farce
PROVOST. Here in the prison, father,
There died this morning of a cruel fever
One Ragozine, a most notorious pirate,
A man of Claudio’s years, his beard and head
Just of his colour. […]
DUKE. O, ’tis an accident that heaven provides! (4.3.66-74)
 Both productions to date at the reconstructed Globe
theatre (John Dove, 2004 and Dominic Dromgoole, 2015)
have opted for a reading of the Duke as a good-natured
bumbler improvising his way through the play, rather
than as a controlling Machiavellian.
Measure for Measure as farce
 Mark Rylance: “I’ve found that he [the
Duke] is prepared for many things, but
also some things do go wrong and as a
result he has to improvise – he has to
come up with solutions on the spur of
the moment.”
 Rylance’s stuttering delivery of the
following lines indicated that even the
Duke was not convinced by some of
these improvisations:
DUKE. [to Mariana] Nor, gentle daughter, fear
you not at all.
He is your husband on a pre-contract.
To bring you thus together ’tis no sin…
Measure for Measure as farce
 The 2004 Globe actors had difficulties with audience laughter
during the Isabella/Angelo and Isabella/Claudio scenes.
 Sophie Thompson (Isabella):
 “We got all varieties of laughter, which surprised me. For
example, when Angelo grabs Isabella’s crotch [2.4], there was
not only a reaction of shock – there was also some laughter and
it was the kind you can’t really categorise. That is the sort of
moment when I do expect people to laugh a bit, though,
because it’s such a difficult moment to cope with.”
 Rob Conkie objected that at such moments, “the audience had
been invited... to regard [the female characters’] various plights
as little more than laughable” (2006: 45).
The ending
 The play’s ending tends to resist playing as festive comedy for
numerous reasons:
 Lucio and Angelo are forced to marry their wives (Kate
Keepdown and Mariana) as punishments for their
transgressions, not because they are willingly reconciled;
 The Duke’s manipulation of events in the final act (“I will keep
her ignorant of her good, / To make her heavenly comforts of
despair / When it is least expected”; 4.3.106-8) makes him
suddenly inscrutable and in-control;
 The Duke’s surprise proposal to Isabella (“Give me your hand,
and say you will be mine”; 5.1.491) casts doubts on the purity
of his motives and remains unanswered at the play’s
The ending
 How does Isabella respond?
 Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare (1807):
 “Isabel, not having taken the veil, was free to marry; and the
friendly offices, while hid under the disguise of a humble
friar, which the noble duke had done for her, made her with
grateful joy accept the honour he offered her; and when she
became duchess of Vienna, the excellent example of the
virtuous Isabel worked such a complete reformation among
the young ladies of that city, that from that time none ever
fell into the transgression of Juliet, the repentant wife of the
reformed Claudio.” (1918: 138-9)
The ending
 Even until the mid-twentieth century, critics tended to
assume that Isabella accepted the Duke’s proposal: E. M.
W. Tillyard writes of Isabella “consenting to marry the
Duke at the end of the play” (1957: 119), while William
Empson refers to “her decision to marry the Duke” (1951:
 Ralph Berry suggests that “in a sense, they were not
wrong. They were faithfully reporting their recollection of
the play as seen. Isabellas, it seems, used always to accept
the Duke’s proposal” (2005: 41).
The ending
 This all began to change around
1970, since when we have seen
Isabellas standing in horrorstruck silence (Barton 1970,
McBurney 2004), gazing sadly
at her nun’s veil (Kyle 1988) or
his discarded Friar’s habit
(Dromgoole 2015), being
manhandled into an
uncomfortable tableau of fake
happiness (Hill-Gibbins 2015)
and even slapping him in the
face (Donnellan 1994).
Cheek by Jowl, 1994, dir. Declan Donnellan
City comedy
 As we have seen, the tendency in festive comedy (e.g. A
Midsummer Night’s Dream) is to leave the city for a
disordered “green world” and then to return; also to
contrast the oppressive order of the city with the
saturnalian chaos of the “green world”.
 In Measure, we start with a city which is both oppressive
and in chaos, and remain there for the duration (though
do Mariana’s “moated grange” and Angelo’s walled
garden serve as “green worlds” of sorts)?
 Indeed, can Carnival really flourish unless it takes place
in a holiday space of license and misrule?
City comedy
 With its farcical elements, its focus on sex and exchange rather
than romantic love, and its large number of characters driven
primarily by self-interest, Measure for Measure is arguably more
reminiscent of “city comedy” than it is of Shakespeare’s festive
 Naomi Conn Liebler describes this Jacobean comic form thus:
 “With city comedy, the city itself is the subject and focus, and
the citizens are what they are and do what they do largely
because their city is a bigger animal than they are. These
figures, marked in medieval morality-play fashion by names
reflecting their functions or typology, are squeezed into
behaviours that set them apart, isolate them from any larger
sense of community.” (2005: 253)
City comedy
 Liebler describes city comedy as being concerned with “the special brands
of human frailty and error familiar in — or produced by — urban life”:
cony-catching [i.e. con-artistry]
cheating in the marketplace
cheating in the household
 She notes that “city comedy depends less than other kinds of plays on any
requirement for communal renewal and more on an emphasis on
individual, mostly economic, survival” (2005: 254).
 There are, however, limits to Measure for Measure’s similarity to city
comedy. In its non-English setting and its complete absence of the
mercantile middle class, it does not fully conform to the genre’s norms –
though one could argue that both London and its middle class are present
in veiled, satirical form…
A play about London?
 Since theatres were closed due to plague in 1603,
1604 was the first theatrical season of James I’s reign.
 When Pompey reports that “All houses in the
suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” (1.2.87-8),
it is almost certainly a reference to James I’s 1603
decree that due to “excessive numbers of idle,
indigent, dissolute and dangerous persons”, many of
London’s suburban tenements must be pulled down
(Howard 2007: 122-3).
A play about London?
 According to John Michael Archer, 1603 “also saw a further strengthening
of the office of Provost Marshal by London’s Court of Aldermen”:
 “Marshals had been assigned to direct constables in the searching out
of vice in the 1590s, a measure that probably indicates a lack of faith in
the lower officials. The duties of the Provost Marshal and his assistants
included escorting vagabonds to prison as well as overseeing
constables.” (2005: 65-6)
 Certainly Puritans such as Philip Stubbes would have been only too happy
to see a death penalty introduced for transgressors like Claudio and Juliet:
 “I would wish that the man or woman who are certainlie knowne and
prooved without all scruple or doubt, to have committed the horrible
fact of Whoredome, Adulterie, Incest, or Fornication, should […] taste
of present death, as Gods worde doeth commaund, and good pollicie
allowe” (Anatomy of Abuses, 1581)
A play about London?
 Measure for Measure was also, perhaps, one of
Shakespeare’s more site-specific plays – if, as seems
likely, the play was performed at the Globe, it would have
been performed in an area notorious for its brothels.
 In 1603, as Brian Gibbons notes, Bankside was reported to
the Privy Council as being full of “theeves, horse-stealers,
whoremongers, cozeners, [and] coney-catchers”, and
numerous key figures in early modern London’s theatre
business were also brothel-owners (1991: 23).
A play about London?
 Mistress Overdone, Elbow, Froth, Kate Keepdown etc. are
English types, with names like the characters of city comedy
(compare Middleton’s Sir Walter Whorehound, Master
Yellowhammer, Master Beggarland, Mistress Underman).
 In fact, the play is included in OUP’s recent Collected Works of
Thomas Middleton. John Jowett believes it is “clear that the
1623 text [of Measure] had undergone adaptation by Middleton”
(2007: 1542), and argues that among other changes, Middleton
“accentuated the role of Juliet”, added Lucio to 2.2,
substantially augmented 1.2 (adding all of the business with
Lucio and the gentlemen), and possibly added Pompey’s standup sequence in 4.3 (2007: 1543).
A play about London?
 Note the names of Mistress Overdone’s customers: young Master Rash,
Master Caper, young Dizzy, young Master Deep-vow, Master Copperspur, Master Starve-lackey, young Drop-heir, Master Forthright, brave
Master Shoe-tie, and wild Half-can.
 Pompey observes that all of these prisoners (and “forty more”) were
customers of Mistress Overdone’s brothel:
 many are associated with fashion (Master Caper failed to pay “for some
four suits of peach-coloured satin”, while Master Copper-spur and Master
Shoe-tie’s names suggest unnecessary ornamental footwear; Master Starvelackey and Master Forthright are both noted for their involvements in
fashionable sports);
 others are associated by their names (Rash, Dizzy, Forthright) or actions
(murders, duels) with hot-headedness.
 Is it significant that Pompey describes them all in the present tense as
Sex as commercial exchange
 The first woman we see in the play is a prostitute, Mistress Overdone,
who thinks of sex primarily in terms of its financial value:
MISTRESS OVERDONE. Thus, what with the war, what with the
sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am
custom-shrunk. (1.2.80-2)
 She and Pompey tend to use the language of business in order to
describe their “profession”.
 Angelo likewise presents his attempt at sexual blackmail as a form of
direct exchange:
ANGELO. Redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will (2.4.163-4)
 The success of Isabella and Mariana’s ‘bed-trick’ seems to suggest that
women in this society are seen as interchangeable sex objects.
Marriage as commercial exchange
CLAUDIO. Thus stands it with me. Upon a true contract,
I got possession of Julietta’s bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. (1.2.133-41)
 Note the parallel here with Angelo and Mariana: both Mariana
and Juliet lack dowries…
Marriage as commercial exchange
ANGELO. My lord, I must confess I know this woman;
And five years since there was some speech of marriage
Betwixt myself and her, which was broke off,
Partly for that her promised proportions
Came short of composition, but in chief
For that her reputation was disvalued
In levity… (5.1.214-20)
 The parallel is so striking, in fact, that it lays the
Duke open to charges of hypocrisy (“’tis no sin…”?).
A ‘problem play’?
 In Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896), F. S. Boas defined
Measure (alongside All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and
Cressida and Hamlet) as a “problem play”:
 “…throughout these plays we move along dim untrodden
paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy
nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the
issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome…
Dramas so singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly
called comedies or tragedies. We may therefore borrow a
convenient phrase from the theatre of to-day and class them
together as Shakespeare’s problem-plays.” (1910: 343)
A ‘problem play’?
 In her preface to the play for The Riverside Shakespeare
(1997), Anne Barton called Measure “the last comedy
Shakespeare ever wrote”, a play that “appears to embody
some of the problems of a Shakespeare now seemingly
disillusioned with that art of comedy which, in the past,
had served him so well” (1997: 583).
 Paul Yachnin lists Measure alongside Troilus and All’s Well
as “plays in which the figure of festival is either expunged
from comedy, transformed into private and illicit desire,
or transplanted to the inhospitable ground of satire or
tragedy” (1997: 76).
A ‘problem play’?
 Indeed, many commentators have found it helpful to think of
Measure for Measure in terms of tragicomedy.
 For Peter Brook, for example, Measure is emblematic of
Shakespeare’s ability to switch between scenes that encourage us
to “identify emotionally, subjectively” and those that ask us to
“evaluate politically, objectively in relation to society” (1990: 98):
 “From the fanatical chastity of Isabella and the mystery of the
Duke we are plunged back to Pompey and Barnadine for
douches of normality. … If we follow the movement in Measure
for Measure between the Rough and the Holy we will discover a
play about justice, mercy, honesty, forgiveness, virtue,
virginity, sex and death: kaleidoscopically one section of the
play mirrors the other, it is in accepting the prism as a whole
that its meanings emerge.” (1990: 99-100)
A ‘problem play’?
 We might even read Measure for Measure as a meta-comedy, with the Duke
as a playwright-like figure intent on engineering a sense of communal
renewal whatever the cost.
 Rylance on the Duke again:
 “…he’s trying to create the circumstances under which people will become
conscious and take responsibility for their own lives. … To encourage people to
take responsibility and develop compassion, the Duke sets them on what seems
like a cruel path. He makes it seem like they’ve lost something that’s precious to
 “If a farce is to hum like a spinning top, the writer must take a delight in
pushing things to extremes. This will be evident in the accelerating pace of
the action, the multiplication of misunderstandings, reversals, and
confusions of identity, and often also in the inventive prodigality of the
playwright, a juggler’s ability to keep a great many balls in the air at once.”
(Smith 1989: 207)
 Archer, John Michael (2005) Citizen Shakespeare: Freemen and Aliens in the
Language of the Plays, New York / Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
 Baker, Stuart E. (1981) Georges Feydeau and the Aesthetics of Farce, Ann
Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.
 Barton, Anne (1997) Introduction to Measure for Measure in G. Blakemore
Evans et al. [eds] The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edition, Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 579-83.
 Berry, Ralph (2005) Changing Styles in Shakespeare, Abingdon: Routledge.
 Boas, F. S. (1910) Shakespeare and his Predecessors, third edition, London:
John Murray.
 Booker, Christopher (2004), The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,
London: Continuum.
 Brook, Peter (1990) The Empty Space, London: Penguin.
 Conkie, Rob (2006) The Globe Theatre Project: Shakespeare and Authenticity,
New York: The Edwin Mellen Press.
 Empson, William (1951) The Structure of Complex Words, London: Chatto &
 Gibbons, Brian (1991) ‘Introduction’ to Measure for Measure, Cambridge:
CUP, 1-71.
 Howard, Jean E. (2007) Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 15981642, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
 Jowett, John (2007) ‘Measure for Measure: A Genetic Text’ in Gary Taylor
and John Lavagnino [eds] Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, Oxford:
OUP, 1542-6.
 Lamb, Charles and Mary (1918) Tales from Shakespeare, New York: Harper.
 Liebler, Naomi Conn (2005) ‘English Comedy, Elizabethan and Jacobean’,
in Maurice Charney [ed.] Comedy: A Geographic and Historical Guide, Volume
1, Westport, CT / London: Greenwood, 248-62.
 Palmer, D. J. (1984) Comedy: Developments in Criticism, London: Macmillan.
 Rutter, Carol (1988) Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today, London:
The Women’s Press.
 Smith, Leslie (1989) Modern British Farce: A Selective Study of British Farce
from Pinero to the Present Day, Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble.
 Tillyard, E. M. W. (1957) Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, London: Chatto &
 Travers, Ben (1978) A-Sitting on a Gate, London: W. H. Allen.
 Yachnin, Paul (1997) Stage-Wrights: Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and the
Making of Theatrical Value, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.