words & pictures & sounds


Devilish Mercy: On “Measure for Measure”

Having had over the weekend the unexpected luxury of a brief respite from professionally-mandated reading, I decided to renew acquaintance with this most famous of the so-called “problem plays.” What a marvelous experience re-reading Shakespeare is. Measure for Measure — the tidy $7 Pelican edition of which I handily plucked up at Word JC — made a deep, complex, and difficult-to-articulate set of impressions on me. It is a troubling play in many ways, deeply cynical, merciless, and intellectually slippery. At the heart of Measure for Measure lies an examination of the nature of law and authority, of guilt and punishment, that is profoundly pessimistic. The play has a leering, morally queasy, sexually sadistic quality to it; it depicts a society “where corruption boil and bubble / Till it o’errun the stew,” and whose leaders have an overweening fear of the transgressive potential of unbridled erotic life. “We must not make a scarecrow of the law,” says the Duke’s stern deputy Angelo, “setting it up to fear the birds of prey / and letting it keep one shape, till custom make it / their perch and not their terror.” The poetry is angular, often harsh, knotty yet extremely economical; the characters are riddled with flaws and murky motivations, impossible to get a clear bead on. (My friend Jim maintains that the Duke is the true villain of the play, because his devious manipulation of the other characters makes him a false, God-like figure.) Its discourse is dominated by bizarrely legalistic formulations (“correction and instruction must both work / Ere this rude beast will profit”); its denouement seems deliberately engineered to be almost perversely unsatisfying. All of this, to me, only adds to the intensity of the appeal, making it more brilliant and demanding than its more straightforward (and famous) companions in the canon, and serving as an exquisite reminder that some pleasures truly are endless.

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