Nothing goes right. We would and we would not
Measure for Measure, 4.4.31-32
In a class I taught recently on Measure for Measure my students explored the dilemmas faced by present-day actors and directors considering how to portray Isabella. In the closing discussion, to add to the ideas already aired, I recounted a conversation I’d had after seeing Complicite’s production of the play in 2004 (dir. Simon McBurney).
Then an MA student, I had related to my dissertation supervisor McBurney’s decidedly dark ending, in which, after the Duke’s (David Troughton) final words a distressed Isabella (Naomi Frederick) turned downstage and stared desperately out into the auditorium to the sound of a prison door clanging shut – a sound that had punctuated the production – and the lights were promptly extinguished on a fraught world of corruption in the public sphere and forced and/or loveless marriages in the private from which there was no escape.
My MA tutor was puzzled as, for him, the ending of Measure for Measure was a ‘foretaste of heaven’. He prompted me to reflect on the sheer enormity of what Mariana asks Isabella to do and I realized that, since she pleads for the life of a man who (as far as she then knows) has treacherously sanctioned her brother’s execution, is the would-be despoiler of her honour, and the self-confessed jilter of Mariana, the final Act of the play can ask readers/audiences to consider Isabella’s intervention as the ultimate act of grace. This makes sense of Peter Brook’s now famous instruction to Barbara Jefford as Isabella that she should pause for as long as she felt the audience could bear it before kneeling for Angelo’s life: the decision to pardon Angelo, who she has described only minutes earlier as a perjurer, ‘murderer’, ‘adulterous thief’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘virgin-violator’, and arch-villain’ (5.1.38-41, 57), would not be lightly made.
This interpretation goes against McBurney’s staging, which admitted no redemption and, in its up-to-date milieu replete with surveillance cameras, foregrounded political deceit and depraved sexual appetite in the powerful. Although I had winced at the Guantánamo orange boiler suits worn by Claudio and his fellow prisoners and the screened images of George Bush – which overstated the production’s relevance to the contemporary moment and suggested a mistrust of audiences’ abilities to make connections – I had initially found Complicite’s version compelling.
In common with many reviewers, I had found it more compelling than John Dove’s Measure, which ran simultaneously at Shakespeare’s Globe. This Measure offered a more humorous take on things with Mark Rylance’s Duke continually baffled and unsure of how to handle the difficult situations he precipitated. Lyn Gardner felt the Globe had turned the play into ‘some sort of light-hearted comic romp’ and clearly preferred McBurney’s ‘darkness and shadows’ (Guardian 02/07/04); as did several other critics, whose dislike of Rylance’s clowning Duke-disguised-as-Friar was apparent, as was their view that the production undermined the moral complexities of the play. Two specific references to Dove’s last Act, however, suggest a point of gravity in the general lightness that adds to the production’s significance as a counterpoint to Complicité.
Though Alistair Maculay had little praise for the Globe’s Measure, he conceded that Rylance had ‘one lovely moment’: this being ‘when Isabella [Sophie Thompson] got down on her knees and begged him for the abusive Angelo’s life’, at which Rylance ‘covered his face as if weeping with wonder and love at her selflessness’ (Financial Times 07/07/04). When Dove’s Measure later toured the US (as an Original Practices production), Alisa Solomon noted the same moment, describing how ‘in the beat after Mariana’s (Michael Brown) implausible request’ the Duke, holding his breath and with hands pressed to his chest as if praying or making a wish, ‘squeeze[d] his eyes shut and hope[d] against hope’, opening his eyes and ‘letting out his breath’ on Isabella’s (Edward Hogg) ‘Let him not die’. Solomon was ‘thrill[ed]’ by Isabella’s ‘act of grace’ and ‘unselfconscious excess of generosity’ (http://www.hotreview.org/articles/measureforpleasure.htm).
It is grace, after all, that Angelo knows he’s lost. He acknowledges that his hypocritical betrayal of Isabella has brought an ugliness into his life; admits that his behaviour is more shocking owing to the power invested in him; and recognizes that ‘when once our grace we have forgot, / Nothing goes right’ (4.4.18-21; 4.31-32). When discovered in Act V, ‘[i]mmediate sentence’ and ‘sequent death is all the grace’ the dis-graced deputy requests (370-371), but Isabella opens up the way to his re-gracing. Approaches like McBurney’s, which suggest that the Duke’s behaviour towards Isabella is as coercive and sexually predatory as Angelo’s, have eclipsed the power of Isabella’s grace-full action and the possibility of genuine repentance on Angelo’s part.
The ending of Measure, then, may be hellish, or it may be heavenly. It is not, I hasten to add, unproblematic, and is no less a reflection of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy of ambiguities than any other play in the canon. However, seeing Isabella’s act of grace in appealing for Angelo’s life, rather than consenting to his death, as affording a glimpse of a radical alternative to the eye-for-eye system of justice, and offering a ‘foretaste of heaven’ by affirming the possibility of forgiveness, even for those who have fallen furthest from grace, remains one potential and vibrant reading.