I once thought this was my favourite play of Shakespeare's, but each time I read it I find it more and more depressing. I don't know how anyone can read it, with its relentless, macabre mix of sex and death, and not be filled with despair.
Ostensibly it's a comedy. Yes, there's plenty of loopy stuff that happens here, but it quickly jumps from blackest of the black comedy to outright nihilism. Every time you think one part of the plot is resolved, it opens a door onto something darker. And it's all done with such mad aplomb, like we're supposed to take this as a jolly comedy.
What was Shakespeare thinking? There is nothing I know of in literature that has such a relentlessly bleak sexual view. Literary critic Harold Bloom thinks the play may have been the result of an excess of sexual experience. It's impossible not to think the same - yet it's so all encompassing (the negative sexuality), that you have to look for other reasons. All in all, I'd have to say that Measure for Measure is the very opposite of romance, the starkest example I know of. In the draconian law that Shakespeare invents for his Vienna, sex outside of wedlock is punished with beheading. See what I mean? What brought him to this world view?
The plot runs thus: Duke Vincentio leaves Vienna and puts in place as his proxy Angelo. The Duke feels that the laws of the land are not being enforced with enough vigour, and hopes Angelo will make sure the laws are more firmly applied.
A young gentleman, Claudio, is busted for getting his betrothed, Juliet, with child. She's described as walking around Vienna in this very obvious state of pregnancy. Angelo prosecutes an old law that says, fornication will be punished with beheading. So you see already how dark this play is - sex that results in life will in turn be punished with death.
Angelo, who prosecutes the law so relentlessly, is a real sexual puritan. He reminds me somewhat of J Edgar Hoover, FBI chief and closet homosexual.
To try and save his own skin, Claudio sends his sister Isabella, a novice in a nunnery, to plead for clemency with Angelo. Angelo falls for Isabella and offers the tantalising virgin an offer: sleep with him and he will not have her brother, Claudio, beheaded.
Meanwhile, Duke Vincentio has been roaming Vienna disguised as a Friar. He manipulates events, as though everyone were his players in a personol, albeit sick, drama. One wonders, is this Shakespeare himself, disguised as the amoral Duke?
Disguised as a Friar he cooks up a plan. He knows of a woman, Mariana, whom Angelo jilted due to her losing her dowry. They organise to place Mariana in Isabella's place, so she keeps her virginity, and the Mariana can get her own back by sleeping with Angelo. The plan comes off successfully, but Angelo reneges on the deal. He still insists on having Claudio beheaded.
Finally, the Duke Vincentio manages to dupe Angelo by using the head of a recently deceased sailor as Claudio's head and sending it on to him as proof of the exectution- see how gruesome things get in this 'comedy'.
All comes crashing to a sudden end. Duke Vincentio reveals his true identity to all. A few unhappy marriages ensue. Angelo must marry Mariana. Another character, Lucio, is forced to marry a 'punk' - a prostitute. Claudio marries his Juliet, after a huge ordeal. And in a bizarre turn of events, Duke Vincentio proposes to marry Isabella, who accepts.
The play contains my favourite speech of all Shakespeare's - the advice from Duke Vincentio, disguised as a Friar, to Claudio, who is contemplating death.
'Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.
Reason thus with life:If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool;
For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
For all the accommodations that thou bear'st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou'rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear's thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.'