Measure For Measure
Vienna's Duke, Vincentio, concerned about the citizens' general disregard for moral and civil law, makes an unusual decision: he temporarily surrenders command to his deputy, Angelo while disguising himself as a Friar to observe Angelo's government. Angelo's first act is to imprison Claudio for having gotten his betrothed, Juliet, with child and to sentence Claudio to death. Claudio's sister, Isabella, who is to become a nun, learns of her brother impending death and goes to plead with Angelo. He requests that she return the next day, at which time he proposes an ultimatum: if she will sleep with him, he will allow her brother to live. Horrified, Isabella tells Claudio of Angelo's plan, but to her surprise Claudio tells her to submit. She refuses. The Duke/Friar, who has become her confidant, suggests that Mariana, Angelo's former fiancee, should go in Isabella's place. Both women accept the plan. Mariana poses as Isabella to meet Angelo, but the deputy enforces Claudio's death sentence. When the Duke leaves behind his disguise as a Friar and returns to take up his place as ruler, he must find a way to bring justice and mercy to Vienna.
Shakespeare is known for complex characters, elegant verse, and universal themes--the bard's timeless drama speaks to the beauty and horror of the human condition. Measure for Measure is no exception. An edgy and satiric comedy, Measure for Measure, perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare's plays, is stikingly modern in its provocative exploration and questioning of sexual politics, law and morality.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Measure for Measure, directed by Robert Cohen, sharply focuses the play's themes of politics, sex, and morality by modernizing the setting to World War II, 1930's Nazi occupied Vienna, Austria. The set, designed by Bill Forrester, is Victorian Gothic, aged, richly European, and representative of old world Vienna. The first scene of Measure for Measure is set in the "old world" of political power, a world of the aristocracy controlled by the Duke. However, a changing of the political guard is underway, for the Duke is passing his somewhat sagging "old world" political power to the young, strict "prenzie" Angelo, who represents a new era of military power, and ideology. In the context of the play, there is a clash between the "old" vision of the world, morality, duty and government as represented by the Duke, with Angelo's "new" more cruel world. The contrast is realized in the actual design of the set: the Victorian Gothic style arhitecture is backgrounded with a neon-lit city. Other worlds also are represented as the set shifts: the religious cloister, the prison cell--all places where the "others" of society are locked away. The military and religious worlds of the play are clearly represented in Madeline Kozlowski's clean, severe costume design. The strong, bold red, gold and white atop the austere blacks and grey are reminicent of the battle field--and the convent. In direct contrast to these aescetic designs, are the costumes for the people of the "underworld" of Viennese society. The prostitutes' leopard patterns, fox stoles, and thigh highs reinforce the separation between the aristorcracy and the seedy underworld, further distinguishing the the stratas of social class.
At the opening of the play, the Duke has turned the state over to Angelo. Quickly, a just, merciful government turns sour as Angelo enforces the law with stricture. Sentencing Claudio to death for having seduced a woman, Angelo's punishment is severe. However, Angelo's strict moral codes comes into question when he propositions the fair, chaste Isabella, asking for sex in exchange for her brother's life. In essence, he attempts to commit the same action for which he is punishing his subjects, seemingly without conscience. In the world of the play, politics and sexuality come crashing together--a theme that is not all all unfamiliar to contemporary society. Isabella's conflict in the play has a deep moral center. She wants to become a nun, but can only save her brother's life by surrendering her chastity to Angelo. When she says, "More than our brother is our chastity" (2.4, 185), is she cruel, selfish--or does she adhere to a morality that seems simply unfashionable to a modern audience? She is not an easy heroine. Like Angelo, Isabella's strong sense of right and wrong leads her to extreme action, guided by her anger. She does manage a way out of the situation, however, by acquiescing to a plan suggested by the Duke/Friar--the bed-trick in which Mariana will take her place in a liaison with Angelo. Isabella's chastity remains intact, but not unthreatened as the play concludes. Measure for Measure is a play filled with disguises, shifty identity, and characters engaging in deep self-examination. Isabella, the Duke, Angelo, Claudio: all undergo traumas which force them to question themselves, their morals, and their innermost values under extreme conditions. As an audience, we participate in the character's internal duel, and ultimately we attempt to classify and judge them. But all of the above mentioned characters resist easy classification, and it is perhaps this quality that makes Measure for Measure so powerful and provocative--as we observe their struggle, we recognize that it is also our own.