The last Shakespeare I thought about was Coriolanus (film and text). Recently a stray line from Measure for Measure has been floating about in my head: “Be absolute for death”. So I picked up my old Alexander Shakespeare to read it again.
In this one Shakespeare doesn’t offer much of the poetry that picks you up like a wave, all glitter on top and power underneath, so that you can hop into it and be carried along. Of course he can always turn a line or a phrase (mostly spoken by or about or to Angelo), uses some wonderful words (e.g. “vastidity”) and the rude comedy about Pompey Bum pleases the groundling in me. But mostly I had to think and to work at the lines.
It is difficult at first because in the West we are desensitized to the virtue of chastity. Most of us wouldn’t vow it, be willing to die for it, or retain it by letting someone else be killed. So what about a play in which fornication carries the death penalty, which might be remitted as a favour for more fornication? Can you imagine yourself into that culture?
Then it is difficult because of the characters. Is the Duke a weakling, or is he setting a trap? Has Angelo really loved uprightness until this catastrophic lapse, or was it a career move all along, or a manifestation of his love of power? Is Escalus a sage counsellor or an old dimwit? What about the women? Are they mere pawns being moved about the stage, and if so is this Shakespeare’s deficient character development? Or is it his way of demonstrating that women could only make choices in an all-female world guarded by taboo – and Isabella doesn’t take her vows quite quickly enough? Is the Provost a good man or a plot device? Do any of the characters really engage us on their side? Oh dear, I am back among the question marks again.
What really resonated for me in this re-reading is the social politics. Many of us have been in situations where a weak or unskilled leader tries to make use of a human Rottweiler (who doesn’t care what the rest of us think) to push through unpopular changes – whether these are for good or ill. But the thing about Rottweilers is that they are not very discriminating in what they bite. The Duke was very lucky to bring Angelo to heel so quickly; he could well have turned and savaged his master.
Which all poses a central question: How can any government restrain a rising tide of private misbehaviour without indulging in state brutality?
Shakespeare (of course) doesn’t answer that. There is a typically sardonic Shakespearian aside when the bawd (Pompey) is reformed by giving him a respectable job – public executioner. But we know it’s going to be a sinecure. The fornicator, the slanderer, and Angelo, all of whom are entitled to the services of that executioner, are let off with instructions to marry the women they have obligations to. A Death Row guy, who sounds like a congenital psychopath, is sent to secure custody for therapy.
Are the ones who express repentance really sorry? Will the women be made to pay by their unwilling husbands? Did some of the criminals really deserve to be hanged, and if so which? Will the Duke’s restitutional justice work? If you are reading Shakespeare, you have to make up your own answers.