Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Kansas City Rep., University of Missouri at Kansas City, 2005


While I was pursuing my M.A. at the Shakespeare Institute, I studied with Dr. John Jowett, who has done a tremendous amount of work on attribution studies in general, and the relationship between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton in particular. I was particularly intrigued by his scholarship with regard to Measure for Measure, and the theory that Middleton revised the play for a revival in 1620; that it was this revision which Heminges and Condell included in the First Folio. That this is the text which we have received as Measure for Measure. With John Jowett’s scholarship at my side, as well as a few suggestions from Barry Kraft about how performance texts are created at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I decided to create a performance text for Measure that sought to clean Middleton’s fingerprints off the play as well as restore early expurgations of the text which were the likely result of Parliament’s 1606 Act to Restraine the Abuses of the Players — that sought to get an iteration closer to the play Shakespeare originally wrote.

As far as John Jowett and I are aware, I am the first theatre practitioner to review the research and to compile a performance text that eradicates Middleton from the script as well as restoring the profanities and the locale of the play Shakespeare wrote. I respectfully suggest that this text is a purist’s dream. I directed this text on the Kansas City Rep.’s mainstage for the University of Missouri at Kansas City Graduate Acting Program in March 2005. This was not a ‘big concept’ production; this Measure for Measure is true to a vision which hasn’t seen the candlelight, the limelight or the fresnel light in more than 390 years.

My program notes

I saw Measure for Measure for the first time when I was fifteen. I had never heard of it. I didn’t know that I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to understand it. I didn’t know that it was a ‘problem play.’ I thought it was funny and rude and terribly, terribly sad. I identified immediately with Angelo, not in his sexual violence certainly, but in his complete inability to know who he is. As an adolescent, I understood his awkwardness, his desire to believe that he was something other than what he is, his inability to interact with people. Of course it is possible to render an Angelo who is evil incarnate; Shakespeare is nothing if not resilient, and can take whatever we force upon him, be it a Mad Max Hamlet or a Snidely Whiplash Angelo. But the text tells a richer, more human story of a man who, in striving towards an ideal, denies a fundamental part of his essence until, under the pressure of long restraint, it gets the better —and the worser — of him.

Shakespeare introduces the idea of seeming early in the play, and it resonates with the Duke and Isabel as much as it does with Angelo. The Duke says of Angelo, “Hence shall we see / if power changes purpose, what our seemers be.” He wonders whether Angelo can possibly be as strict, as abstinent, as remote as he appears. Lord Angelo doth protest too much, the Duke suspects. When Angelo propositions Isabel, she declares that she will proclaim his falseness, “Seeming, seeming!” and to himself, Angelo bitterly observes his own “false seeming.” In the trial scene, Isabel exhorts the Duke “Make not impossible / that which but seems unlike.”

The Duke himself, Escalus tells us, is a man who “above all other strifes, contend[s] especially to know himself.” On one of its many levels, the play functions as the Duke’s journey in search of greater self-knowledge, and in that regard, it seems important to him that other characters should come to know themselves better as well. But the Duke, even as he brings Angelo to a full understanding of his shortcomings and Isabel to a richer sense of compassion and mercy, fails to discover his own vanity and his extreme sensitivity to criticism. Indeed, when all the punishments have been meted out at the end of the play, the one penalty ultimately exacted will be on Lucio, guilty not of fornication, rape, or murder, but “slandering a prince.” The Duke of seeming self-knowledge is, to himself, still a Duke of dark corners, and can forgive anything but insults directed towards his own person. Power often does change purpose.

Measure for Measure continues to entice and challenge because it refuses a neat ending, a clean resolution. The play stops, but it does not end. Shakespeare throws some mighty questions onto the stage with this play, but, as usual, he refuses to answer them for us. What is the nature of justice? Is ‘an eye for an eye’, ‘an Angelo for a Claudio’ justice? What is the relationship between justice and mercy? Where is the boundary between authority and tyranny? How much government do we need? Duke Vincentio himself is unable to decide whether or how to enforce his own laws against fornication. Does the government have a right to legislate what we do in our own bedrooms, or with whom? 401 years after Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure, we are not much closer to consensus on these questions but given the state of the world, a constructive discussion about the nature of authority, the role of government, the limits of personal privacy, and why we cannot agree on these matters is imperative to the integrity of our republic.


University News
“Director Kathleen Powers studied Middleton’s influence on Measure for Measure. She deleted changes to the text and restored the play to what she believes was originally intended by Shakespeare. Powers is the first theatre practitioner to perform the play without Middleton’s changes… Powers’ fresh take on the play results in a performance that seems more focused on humanizing the characters.”

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