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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Measure for Measure

I just saw the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Measure for Measure in Washington, D.C.
It’s fantastic!
If you are in or near Washington, you must see it. 

It runs through October 27 and you can get tickets here:
It was one of the greatest Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. It really made the play seem as fresh and relevant as it must have been when it was first performed in 1604.
I applaud the STC, the play’s director Jonathan Munby, and the brilliant cast for this riveting production.
The play is considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays since it is difficult to categorize. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? And then there is the controversial combination of religious and sexual matters in the play. If you are easily offended, this play might not be for you. But then you would be missing one of Shakespeare's funniest plays.
In this production, all of these problems are faced head on. The play is set in Vienna between World War I and World War II, at a time when art, sex and politics were as volatile as they were during the life of Shakespeare himself.
In a stroke of genius, as you enter the theater,  the actors are gathering on stage, in a Viennese strip club/brothel.
Cameron Folmar as Lucio with the ensemble dancers
There are the muscle-bound bouncers in lederhosen, a brothel madam, a master of ceremonies, male and female prostitutes, and strippers. 
This pre-show cabaret entertainment sets the stage for what is to come, and also more importantly sets the tone for the entire play.
In this production, Vienna is clearly a fascist state like Nazi Germany. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that for his entire life, Shakespeare’s England was a police state.
The incident that starts the play off is when Claudio is sentenced to death for having an unsanctioned marriage with Juliet, who is now pregnant.
The only way his death sentence can be stopped is if his sister, a nun named Isabella, will have sex with Angelo, the man who is in charge of the city and the same man who sentenced Claudio to death.
Scott Parkinson as Angelo and Miriam Silverman as Isabella
Such a plot would not seem very funny, but the play has some of the funniest scenes and lines in all of Shakespeare’s plays. The audience I was with was laughing very loudly by the end.
The cast was excellent. It is hard to point out any one or two actors in this show, they are all so good, and they work very well with each other.
What I will say is that Shakespeare wrote some of his most colorful and memorable characters in this play, and every last actor made the most of their part.
I don’t think I will ever see this play again without remembering how funny Chris Genebach was as Pompey, Cameron Folmar was as Lucio, and Hugh Nees was as Elbow; or how moving Miriam Silverman was as Isabella, Katie deBuys was as Juliet, and Natascia Diaz was as Mariana; or how effective Scott Parkinson was as Angelo, and Kurt Rhoads was as the Duke.
Please do yourself a favor and go see this before the run ends. 

When I consider Measure for Measure as a play, and I have not written about it here before on the blog, it doesn’t seem like a problem play to me.
First of all, Shakespeare is clearly referring to his own life and his earlier play, Romeo and Juliet
As I have written before, Romeo and Juliet was written for the Earl of Southampton when he was engaged to Elizabeth Vernon (who was one of the chief ladies-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth) without having first secured the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, who did not allow such unsanctioned relationships.
For their disobediance to the Queen, Southampton and Vernon, who was pregnant at the time, were thrown in prison.
When he wrote Measure for Measure, he wrote it after Queen Elizabeth had died, and while King James was well into the second year of his reign.
It was first performed at court for the King, during the holidays, on 26 December, 1604.
It shows you what kind of monarch King James was, and what kind of city London was, that such a play, with so much crude and sexual humor, would be suitable for holiday entertainment.
The only other play that I have found to be as funny and as truly bawdy and low down and dirty as Measure For Measure is The Merchant of Venice.
As I was watching this excellent production, I was struck how close the plays really are.
At the end of both plays, a Duke settles a dispute. A Duke rules against Shylock and a Duke rules for Isabella.
Angelo in Measure is very similar to Antonio in Merchant. Both are undone by the illicit love of another character. Angelo is undone by Isabella, and Antonio is undone by his love of Bassanio.
The Duke in Measure is very similar to Portia in Merchant. Both wear costumes in the final trials within the plays. 
Portia, as I have written before, is far from the fair, wise and virtuous princess we have long believed her to be. She is a pig, and her name actually means “pig.”
Also, as I explored in my version of Merchant of Venice, Portia is bisexual. She has a sexual relationship with her maid, Nerissa.
In this production of Measure for Measure, the Duke is depicted as having homosexual encounters, and is haunted by his sexuality.
This would not have come as a shock to King James when he saw the play for the first time. After all the play was written for him personally, and after all, he was bisexual, too.
Isabella in Measure is very similar to Shylock in Merchant
In the entire play, she is the only character who does not change. She is the only constant in the entire play. Shylock is the only character who does not change in Merchant. He stays the same throughout. 
However, at the end of Merchant, he is sentenced to renounce his faith and become a Christian. 
This forced conversion is very similar to Isabella’s fate at the end of Measure when the Duke asks her to marry him, since she would be renouncing her faith for a life as the Duchess of Vienna.
In both Measure and Merchant, almost all of the other characters change, and wear masks of one sort or another. They are never entirely what they appear to be, and often have ulterior motives.
As such, if there is one criticism I have of this production of Measure, it is that Isabella needs to be funnier. Shylock certainly has a sense of humor. Isabella could be funnier, and if she is shown as more of a part of the comedy of the play, then the comedy and drama would be more balanced.
The Merchant of Venice is arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem play.”
In my version of Merchant, I solved the play’s problem by revealing how the entire play is neither a comedy or a tragedy but in fact the blackest of black bawdy comedies.
Measure for Measure is also a very black comedy, and it is arguably even more bawdy.
So, if you are interested in seeing one of Shakespeare's true comedic masterpieces, you should definitely see this production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C.


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