Measure for Measure

Definition

Theater

  • One of Shakespeare's so-called 'dark comedies', firstperformed in 1604 at court in London (although this version apparentlydiffered considerably from the text we now have). Owing perhaps toits preoccupation with sex, death, and moral corruption, and to itscomplex and mostly unattractive characters, the play remained unpopularuntil the 20th century.

    The 1933 Old Vic production at Sadler's Wells Theatre starredCharles Laughton as Angelo, a performance described as "magnificent"by John Gielgud. Measure for Measure was also the last playto be staged before the Old Vic disbanded in 1963. Jonathan Millerproduced a memorable modern-dress version in 1975 at the GreenwichTheatre, while a production at the Lyttelton Theatre in 1981 set theaction on a Caribbean island (with Angelo as a Black bishop).

    The plot is derived mainly from George Whetstone's Promosand Cassandra (1578). Vincentio, the kindly but enigmatic Dukeof Vienna, disguises himself as a friar in order to move unnoticedamongst his people and observe their morals at first hand. In hisplace he temporarily appoints the puritanical Angelo, who immediatelysentences Claudio to death under a disused law against fornication.Isabella, Claudio's sister and a novice nun, pleads with Angelo forhis life. Overcome with sudden lust, Angelo says he will only saveClaudio if Isabella sleeps with him. Although Claudio begs her todo so, she indignantly refuses. Through a series of machinations thedisguised Duke manages to save Claudio and shame Angelo. In the play'slast moments he unexpectedly proposes to Isabella himself.

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