Measure for Measure is a play about watchers and those being watched. It’s also a ‘problem’ play (i.e., a play that deals with a problem rather than one that is problematic). It’s a play about justice, and in this regard, the question of who is faithful enough to guarantee the behaviour of others, or can say they are beyond reprimand themselves, is its central problem.

RSC Measure for Measure 2019

Lucy Phelps as Isabella and Sandy Grierson as Angelo in Gregory Doran's 2019 production of Measure for Measure (image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company).

The action is set in Vienna, where the Duke, Vincentio, leaves his Deputy, Angelo, in charge of purging the city of vice (Maria Theresa tried to do the same thing in the 18th century, but that’s another story).

The title of the play is a reference to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”. While he doesn’t mention the Bible specifically, Shakespeare puts an echo of Christ’s words into the mouth of Vincentio during the play’s mad finale:

…death for death.
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.

Rather than the Bible, I think there’s an even clearer parallel with that famous line from Juvenal’s Satires: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (VI). The original context for this quotation (often translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or “Who watches the watchmen?”) refers to the issue of preventing a wife from being unfaithful. However, it has come to mean the problem of controlling the actions of those in positions of power.

RSC Measure for Measure 1946

Angelo (Robert Harris) propositions Isabella (Ruth Lodge) in a 1946 production directed by Frank McMullan (image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company).

The designation of the play as a comedy is quite at odds with its weird distastefulness. Harold Bloom thought Measure for Measure a work of “high rancidity” and described it as “Shakespeare’s goodbye to comedy” (it was also, incidentally, one of Bloom’s favourites). On my first read-through I found the recurring images of coins to be quite curious. Angelo’s remark to the Duke: “Let there be some more test made of my metal, before so noble and so great a figure be stamp’d upon it” is just one example (elsewhere, he talks of “[coining] heaven’s image in stamps that are forbid”). The language in the first half of the play is stark and preoccupied with currency and exchange.

This is because Angelo and Isabella are essentially cold characters who see everything in black and white terms. In other words, they’re both extremists: Isabella is a noviciate who wishes for “a more strict restraint”, similar to that practised by the nuns of St. Clare (a white-habited order), while Angelo (who has taken over the government of Vienna from the absent Duke) is obsessed with sexual transgression. What drives the plot is Angelo’s decision to make an example of Isabella’s hapless brother, Claudio, who has got his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock. Claudio is sentenced to death, but the “watcher’s” morals prove to be less than pure; if Isabella sleeps with Angelo, he will let her brother live (this is a familiar plot-type known as the ‘monstrous bargain’).

Angelo and Isabella initially seem to be quite similar. Like two coins, they look the same, but it’s what underneath that matters. While Isabella is pure silver, Angelo is base metal: a counterfeit. At the time Shakespeare was writing, people would have been familiar with the process of testing the metal of coins for purity, namely, melting them down in a crucible. It’s only when we are tested in the crucible of temptation that our true natures reveal themselves.

The Duke is a character who frustrates our attempts to understand him. He professes to dislike the scrutiny of his subjects but enjoys watching them; he spends most of the play disguised as a Friar, giving people his own brand of (fake) religious counsel. He whips the plot into a mass of knots which only he can unravel, leaving us bewildered. Is the Duke a good leader or is he another whited sepulchre?

The conclusion of David Thacker’s 1994 filmed version for the BBC (with the wonderful Tom Wilkinson as the Duke) made me rethink this character as another extremist. Driven by his own passion for Isabella, he tips over into a sadistic ringmaster, obsessed with himself as the plot’s deus ex machina. Isabella is wedded to Christ, but the Duke wants to impress her by playing God. His “happy ending” is so abhorrent that he ends up looking just as bad (perhaps worse) than Angelo.

BBC Measure for Measure 1994

Directed by David Thacker with (left to right) Juliet Aubrey as Isabella, Tom Wilkinson as the Duke and Corin Redgrave as Angelo. Thanks to The little white attic for advice about streaming different versions of the play.

Meanwhile, the RSC’s 2019 production, directed by Gregory Doran, has been dubbed the #metoo version, with Lucy Phelps’s Isabella projecting a painful sense of physical disgust, even when Angelo’s attempts to seduce her are thwarted. She represents a traumatised victim of sexual abuse, while Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is a sadist and – to modern minds – a religious fanatic (he keeps his legs bound in chains, much as Thomas à Becket wore a hairshirt under his archbishop’s garments). The Duke (Anthony Byrne) is a damaged individual; when the play opens we discover him in his mirrored ballroom, apparently in the throes of an anxiety attack. Both his Friar’s disguise and his attempts at comforting his subjects are careless, ill-conceived and irresponsible.

What can be done about corruption at the top? This is the central question of Measure for Measure, and Isabella’s cry of “Justice! Justice! Justice!” resounds across the whole piece. Shakespeare doesn’t go in for comforting platitudes, and the concluding scene of the play leaves us reeling with shocked disbelief. The truth of the matter is that, faced with injustice, sometimes we are gagged; sometimes the powerful block us. Sometimes good fails and language is inadequate.

Who will watch the watchmen? Only God sees all.