I enjoyed this nasty little play. It’s got sex, religion and hypocrisy. It’s so topical I don’t understand why theater companies all over the country aren’t performing it. The title comes from the Sermon on the Mount, the King James version because Shakespeare loves his thees and thous: “Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” The play takes place in Shakespeare’s imagination but he calls the city Vienna where “corruption boil and bubble til it o’er run the stew.” (V, i) Among the self-deluded bunch of characters are:
The Duke. He has recently passed a law that punishes fornication with death. Now he claims to be going away and leaving his deputy to enforce it. But instead he hides out in the friary pretending to be a friar so he can see what happens.
Angelo. The Duke’s deputy. He is so upright he “scarce confesses that his blood flows.”
Isabella. She’s becoming a nun in order to keep the lid on her sensuality and sexual energy.
The ironic heart of the play is carried by Lucio, a goodhearted trickster, and possibly the only sane person in Vienna. He weaves in and out of the action with mischief and compassion. There’s an odd character called Barnardine. In prison for murder, his nine years of appeals have run out. His odd little scene expresses the absurdity of what passes for civic order in society. Then there’s a collection of drabs, knaves, bawds and tapsters who interact like Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Angelo’s first action as Deputy of this city of vice is to sentence to death Claudio, the brother of Isabella, the sublimating novice. Claudio and Juliet, his fiancée, are pregnant and that actually would have been legal but they hadn’t officially registered their common law marriage because they are waiting for Juliet’s family to pony up a dowry. Juliet, incidentally is also sentenced to death, after the baby is born. Angelo, the upright, had dumped his legal fiancée, Mariana when her dowry disappeared in a family misfortune.
Isabella pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life, thus putting two repressed individuals in close proximity. Isabella plays the guilt or mercy card, depending on how one looks at it, and says, “Ask your heart what it dost know that’s like my brother’s fault.” Angelo’s alarm, hypocrisy and sado-masochism are activated. He tells Isabella he will spare her brother’s life if she will sleep with him. At this she wants to forfeit the game, but the Duke who has been playing friar all this time, gets wind of things and begins to meddle. He proposes The Bed Trick: he suggests that Isabella accept Angelo’s terms but Angelo’s ex-fiancèe, Mariana, will be substituted in the bed.
While this is going on, Barnardine’s time on earth has finally run out and he has this conversation with the executioner’s assistant, Pompey:
Pompey: Master Barnardine, you must rise and be hanged, Master Barnardine.
Barnardine: A pox o’ your throat, who makes that noise there? What are you?
Pompey: Your friends, sir, the hangmen. You must be so good, sir, to rise and be put to death.
Barnardine: Away you rogue, away! I am sleepy.
Pompey: Pray Master Barnardine, awake til you are executed and sleep afterwards. . .
Barnardine: I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion. (IV, iii)
After the assignation with Isabella/Mariana, Angelo starts worrying that this will get about: “a deflowered maid, and by an eminent body that enforced the law against it.” He reneges on his promise to Isabella, orders the execution of Claudio and decides to dispose of the murderer Barnardine at the same time. The Duke/friar intervenes and prevents the execution but because he is a sadist, who by now is playing God, he tells Isabella that her brother is dead.
The Duke comes back to town as the Duke and there’s a public meeting. At this point, Angelo thinks he has slept with Isabella and both Angelo and Isabella think Claudio is dead. The truth is publicly untangled. Angelo is humiliated but I get the feeling that his masochism rather enjoys this. The Duke sentences him to death and Isabella seconds this. In doing so, her inability to show the mercy she wanted for herself is exposed. Mariana pleads for Angelo’s life until finally the Duke pardons everyone except Lucio who is sentenced to death for the heinous crime of poking fun at the Duke.
Angelo and Mariana are forced to marry. And Isabella sets aside her vows and marries the Duke. As a character much later in history might say: “Too, too sick-making.” Also much later in history, nothing much has changed. Civic leaders are still lying to citizens and still breaking their own laws. The church is still self-deluded, repressed, and sado-masochistic. Proud little men and women “dressed in brief authority” still play God. The innocent are still punished.
Claudio and Juliet are married. That’s the only good thing that happens in this play. Except that Barnardine gets his way: he will not die for any man’s persuasion.
Here are lines I liked:
*Pompey- Yonder man is carried to prison.
Mistress Overdone: Well, what’s he done?
Pompey: A woman.
Mistress Overdone: But what’s his offense?
Pompey: Fishing for trout in a peculiar river. (I, ii)
*We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape til custom make it
Their perch and not their terror. (II, i)
*Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city? (II, i)
*. . .man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured. . .
Plays such fantastical tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep. (II, ii)
*. . .is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most? (II, ii)
*Thou hast not youth nor age,
But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both. (III, i)
*Take, O take these lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn;
But my kisses bring again, bring again,
Seals of love, but sealed in vain, sealed in vain (IV, i)
*I am a kind of burr. I shall stick. (IV, iii)
*Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure. (V, i)