Thursday, June 11, 2015

Measure for Measure

Can a mere playwright -- God though he seems upon the stage -- write a play in which everything about plays can be freshly tested, intertwined, and 'measured'? Might there be a comedy without a marriage, a history without history, a tragedy without a death? Measure for Measure is Shakespeare's answer to all these questions, and his most taut and hazardous experiment, one in which the license of the stage itself -- for the Globe was in the suburbs, the 'liberties' of London -- is called into question.

Here, even more so than in As You Like It, we have a plethora of motifs -- the disguised Duke, the untested ruler, the faithful retainer, the bawds and tapsters (and judges and magistrates) of every other play he ever wrote, all bundled into one. The issue at the center of it all is justice, and its application -- and it's not just Angelo who will be sorely tested. And, with Isabella, Shakespeare gives us his the most compelling and eloquent of all his female characters, one who, though initially reluctantly, will so challenge Angelo's justice that she wins all hearts, including -- unwittingly -- his.

'Judge not, that ye be not judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you againe" -- in this abjuration seems to lie the title and the whole matter of the play. And indeed, the language is that of the King James Bible, s first published in 1611, just six years or so after the play (though the phrasing of the line is nearly the same as Tyndale's translation of 1526, and Shakespeare would doubtless have been familiar with it from his youth).

Saturday, June 6, 2015

As You Like It

In many ways, "As You Like It" is the most pure, most essential of all Shakespeare's comedies. The "You" of the title, is presumably the audience; the sense is that Shakespeare is winking at them just a bit, and saying "Warring brothers? Misdirected lovers? Kindly shepherds? Wooded utopias? I will give you all of these, and as many as can be crammed into five acts." It's a tour-de-force, one that's difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off.

And what a cast of characters! Jacques is the melancholic clown, with Amiens his comic songster counterpart; Jacques gets the best lines of the play (the 'seven ages of man') and Amiens gets the best songs ("It Was a Lover and His Lass" was one of the top-40 hits of the Elizabethan era). The exiled Duke makes a fine master of ceremonies for both, while his usurping brother Frederick frets and fumes back home. The gallant Orlando and his cruel brother Oliver form shadow-doubles of the dueling Dukes, while Rosalind and Celia both represent and resist their fathers' wills, along with their own class and/or gender identities. A shepherd, a shepherd's boy, a couple of country lasses, and Touchstone, a second clown and second-fiddling courtier, make up the cast, and here's an easy prophecy: by the end, every one who lacks a partner shall gain one, willy-nilly.

For our in-class viewing, I'll be showing scenes from Sir Kenneth Branagh's Japanese-themed version, made in 2006 for HBO (if your cable system has an on-demand menu that includes HBO Movies, you should be able to see it for free). Branagh does not appear in it himself, but chooses a contrapuntal cast of actors, including black actors for Orlando and Oliver, Kevin Kline as a muted Jacques, and Alfred Molina as a Touchstone with Eraserhead hair. The Japanese setting seems odd at first -- Charles is a Sumo wrestler ?!? -- but once we're all in the Forest of Arden, it falls away as any artifice, and the play's once more the thing.

It's certainly true, though, that Shakepeare's notion of "comedy" is not very much like our own. You'd have to mix some modern genres -- romcom, action/adventure, and buddy film -- to get something that would have all its elements. Being "funny" is part of it, but it's not the main point.

So is this play, for you, "as you like it"? Your comments below.