Problems Problems Problems
So, what exactly is a problem play?
Some of Shakespeare's plays just don't fit into the conventional categories of Tragedy, Comedy and History. They are special cases. Problem cases. There is no precise definition, but we can have a stab at what we're likely to comes across in this difficult genre:
A play that works through complex practical or ethical problems faced by the characters on stage. Too easy.
Problems that are explored philosophically, not just part of the driving forward of the plot or conflict within relationships. A play where the problems are the essence of the play. Getting closer.
A play that draws the audience in and leaves them thinking ‘hang on a minute, what about…?’ Now that’s more the thing. A play, a story, an issue that we can grapple with and there isn’t an easy answer or a proper resolution to be had. An ending that is probably not happy, but not necessarily totally sad either. A play in which Shakespeare is grappling with ethical dilemmas. Getting lost in a moral maze and taking us along with him. That's about as close as we can get, I think.
In Measure for Measure there are so many problems to deal with, for both the characters and the audience. And almost all of these problems stem from patriarchy, the Duke and his misrule, abandoning his duties and his people. In normal times, he has the power to exert undue influence on his ‘subjects’. But why are they subject to him in the first place? What right does he have to be Duke? And then, when absent, the Duke wants to spy on them, to learn what others think about him. That’s not a very healthy situation. It’s sneaky, and he simply doesn’t have the right. Except he is the Duke.
In handing over control, and then disappearing, the Duke creates an artificial environment where corruption and abuse become inevitable. It gets much worse. Angelo jumps in, enforces a horrendous, moralistic regime and becomes a monster.
Let’s have a look at some specific problem scenarios in the play:
Is it OK for a society to impose morality on people and punish them with public humiliation; to drag them off to prison with a sign around their neck saying ‘bawd’ or ‘lecher’?
Is it OK to kill just anyone in prison and swap prisoners. To make sure the ‘hero’ is kept alive?
Is it OK for a Duke to pretend to be a religious figure? A fictitious figure? He is meant to be ruling the country and setting an example to all as a head of state, for the sake of all, not furtively and in disguise to satisfy his own curiosity.
Is it OK to arrange a plot to deceive a man to have carnal relations with a former fiancée, to trick him into morality (though immoral means); to create a false foundation for marriage? To force marriage, without even asking how they wish to proceed? For a ruler to order this to happen and it is done? And can this same ruler just decide to make a man marry a prostitute he once hired, again, without asking either the man or the woman what they want?
Clearly, communicating, and asking, and asking women especially, are not the Patriarch's strong points.
The Duke of Vienna (Antony Byrne)
All images: Helen Maybanks, (c) RSC
On return, the Duke eventually sort of puts things right. But does he have to do it all in secret? And all according to his own timescale? Regardless of how much people are hurting and at risk of death? The Duke is enjoying a huge ego trip. Grandstanding. Making himself out to be a hero, to whom everyone should be grateful, and all the while he's controlling everyone’s lives and abusing them.
Is it ever OK to engage in any kind of social engineering? By a duke or anyone else?
And is it OK for the Duke himself to ask for Isabella’s hand in marriage just at her greatest moment of trauma and relief, where she discovers that her brother is not dead after all? When everything comes to a climax? Again, without even asking how the woman feels? The Duke backs down for the time being, when Isabella looks aghast, but you just know he’s going to try it on again soon. Now, if Shakespeare is telling us the play is really all about a strong woman, and the power of love, humanity and respect, then how can he substantiate this if the Duke ends up doing whatever he wants and claiming whoever he wants? But I am getting carried away here with suppositions.
That might be the last of our musings, and yet, at the very end, we might still be left thinking:
Is Isabella happy?
Is Mariana happy?
Is Lucio’s wife happy? And is her happiness worth as much as that of the women who are not sex workers?
What happens next in all of their lives?
Does it matter what happens to Angelo? Is his soul redeemed, or does hell have a special place waiting for him?
What about Lucio? Does he deserve to be happy?
And what is marriage all about, really?
Has there been any meaningful, long-lasting justice achieved? Is there genuine remorse? Are women safer than before? Are men likely to be treated fairly? So many questions remain.
Mariana (Sophie Khan Levy)
And here’s the big one: Is revenge fine?
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!
…Measure still for Measure”
(Act V, scene i)
Is the policy of an ‘eye for an eye’ acceptable, or only as long as it never gets implemented? As long as forgiveness happens. But what if the forgiveness is not forthcoming? Will society fall apart and descend into corruption and debauchery, where anything goes? And does this extend beyond Vienna? What was the extent of Shakespeare’s vision here, in time as well as place?
A Viennese Whirl
And finally, it’s always fun to ask this one, since who can ever truly know, but what is Shakespeare really saying about humanity in all of this? Is he adopting a moral stance? Or calling for one? Or just setting everything out and leaving us all to our own moralising and to draw our own conclusions? I like to think Shakespeare meant us to wonder about this for all eternity.
And that is why I think Measure for Measure is a problem play!
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
All photos: Helen Maybanks © RSC
See the Connected Cultures review of the RSC's Measure for Measure