In July, our selection for the AP English reading challenge is Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As always, please feel free to read along with us and join in the discussion in the comments section.
Back in high school, even as an A.P. senior, I was a pretty incompetent reader of Shakespeare. I might be exaggerating a little (but only a little) when I say that I don’t think I grew much as a reader of literature between the ages of twelve and 22. I was a very advanced reader as a little kid, and I became complacent. I didn’t need to try very hard to do what was asked of me in elementary and middle school, and I brought these lazy habits along with me to high school – and college. To make matters worse, I had an astonishing talent for writing essays about books I had not read (a talent that I have totally and completely LOST, by the way). It honestly wasn’t until grad school that I was forced to learn how to read a text closely, and for this development I credit my grad school professors, who were the first teachers I had ever had (well, since elementary school, anyway) who actually required us to discuss and write about the texts we had studied instead of the larger theories, themes, and ideas that swirl around those texts. In grad school, we took quizzes on texts that asked questions like “What brand of rifles were the pilgrims carrying in Heart of Darkness?” – and it would take a better bullshitter than I to bullshit around that question.
So if you had asked me in 1994 to write something about Measure for Measure, I could tell you all about justice vs. mercy and sexual victimization and images of light and dark and why this play is considered a “problem drama” instead of a true comedy. But I doubt if I could have given you anything more specific than that. Now, though, I have a bit of an advantage because I taught this play to my high school seniors in the spring of 2008. Granted, I only taught it once, and I don’t know it as well as I know Macbeth and Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew and Henry IV, Part 1, all of which I’ve taught many times. But something happens when you teach a text – it becomes engraved in your mind more deeply and in different ways than it does if you read it for pleasure or as a student.
So here’s what I remember: A duke goes on vacation. He decides that he wants to test the people of his city (which shall remain nameless for now, although I think it’s in Italy. Padua, maybe?) to see if they will behave when he’s not there. But instead of really leaving, he disguises himself as a friar and comes back so he can observe the people without them knowing he’s there. He leaves Angelo in charge, and Angelo is the kind of person who believes in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. And there is some kind of bizarre law on the books of this city that hasn’t been enforced in years and years (you know, kind of like those laws that they publish in lists as filler in Reader’s Digest – it’s illegal to tie a whale to a parking meter in Missouri after sunset, etc.), and within days of the duke’s departure Angelo has reason to enforce this rule. I don’t remember exactly what the rule is, but I know that it has to do with sex. And there’s a character named Isabella who is about to become a nun, but as a result of this mystery law that I can’t remember, Angelo wants to force her to get married – and possibly to her brother? OK, maybe not – but her brother is involved somehow. And Isabella is extremely holy and would sacrifice everything in her life, including her brother, in order to become a nun. And somehow her brother is going to be executed if she doesn’t marry someone.
I’m sorry about how pathetic this summary is. Really I am.
I remember that there are three deceptions that the people of this Italian city perpetrate on Angelo as a way of getting around the rules, and that there is a mneumonic device to remember them. “The bed trick, the head trick, and the I’m-not-dead trick,” maybe? There’s definitely something about sneaking the wrong person into someone’s bed and cutting off the head of someone who is already dead instead of cutting off Isabella’s brother’s head. And the main reason I remember this is that when I taught this play my seniors had this insanely complicated project planned, where they were going to hang up a sheet on a clothesline and get behind it, and they were going to make a papier-maché head that looked exactly like the real head of one of the kids in the class, and they were going to bring a chain saw (“There won’t be any gas in it – don’t worry, Ms. Edstrom!”) and rig something up involving balloons and ketchup that would splatter fake blood all over the sheet when they started chopping off the fake head…
…and then they totally flaked and didn’t do any of this. And what could I do, because it was the last week of school and I really, really wanted them to graduate and get out of there?
I also remember that the language in this play is beautiful. The disguised duke is counseling Isabella’s brother on how to face death gracefully, and he says, “Thou hast nor youth nor age, / but as it were an after-dinner sleep / dreaming on both” – lines that I’ve been reminded of often because T.S. Eliot used it as the epigraph to his poem “Gerontion” and also because I’ve thought of it once or twice since I’ve been living with fibromyalgia and think it’s not a bad description of my life these past few months. I also remember “Heaven forgive us, and forgive us all; / Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” because I like pithy rhyming couplets like that.
And I’m pretty sure there’s a punishment marriage at the end.And punishment marriages amuse me.