I knew the AP English Challenge wouldn’t be all sunshine and Latin American roses, but when Bethany suggested we read Shakespeare during month two, I was not without misgivings. I haven’t read Shakespeare since 1998, for heaven’s sake. I did take two Shakespeare classes in college as part of my English minor, and did pretty well in them, and at the time I fancied myself quite the Shakespeare scholar. But that was over fourteen years ago, and I’ve read a lot of very-easy-to-understand prose since then. I mean, a few years ago when I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I thought that writing was borderline too complicated for me. And Austen is not that difficult.
So yeah. Shakespeare. I took classes on his middle and late periods. I don’t know how other schools organize their Shakespeare classes, but my alma mater had three: his early period, middle period, and late period. I picked middle and late because I wanted to read certain of the books in each period. Macbeth, for one, and The Tempest (I think) for the other. Like I said, I enjoyed these classes, but once college was over, I thought my relationship with Shakespeare was at an end. And it was. But now it’s not.
I think that Bethany and Tim did a pretty good job laying down the basics of plot. I remember in high school being excited to read one of Shakespeare’s comedies. My exposure to him at this point had been 100% tragedy. My prior English teachers had not opted to have us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in fact I still haven’t read that play, but focused instead on Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and various other plays that I can’t remember (but I’m sure Bethany can help with that). I didn’t understand at the time that sometimes comedy doesn’t mean “hahahaha, LOL, ROFLMAO.” And I’d go so far as to say I don’t necessarily even think that Measure for Measure has much of a happy ending, except that no one dies. Except that one prisoner whose head gets chopped off. The women are treated like property, there’s a power-hungry egomaniac and potential sex-offender trying to chop off people’s heads, and a bunch of pimps and prostitutes running around Vienna telling lies about everyone. Okay… The pimps and prostitutes are sort of funny. And they helped me to realize that in Shakespeare, if you think something someone says might be about sex, it probably is, despite what the footnotes say. My seventeen year old self was not wise enough in the ways of the world to pick up on that.
My memories of this play from the first time around are pretty minimal, as I said in a comment on Bethany’s pre-reading entry. As I read, some things came back to me—I remember enjoying the intrigue of the plot by the Duke to save Claudio and punish Angelo, and I remember thinking Angelo was not a very nice person. I don’t remember being annoyed by the Duke. And this time around, that was a major emotion I felt about him. At first, I was merely interested by the Duke’s rapid exit from Vienna. I got annoyed in Act I, scene iii when the Duke says the following: “We have strict statutes and most biting laws, /The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,/Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,/…. Now as fond fathers, /Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch, /Only to stick it in their children’s sight/For terror, not to use; in time the rod/Becomes more mocked than feared….” So he is concerned that no one respects the law because there are no consequences for actions, and that’s fine. And then Friar Thomas replies, “It rested in your Grace/To unloose this tied-up Justice when you pleased, /And it in you more dreadful would have seemed/Than in Lord Angelo.” So basically he’s out to make Angelo the heavy, while he hides out and gets to come back and be the good guy. And things basically work out that way.
And then there’s Angelo. I wrote in the margin of my copy of Measure for Measure the following in Act III, scene ii, next to the Duke’s final soliloquy: “Fr. M calls Angelo a son-of-a-bitch. 12/1/93, 12:22pm.” Harsh criticism coming from a priest, wouldn’t you say? But that is, in fact, probably the best words to sum up Angelo’s character. I wanted to believe that he was truly wrestling for control over his baser urges when he was propositioning Isabella, but the fact that he still went ahead and had her brother executed after she gave up her alleged virginity to him is just terrible. Can you think of a better way to describe it? I could use some stronger words but I’m fairly certain we are a PG blog. Maybe in this day and age when virginity is not quite the commodity it was in the 1600’s it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but certainly not then. Act II, scene iii, Angelo says, “What dost thou, or what are thou, Angelo? /Dost thou desire her foully for those things/That make her good?” Here he seems ashamed of his desires and during this monologue he seems to want to resist, but simply cannot. At the end of Act IV, after he “deflowers” Isabella, or Mariana, he seems to have remorse: “This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant, /And dull to all proceedings. A deflow’red maid, /And by an eminent body that enforced/The law against it!” But as this monologue goes on he almost seems to change his mind. In summary (because I am not in the mood to type in verse), he says that he hopes she doesn’t tell anyone, but then he realizes that probably he would be believed over her even if she does talk. And when Isabella does confront him in Act V, calling him an “arch-villain,” and a “virgin violator,” he retorts with, “My lord, her wits, I fear me, are not firm.” Ultimately, all is revealed and Angelo begs for death, probably because that would be easier than living with the shame of what he has done. The Duke, of course, has other ideas, bringing us to the first punishment marriage of the play.
There’s obviously so much more to say about this play. It’s Shakespeare, after all. People make studying him their life’s work. And I would love to spend time writing about Isabella, Lucio, Pompey, Elbow, and Abhorson. But I fear that this would quickly become the world’s longest blog entry, and I would never get around to writing about, or reading, anything else ever. But I’m going to limit my comments to the two major characters, and close with the following: in thinking about drama in general and this play in particular, it becomes more apparent to me how important it is to actually see and hear it. Depending on how people interpret these characters, the Duke could be perceived as someone having a midlife crisis; a monarch trying to ferret out evil in his government; or a big, fat wimp who wants to appear the good guy and foist his responsibilities off on others. Angelo could be portrayed as a good man struggling with his inner demons, or a dirty “virgin violator.” I’d really like to see this play performed so I could have a visual of the action and see how actors would interpret these characters. Perhaps another trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon is in order one of these days.