Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Measure for Measure (Writers and their Work) by Kate Chedgzoy.

While most of Shakespeare’s plays confront issues related to sex to some degree, few forefront them with quite as much zeal as Measure for Measure with its contrasting representations of female sexuality in Mistress Overdone, Marianna and Isabella and masculinity in Lucio, Angelo and the Duke. Throughout the playwright as ever seeks to undermine our expectations demonstrating that the surface image each of them projects is often at odds with their attitude. A Kate Chedgzoy argues in this short survey it’s this subtlety just as much as the curious structure which has led to the play being branded as a ‘problem’.

Characters which elsewhere might be considered the dregs of society are most sympathetically drawn. Mistress Overdone’s “care for Lucio and Kate Keepdown’s bastard casts her as a socially responsible citizen to whom the Duke should be grateful rather than punitive” and it demonstrates quite how aloof Vincentio is that he’s not able to assimilate that information and act accordingly rather than just having her carried off to an ambiguous fate because of what rather than who she is. These kinds of observational nuggets sparkly in what’s obviously a very well researched if densely written text whose word length can't always contain its ideas..

For Chedgzoy too, though the action is said to set in Vienna, Shakespeare is actually commenting on and portraying the contemporary London he knows all too well, a place where sexuality steams through every wall from the prison to the brothel to the convent, where even “nunnery” takes on a double meaning expressing places containing cloisters or copulation. That’s a Hamlet usage of course, but almost every speech in Measure for Measure contains these kinds of euphemistic couplings. In this reading how are we to take the Duke when he says he’s giving Angelo “all the organs / Of our own power”?

The effect this had on a contemporary audience isn’t clear. The single record of a performance was at court, apparently in front of James I during Christmas celebrations. There would have been a multiplicity of opinions then just as there have been since, not least amongst psycho-analysts coming to terms with Isabella’s Catholic attitude perhaps in an attempt to decide whether she will accept the Dukes offers at the end. Chedgzoy suggests it’s up to the individual production to make that choice, though perhaps the ideal conclusion is to freeze the action, bring down the house lights and leave the decision up to us.

Measure for Measure (Writers and their Work) by Kate Chedgzoy is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £10.99. ISBN: 978-0-7463-0849-3. Review copy supplied.

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