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July 13, 2004

Measure For Measure

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Measure For Measure
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 18th June - 24th September 2004

Great works go into fashion and out again, just like vices and virtues. Cosi Fan Tutte is now one of the most often performed of Mozart operas, but hardly had a single performance in the nineteenth century. Measure for Measure has often inspired the same kind of repugnance. Like Cosi, its brilliant moral geometry is purchased at the expense of realism. How could Isabella forgive the vile Angelo, even in an almost hysterical access of forgiveness? It degrades the character of women, wrote Coleridge. Written in 1604, Shakespeare's story of authority being misused for seduction was a typically Jacobean turning to corruption as melodrama.

Oddly enough, this apparently unpleasant play is being presented at the Globe as part of its 'Star Crossed Lovers' series for 2004, in celebration of the Samaritans. 'Shakespeare is about the human condition and so is the Samaritans', we learn in the programme. This of course is nonsense. Shakespeare coves the full range of human experience, while the Samaritans respond to that more limited area in which people are depressed and suicidal. This is excellent work, but why should the Globe, whose business is with art try to involve us in this particular kind of pain? Shakespeare was not a social worker, and the business of the Globe is with the music, dance and drama that it does so well, not with being hijacked by the current fashion for good causes.

The reason it happened is not far to seek. Moral fashion has us in its grip. Current ideas of respectability insist that we must all exhibit abstract compassion for the less fortunate. Yet the odd thing is that for all the amount of good works being promoted in the world, the demand for more never seems to diminish, leading us to ask not merely the subversive question of whether it is doing any good, but the even deeper question of whether abstract social compassion might not actually be making things a good deal worse? Internationally many beneficiaries of aid and compassion (in Africa for example) go from bad to worse, and here in Britain, for all the work of the Samaritans and others, the rates of suicide, stress and depression are reported to be on a steady upward curve. Quite possibly we are all so pleased with our own virtuous compassion that we pay no attention to the effect we are having. As the economists say, if the supply of some reputed good increases, the demand will go up, especially if it is costless to its beneficiaries. And it is quite nice to be endlessly subsidised and sympathetically attended to.

Measure for Measure is certainly aware that without hard choices bad things will happen. Mark Rylands's Duke has for fourteen years failed to enforce laws against vice, and the result is a multiplication of brothels - or 'suburbs', as they were then known. The Duke hands over the responsibility of 'hard cop' to Angelo, and one early victim of this policy is Claudio, who has got Juliette pregnant, though they are in love and want to marry. The new regime abruptly reverses the permissiveness of the past, and Claudio is to be beheaded 'for the rebellion of a codpiece' as Lucio remarks. Lucio asks why he is in custody. Claudio understands why very well:

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.
As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die.

Measure for Measure is a marvellous reflection on morals and politics. Some aspects of the Globe's direction are tiresome the Duke is a good deal more neurotic than usual but there is a vigorous Isabella whose delivery triumphed even over a tiresome helicopter buzzing nearby. The thing that happened to delight me most was the picture of the Viennese as a population no less news-crazed then we are. 'What's new?' the characters keep on demanding and Claudio's destiny is to feature in the local equivalent of the tabloids.

What king so strong [demands the Duke]
Can tie the gall up in a slanderous tongue?

You certainly don't need to try making Shakespeare relevant to our own time.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.


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