Shakespeare and the measure of virtue

Angelo (René Millán) will have his way with Isabela (Stephanie Beatriz). Photo: David Cooper/Oreon Shakespeare FestivalDavid Cooper/OSF

By Bob Hicks

The central problem for modern audiences in Shakespeare’s “problem play” Measure for Measure is this: Why doesn’t Isabella just give up her virginity to save her brother’s life? Offensive and transgressive as it would be — what the power-abusing Angelo essentially proposes is mercy at the price of rape — how, in a world of situational ethics, is that a greater harm than allowing her brother to be executed when she could have saved his life? And why, subsidiarily, is Isabella then looked on as such a paragon of virtue that Vincentio, the wise and just Duke of Vienna, proposes at the end of the play to marry her himself? Is she not, by valuing mere chastity over a supposedly beloved brother’s life, the play’s true monster?

Problem, indeed.

I find the suggestion of an answer in The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama’s lauded 1987 investigation of Dutch character and culture during that country’s Golden Age, which overlapped and carried beyond Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan/Jacobean times. Schama calls his opening chapter The Mystery of the Drowning Cell, and recounts the story of a system of punishment that may have been used often, or only rarely, or not at all: perhaps it was just a rumor to keep the citizens in line. Prisoners who were too lazy to work, according to several historical reports, were placed in a dank room in Amsterdam that was slowly flooded with water. Their choice was stark: get busy pumping the water out, or drown. Schama casts the story as a crucial metaphor for the Dutch dilemma of the landscape, a physical space that demands constant vigilance if its inhabitants are to keep from being inundated by the waters of the sea: “To be wet was to be captive, idle and poor. To be dry was to be free, industrious and comfortable. This was the lesson of the drowning cell.”

In other words: sometimes extremes mean more than they mean.

Isabella’s almost fatally sanctimonious virtue is one of those extremes. Isabella is, indeed, a flesh-and-blood character in the play, as much as any character in any story can be flesh and blood, but she is also more than that: a symbol of an overriding cultural value. Like Lady Liberty or the Madonna (remember, when the play begins Isabella is about to become a bride of Christ) she represents something that her culture holds dear, and in her case it is the ideal of virtue — of purity — as the gathering force that allows the body politic to operate in a rational, just, and (despite her inability to compromise; after all, she’s the symbol of purity, which implies a cold fierceness of intent) even merciful manner. She is, weirdly, Joan of Arc. So when the Duke proposes to her, he is actually proposing that statehood, which he represents, align itself with morality, which she represents. In Shakespeare’s often bawdy yet inescapably Christian cosmology, it is truly a marriage made in Heaven.

All of this is a very long way around to saying that I quite enjoyed director Bill Rauch’s updated production of Measure for Measure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Not everyone has. It’s been a controversial show, with a lot of naysayers. (One critic who did like it is Marty Hughley, who wrote this review for The Oregonian.)

Rauch sets the action in 1970s America in a city that’s called Vienna but might be Los Angeles or maybe Houston or Phoenix — it has a large Latino culture, and an urban black culture, too. And it has the sort of sharp class divides that Shakespeare wrote about: the action opens in a corporate boardroom where three woman janitors, all Latina, are cleaning up and singing Cielito Lindo. Setting up the cultural overlay takes a lot of time and effort in the long stretch before intermission, and despite the music — a true plus — things stay pretty dark. The gamble is that audiences will have the patience to pay attention and stick with it until the payoff comes, audaciously, after intermission, when Rauch and company play up the usually ignored fact that Shakespeare considered this play a comedy.

OK, not Frasier or Family Guy, although there might be aspects of Two and a Half Men. Still, by Elizabethan standards, a comedy it is (as is, despite our radically shifted modern reaction, The Merchant of Venice). That is, tricks are played (in Measure, the big ones are the big bed swap, in which a randy fellow thinks he’s snogging with one woman but in fact is cavorting with an entirely different one; and the Duke’s disappearance, during which he pretends to be a friar and gets involved in orchestrating a giant ruse). Most importantly to the Elizabethan view of comedy, all’s well because it ends well. The “punishment” that errant young men face is that instead of being imprisoned or put to death, they are ordered to marry. Balance is achieved, testosterone is channeled, enlightenment ensues, and happiness surely will follow.

Under the circumstances of Angelo’s crimes, you might say, ha-ha. Amazingly, that’s pretty much what Anthony Heald does as the Duke, and he does it with such verve and sheer enjoyment that he makes the whole thing work. Part of the fun is seeing him, disguised as a friar, begin to think like a holy man (maybe clothes do make the man). Part of it is seeing him, as a seasoned and highly skilled politician, play the crowd like Huey Long. Part of it is playing the game with him several steps ahead of the other characters and watching as they slowly catch up. An odd byproduct of Heald’s performance is that it restores faith, just a little bit, in the possibility of the good pol — the happy warrior who enjoys the game and also does good through it. Or maybe that’s taking things a tad too far.

This production is filled with smart performances, which is partly a product of the actors themselves and partly a product of the director’s take on the script. Stephanie Beatriz’ Isabella is halting, hard, fiercely focused — hardly sexpot stuff but precisely the sort of approach to life that might inflame the rigorously controlled passions of the ultra-puritan Angelo. In that role, Rene Millan suggests not so much a sexual hypocrite as a man who falls prey to his own unmerciful morality. The Duke’s sentence of marriage is a corrective that might bring emotional understanding to a man who seems to have none, and Millan somehow allows us to believe that this might actually be the best course for Angelo: strangely, we begin to feel sorry for him, and that’s a feeling I can’t recall ever before feeling about this destructive little man. Tony DeBruno, as the Provost, brings a measure of the mercy that good governance requires (he does the same in the festival’s fine production of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County), and, just to balance things, Cristofer Jean endures a forced  unveiling to bring tears as the cross-dressing Mistress Overdone.

The Latino world that Rauch and his designers conjure is, of course, a largely Catholic one, and that fits neatly with the world of the play, in which Isabella is a religious novice and the Duke disguises himself as a friar. Still, the Catholicism of Shakespeare’s imagined Italy and the Catholicism of the contemporary American Southwest are not the same. We visit classical theater to see how people of an earlier age were like us, and this Measure for Measure offers that. But we also study history to see how earlier people and societies were not like us, and this Measure offers that, too. Measure for Measure is a difficult play to come to terms with. It’s messy and contradictory and sometimes cussedly ugly and, as the Dutch with their drowning room, a thing of unspeakable extremes. Still, saints preserve me, I find I like its  dissonances.


PICTURED: Angelo (René Millán) will have his way with Isabela (Stephanie Beatriz). Photo: David Cooper/Oreon Shakespeare Festival