As it was written in 1604, it might be nice to think that many of Measure for Measure's less palatable themes had lost their relevance. Of course, we know better. Even, and perhaps especially, in their darkest places, Shakespeare's works speak to timeless facets of the human experience, and Measure for Measure is no exception. Check out director Katy Walsh's thoughts on the play's enduring topics below, and be sure to join us at the Ranch to experience the piece for yourself.
Measure for Measure is, somewhat legendarily, one of the “weird” Shakespeare plays. It’s a comedy, but one where some pretty unfunny things happen. Personally, I love these weird Shakespeare plays. I love their messy dramaturgy, their discursive plots, their chaos. They are organic, unruly, and over the top. They don’t always make sense. They remind me of people. They remind me of our world.
This play shows us a world that’s broken. The societal contract is essentially fractured. Authority is a blend of benevolent neglect and the haphazard application of autocratic power, and all the individual people who have to live in this world are simply trying to survive. The people of Vienna do various versions of pretending there are still rules, making their own rules out of fear or loathing for everyone else, or outright setting fire to any rules that are left. Nobody really knows what the law means, or is. Nobody really knows what will get you in trouble, or won’t. There are nuns in this play, but no God. There are judges in this play, but no Justice. There is philosophy in this play, but no Morality. There are arguments in this play, but no Logic. Who’s in Charge? What do you put your faith in?
Most of this play shows us a world full of chaos and inequity, broken and self-deluded, where the lack of structure is papered over with glitter and the pretense of order, and where the struggle for self-preservation often looks a lot like selfishness. But in the middle of the play, there’s a friend fighting for the life of his friend, there’s a woman willing to walk into fire to save her brother, there’s a lawman willing to risk breaking the rules to save a life. In the middle of this chaos, there are still people trying to save one another. Still people clinging to the idea that a person that they know matters, and is worth fighting for. Measure for Measure doesn’t give us any solutions to this fractured and degraded society, but it shows that compassion and love for one person from another can change the course of the future, just a little, just maybe for that one person. All the arguments in this play tend to boil down to: what’s one person’s life when balanced against the needs of society? The unruliness of Measure for Measure may be a simple reflection of the fact that as soon as that question moves from philosophical to actual — as soon as you start talking about one real, breathing, living person: it all gets messy. Sounds like real life. Welcome to Vienna.
- Katy Walsh, director