Why Measure for Measure?
By Robert Falls
A once-great city is mired in economic and moral decay, its “strict statutes and biting laws” largely ignored by a populace who would rather explore the raunchier side of urban life. The city’s leader, admitting his own culpability in the overly permissive atmosphere, goes on a personal mission, leaving the job of law enforcement to his pious, ascetic aide—whose response to the crisis is to levy draconian punishments upon a seemingly innocent man, then attempt to exact an unholy settlement from his sister, a young nun who desperately pleads his case.
This is the unsettled, chaotic world of Measure for Measure, long one of Shakespeare’s most controversial “problem” plays, a virtuosic blend of low comedy, incipient tragedy and moral ambiguity. First presented in 1604, the play’s classically comic structure (ending, as all good romantic comedies of the era did, with a series of weddings) belied the very serious questions it posed: In a world beset by crisis, what kinds of authority should be given to our political leaders, and what exactly is a “just” punishment? What is the balance between justice and mercy? Between sensuality and rationality? Between duty to God and duty to family? Between religion and government?
This hybrid of dramatic styles was deemed unseemly by generations of critics after Measure for Measure’s premiere; but modern audiences have found the play disturbingly prescient in its questioning of society’s values and the conflicts among them. It is a play that I have read and re-read many times, fascinated and challenged by its juxtaposition of ribald satire, intense tragedy and freewheeling morality—and as our world becomes increasingly polarized both socially and politically, I feel that its themes are more timely than ever. Although set in Vienna, Shakespeare obviously intended the play to reflect conditions in the London of his time, a fact immediately recognizable to his audience. I have chosen to set my production in a time and place that is similarly familiar to many of us: New York City in the 1970s, an era in which economic challenges, urban flight and the sexual revolution transformed what had been arguably the greatest city in the world to one of the most troubled. The images of that time—of 42nd Street grind houses and peep shows, of graffiti-laden walls and garbage-filled streets—provide a visceral backdrop to a tale of corrupting power, moral excess and religious zeal. And a multicultural cast of 25 will bring to life an assortment of Shakespeare’s most vivid dramatic creations.
Frank yet poetic, subtle yet passionate, Measure for Measure remains one of Shakespeare’s most provocative and fascinating works. Its characters neither impossibly good nor unilaterally evil, its most pressing thematic questions tantalizingly unanswered, the play instead presents us with a world not unlike our own: flawed, excessive but always compelling—and inhabited by people who are achingly, vibrantly and recognizably human.