News from the Dramaturg
Friday, April 27, 2012
Recently I sat down with Jenny Mann, a professor at Cornell University, to discuss the historical elements of Measure for Measure. Jenny Mann’s focus is with sixteenth and seventeenth century English Literature. She obtained her bachelors from Yale University followed by her Masters and PHD from Northwestern University. She has a special teaching interest in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama. In asking her about the play, she stated, “[Measure for Measure] is just one of the plays that keep you on the edge of your seat and you can hardly believe what you are seeing.”
-Char Manlove-Laws, Dramaturg
D: Measure for Measure was written by Shakespeare later in his life. In reading his past works, what about his writing style has changed over time?
JM: I don’t know that I see changes in the poetry. What people often say about Measure for Measure is that it comes at the end of a series of festive comedies that he wrote, including Much Ado about Nothing and it’s just before he started producing, almost exclusively, tragedies, like MacBeth. Measure for Measure seems to be a transitional play, in terms of its genre and plot structure; it does seem to suggest the playwright [was] turning his mind to thornier issues.
D: Speaking of the playwright turning his mind to darker issues Measure for Measure is in a genre of its own and it has been categorized as a problem play? How did this term come into use?
JM: A scholar named Boas in 1896 wrote a study called Shakespeare & his Predecessor. In this study he labeled three plays as problem plays [because they] were so singular in theme and temper that they couldn’t be labeled “strictly a comedy” or “strictly a tragedy”. This label had first been applied to the plays of Ibsen, taking a category that was developed to refer to 19th century drama and applying it to a much earlier drama.
The thing to understand about problem plays is it’s not a category that would have been meaningful to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Measure for Measure is unsettling and referring to it as a comedy doesn’t seem to allow us to wrap our minds around what is happening in the play.
D: It was thought by the production team that Shakespeare wrote this play as a way of guiding the new King, James I. Through your research of Shakespeare’s life, is there evidence to support this theory?
JM: Not really. This passage Measure for Measure comes from the Sermon on the Mount, In the reformation period, this “judge not, lest he be judge” passage got a lot of attention in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It essentially says, “Don’t take responsibility for meeting out justice.” If you are executing justice on earth…you are transgressing the authority of God.
D: What do you think a modern audience should walk away having learned from Measure for Measure?
JM: The difficulty of reading any of Shakespeare plays for a message is so often they present multiple points of view. It’s hard to know which one, if any, is being advocated for. It was an old story already when Shakespeare did it, but there is something kind of gripping about this plot.