Measure for Measure Production History:
- The first recorded production of Measure for Measure was on December 26, 1604.
- The play was frequently edited or revised to serve the current social mores; in the later part of the 17th century, it was often given happier endings and a generally lighter tone.
- In the Victorian era, the play became very controversial, and was frequently edited when it was produced at all.
- It has enjoyed far more popularity over the past century, including an Old Vic production in 1933 starring Charles Laughton as Angelo; a production directed by Peter Brook in 1950 with John Gielgud as Angelo; and a 1976 production at the New York Shakespeare Festival featuring Meryl Streep as Isabella and John Cazale as Angelo.
- It has been produced on Broadway only once, in 1973, when it starred David Ogden Stiers as Vincentio and a young Kevin Kline as Friar Peter; twenty years later, Kline would return to the play in the role of Vincentio for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1993.
Thoughts on the Play from the Director:
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays. It has prompted heated debate over the centuries; suffered ignominious labels such as "problem play"; it's been dismissed and derided by feminists in recent decades; dissected and scoffed at by many scholars; and been perverted and messed with by many a director.
I think a play is only a problem if it's a bad play, and Measure for Measure is certainly not that; I think it is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. To be sure, it presents numerous challenges – many great plays do so. Certainly, it presents many questions without answers – many great plays do so as well. But it also offers something in heavy measure (pun intended) that most of Shakespeare's other plays do not, and that is a weighty dose of realism. I think it's the most modern of his plays in many ways. It's concerns and issues are ever-current, it's characters are anti-epic (even the Duke); it is populated by a scope of characters that are complex, and represent a wide range of "workers" – regular people, all of whom have occupations similar to those that make up our familiar world now. It is a microcosmic vision of a society that is dealing with all the exact issues that humankind has always dealt with, and that we are grappling with still, and it presents them without apology, without answers, without neat bows at the conclusion, and with all the glorious ambiguity and indecision of real life. The play catapults from dramatic circumstance to naturalistic slice-of-life, from bawdy comedy to moments of life-and-death tragedy, as does the life of each and every one of us. It deals with every major aspect of human interface – societal, political, legal, religious, domestic, occupational, familial, sexual, and personal – in all of that word's implications. While some of the plot devices seem a tad far-fetched, they are no more far-fetched than the circumstances that I see every day around me in our current real life. There is almost no character or occurrence in the play for which I cannot find a contemporary analogy. Day after day in rehearsal, we talked about how "that event in the play" is like "this event in the news today."
The scholar Alfred Harbage said, "Shakespeare is not an artistic moralist but a moral artist." I could not agree more. In Measure for Measure, he gives all of humanity a tale they can recognize, one of a dysfunctional society, massively out-of-balance. He presents a universe of dilemmas that emanate from that imbalance, but he purposely makes no judgments and provides no over-reaching answers – he leaves that to us. What he does give us is a healthy debate and a provocative tale about people like us – some of whom find their way during the course of the play, and some of whom realize they were lost to begin with and their true way is just beginning. The events of life place new perspectives before them and illuminate new paths or open doorways. Those paths are not necessarily good paths, nor are they decidedly bad. They are just there, and what happens next is anyone's guess. The play ends with great ambiguity, for while the story clearly goes on, it is not for our ears or eyes. We can only come to our own surmises about what might follow next – just as in real life. In the case of the central character of the Duke, we do see the arc of one complete journey – we see a man who at the very least understands that radical extremes are neither a necessity nor desirable; that justice must be exacted but that it can co-exist with mercy and compassion. But even in the case of the Duke, his fate hangs in the balance, and his tale is far from complete. For those who want their comedies tied up in neat bows at the end, Measure for Measure may not please. For those who are willing to embrace the delicious mystery and ambiguities of life and all the possibilities that the future holds, the plays serves up a hefty dish of food for thought.
Lastly, for those who want to debate the label "comedy" that is attached to the play, that is a whole other conversation. Let me just suggest that it helps to think of the word in the Chekhovian or philosophical sense. Life is a comedy as the saying goes, replete with all our trivial woes, dramatic nonsense, tragic flaws, sad tales and unanswered questions; but where there is humor, reason, common sense, friendship, courage, loyalty, open-mindedness, compassion, love and hope, there is always laughter.