This production of Measure for Measure, performed in Russian by the actors of the Pushkin Theatre in Moscow in collaboration with Declan Donnellan’s London-based Cheek by Jowl inaugurates the “Shakespeare 400 Chicago” festivities under the aegis of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It brings to an American audience an important new non-Anglophone perspective on one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays” and—in the perception of many scholars—one of his most overtly political works.
First performed on December 26, 1604, before the new King of England, James I and VI of Scotland, and his court, Measure for Measure has been interpreted in turns as a didactic piece intended to instruct the new ruler in the arts of benevolent statesmanship and as a subtle critique of absolutism and the proto-modern state in which surveillance—as reflected in the Duke of Vienna’s incognito interventions in the lives of his subjects—has become a central mechanism of state control (two years later James would perform a similar function by watching the treason trial of the Gunpowder Plotters hidden behind a screen).
In the final decades of the reign of James’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, the Queen’s First Minister Lord Burghley monitored recusant households throughout England (especially in Lancashire) by drawing up maps of Catholic trouble-spots, while the Queen’s Spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham orchestrated an international network of spies and espionage intended to protect Protestant England from foreign invasion and domestic subversion. Denunciation of religious non-conformists and the persecution of Jesuit missionary priests became a disturbing feature of the last two decades of Elizabeth’s reign as reflected obliquely in many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays from Titus Andronicus (1594) to Hamlet (1599), the first concerned with the cycle of revenge that results from ideological and religious fanaticism, the latter with the constraints placed on the subject’s desire for revenge by an authoritarian state in which deviant behavior is regularly monitored by the paranoid ruler (Claudius) and his obsequious minister (Polonius, whom some critics have seen as a parody of Lord Burghley).
It is not surprising, therefore, that Hamlet has always played a central role in the Russian reception and appropriation of Shakespeare’s dramatic works. Effectively banned during Stalin’s rule (Claudius bearing too close a resemblance to the Soviet dictator), the play has been regularly performed in Russia since Stalin’s death in 1953. Grigori Kozintsev’s breathtaking film version Gamlet (1964), released during the so-called “thaw” of Nikita Khrushchev’s rule to coincide with the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, is unashamedly political in its emphasis on Denmark as a precursor of the modern totalitarian state and Hamlet as a dignified, all-suffering dissident avant-la-lettre. Stripped of much of the original dialogue, this extraordinary film relies on silence (as well as Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical score composed especially for the film) to convey its submerged message of political dissent. Littered with statues and busts of Claudius, Elsinore reflects Stalin’s notorious “cult of personality” and a prison-like Soviet Union where active dissent was too dangerous and silence was the only feasible response to tyranny and the state’s Orwellian deformation of truth and language. Significantly, Hamlet’s dying soliloquy is radically cut as the Danish Prince (beautifully and sensitively acted by Innokenty Smokhtunovsky) strides from Elsinore and sits defiantly on the rocks by the sea, uttering the words “the rest is silence” (Dal’neishee molchanie).
It is not surprising therefore that this Russian stage production of Measure for Measure should similarly begin and end with silence. The opening sequence consists of the actors moving in block formation
across the proscenium and between four red rectangular boxes as they silently watch and are watched by the man who is soon to become Vienna’s de facto dictator—Angelo—creepily portrayed by Andrei Kuzichev as a bespectacled Soviet-style bureaucrat. This opening dumb-show scene foreshadows the production’s subtle emphasis on the master-slave dialectic between the ruler and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed.
This reading of the play as an insidious collusion between the monarch and his subjects has a particularly significant relevance to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the head of state is democratically elected yet in many ways retains the kind of autocratic powers enjoyed by his Soviet (and Tsarist) predecessors. The Duke’s decision to remove himself temporarily from Vienna and leave his deputy Lord Angelo in charge of the state recalls the Russian presidential election of May 2008 when the outgoing President Putin nominated his own prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, as his successor, only to return to the presidency in 2014. During Medvedev’s incumbency as president Putin himself became prime minister—the power behind the throne so to speak—much as the Duke remains in Vienna to keep any eye on his subjects but also, inevitably, to monitor Angelo’s rule. Interestingly, Medvedev pursued an anti-corruption campaign much as Angelo initiates a puritanical crackdown on vice in Vienna.
Reflecting the new “westernized” Russia as well as the old Stalinist practice of unmasking enemies of the state, the final scene where Angelo is “unmasked” is also made to resemble a political rally or a reality-TV entertainment show in which Angelo’s dirty laundry (his cynical abandonment of Mariana) is publicly exposed to the taped sounds of cries of shock and disapproval from the public. In the course of the last act the Duke disguised as a friar is himself “unmasked.” Here the ruler and the ruled are not diametrically oppositional but caught in a disturbing dialectic. Even the head-strong and obstinate Isabella (powerfully performed by Anna Khalilulina)—who refuses to succumb to Angelo’s sexual bribery as well as her brother’s desperate pleas to give in to Angelo’s demands in order to save his own life—ends up acquiescing with the Duke’s demands by the end of the play. When the Duke (played by Alexander Arsentyev) asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage, she never speaks again, an equivocal response that is reflected in the actress’s ambiguous movements. Moving away from the Duke after he has proposed to her and refusing to surrender her nun’s veil, she paradoxically removes the veil herself to reveal her long hair and her sexual availability; later she dances with the Duke in a melancholy and surreal finale. Thus the ambiguities inherent in the denouement are never fully resolved. Does Isabella resist the Duke’s blandishments or does she acquiesce in them?
In a society where political deviance and defiance are routinely punished—where feminist renegade artists like Pussy Riot can go to prison for expressing public criticism of the Russian State and the Orthodox Church (a motif reflected in the secular Duke’s appropriation of the spiritual authority of a friar); in a society where the West (and particularly the United States) are systematically portrayed in the TV media as threats to Russian sovereignty and its moral integrity (in a manner reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Protestant England faced with a hostile Catholic Europe); where gay men are systematically bullied on the streets of cities and acts of public affection between them are outlawed (much as religious non-conformists were punished in Shakespeare’s England)—we should not be surprised to find in this devastating production the exploration of a dialectical power relation between the ruler and ruled reflected less in overtly political articulations of dissent and more in equivocal gestures of silent defiance. After all, this is itself what Shakespeare himself appears to be doing in at once extolling the new King of England James I as an enlightened benevolent ruler while critiquing the political absolutism inherent in his office. The well-known Shakespearean practice of sending mixed messages to the audience is in a sense precisely what this Russian production of Measure for Measure replicates by simultaneously endorsing and critiquing the Putinesque political strategy of retaining control of the state in or out of office. The only character to transcend this collusion between the ruler and the ruled is the “Bohemian born” prisoner Barnardine—who refuses to be executed and who is reprieved from his death sentence by the magnanimous Duke. At the end of this production Barnardine (Igor Teplov) literally leaves the stage and disappears into the audience. Everyone else—both the actors on stage and the audience watching the play—are implicated in a “democratic” system where the potential for political dissent is increasingly restricted to the ambiguous realm of silence. At a playing time of less than two hours (with no intermission), this remarkable production of Measure for Measure is a powerful testament both to the Russian tradition of interpreting Shakespeare as a political playwright and to the ability of art to speak truth to power.
Alfred Thomas is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches courses on medieval and Renaissance literature. He has published eight books, including A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare (2007), Prague Palimpsest: Writing, Memory and the City (2010), Shakespeare, Dissent, and the Cold War (2014), and Reading Women in Late Medieval Europe: Anne of Bohemia and Chaucer’s Female Audience (2015). His new book project is tentatively titled Maimed Rights: Shakespeare, Religion, and the Middle Ages.