My esteemed colleagues David Bevington and Alfred Thomas praise Declan Donnellan’s Russian-language Measure for Measure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater almost as if it were two different plays, one “brilliantly faithful” to Shakespeare and the other speaking truth to power with “an important new non-Anglophone perspective.” How can they both be right (which I think they are)?
The simple fact is that Measure almost always feels like several plays woven together. Donnellan captures this halfway through, when the stage suddenly explodes. Claudio, naked to the waist, stands astride a stringed bass while the cast, hands linked, swirls around him to mad music. The Duke shouts out to the chaste Isabella and lascivious Marianna how they will trick his lieutenant Angelo out of rape and into marriage.
It is a stunning coup de theatre, utterly changing the pace and dynamic of the drama. Up until then, Vienna has been a quagmire of vice and hypocrisy, overrun with prostitutes, pimps, and fornicators. The Duke is indecisive, uncomfortable with power, and afraid of his own people. When he goes underground, leaving the “prenzie” Angelo to lead a crackdown in his absence, things get progressively worse. The Duke, disguised as a monk, seems overwhelmed by the social chaos from below and corruption of power from above. Then he hears the corrosive exchange between Claudio and his sister Isabella, in which Claudio begs his sister Isabella for his life after she refuses to submit to rape in order to save him. In a second, the Duke changes, the play changes, and everything in Vienna changes.
The manic dance around Claudio solves the three problems that haunt productions of Measure. What is it about—the general corruption of man, the abuse of power, the fear of death, or all of these? How are we to take this Duke, who seems derelict at the beginning and overly manipulative at the end? And what are we to make of an ending that forces the protagonists into marriages in order to put a “comic” cap on a savage satire? Modern productions have looked for a way to make sense of it. Should Marianna refuse to save Angelo, or Isabella refuse to marry the Duke at the end? Should she just kill herself? Or kill him?
What is the play about? All of the above. It careens through throat-choking moral issues without time for breath. Prostitution is no victimless crime here. Rape, murder, bribery are all in the air or before our eyes. As the Duke searches for a way to postpone Claudio’s execution—it’s really judicial murder—suddenly the Provost, who commands the prison, moves to the foreground. Until that moment, he has been just another Shakespearean extra known only by his title. But confronted with a clearly immoral directive, he must decide. Will he just follow orders? Step by step he rises to moral action, first protesting merely with words, then acquiescing to the Duke’s proposed subterfuge, and then finally devising the way to put a stop to Angelo’s crime.
The Duke himself puts off the monk’s habit in which he has disguised himself, and reemerges as a preening alpha-dog politician. With tightly controlled, Putinesque gestures (this is in Russian, after all), he manipulates his subjects in what feels more and more like a show trial, making each figure realize that his displeasure signals death. None can be sure who will be the victim, until the jaws of his malice close around Angelo.
So justice is dispensed, if justice it be, at the hands of an all-wise authoritarianism. As the couples pair off and begin their marriage dance, Donnellan stages his final coup de theatre. When Isabella tries to embrace her brother, Claudio turns from her in disgust, and takes in his arms his partner and their newborn child. Life and human warmth spurn cold moral rectitude. Gazing on their happiness, Isabella relents, takes the hand of the Duke, and submits to the dance.
How does one speak truth to power in the veiled police states of Elizabethan England or Putin’s Russia? Shakespeare rarely spoke truth directly into the face of power. He danced and mimed his way around it. This Russian Measure, without an actual Shakespearean word, does its own dance around power, toying with our desire for moral absolutes, and showing how power slyly speaks back to us with enchanting falsehoods.
Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.