Culinary Complete Works – In Shakespeare’s Kitchen

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As a theatrical chef, Shakespeare can serve you up some pretty wild dishes. His menu might begin and end with Richard III, starting with a vegetarian first course with ingredients of Richard’s “green and salad days,” and ending with “good strawberries” from the Bishop of Ely’s garden. The featured dish in the middle of course will come from Titus Andronicus, where Titus prepares a pasty made from Queen Tamora’s two evil sons. Tending bar will be the two Sirs, John Falstaff and Toby Belch.

Such menus lend themselves to the dramatic. When Queen Tamora asks what has become of her sons, Titus—routinely costumed these days in a tall chef’s hat—reveals the dish and declares: “Why, there they are, both baked in this pie!”

The anthropologists long ago taught us that food is central to culture. In addition to just keeping us alive, it expresses our environment, forms and reaffirms our social groups, and shapes the rhythm of our day. When I described the subject of this post to an anthropologist friend (as we were leaving a first-rate restaurant where the winter menu included corn chowder with green chile and marrow and pork chops with smoked pork belly, polenta and mushrooms, etc.), she simply said, “a meal is poetry and performance.”

It seems natural, then, that the yearlong cultural holiday of Shakespeare 400 Chicago should include at least thirty-eight meals, one for each of his plays. The idea began in a conversation about a Shakespearean meal between Chicago Shakespeare Creative Producer Rick Boynton and Alpana Singh, the celebrated sommelier and restaurateur. Alpana immediately thought, “this can’t just be about turkey drumsticks at the Renaissance fair. It’s not about what Shakespeare ate, or his characters might have eaten. Everyone who has gone through an English-language education has read Shakespeare. I still remember reading him in third-period English. Shakespeare is something we share now, today. Let’s gather great chefs, and let each one interpret Shakespeare in his or her own way.”

And so the chefs were recruited, each distinguished by the quality of their cooking and their unique approaches, but reaching across a range of neighborhoods and price points to reflect the culinary diversity of the city. Art Jackson at the Pleasant House Bakery immediately snareddemera Titus Andronicus and prepared a Roman-style braised pork pie with blood pudding, fennel, olives and spices. Tigist Reda of Demera prepared a royal Ethiopian feast for Henry VIII, including spiced beef tartare and chicken Doro Wat stewed with Berbere sauce. John Manion, an English major in college, reportedly exclaimed, “Only if I get Othello!” Dan Pancake, another English major, was heard to proclaim, “Shakespeare’s my dude!”

But what does it mean when a chef interprets Shakespeare? What stirs in the mind that stirs the sauce? Alpana Singh remarked that all chefs have access to the same ingredients and the same sauces, just as writers have access to the same words. All the magic, the singular mixture, the sublime taste, come after that shared beginning. The chef is as fully an interpreter as the director, or actor, or literary critic, and the restaurant is as fully a collaborative, creative space as the theater.

Some approaches were thematic. Tony Mantuano of Café Spiaggia went full Veronese to celebrate Romeo and Juliet. J. Joho at Everest went to ancient Rome to create dishes in honor of Julius Caesar. Michael Kornick of mk the Restaurant collaborated with an interdisciplinary artist to create an evening-long event around The Merchant of Venice, where guests would “borrow” gold and silver ducats to buy Venetian culinary creations, Italian wines and Amaro cocktails while listening to Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Gabrieli.

Others focused on the combination of ingredients and the preparation to find their line of interpretation. Ryan McCaskey sought out contrasting flavors to express the clashing moods of The Winter’s Tale at his Acadia restaurant, only to bring them together in harmony at the end. Tanya Baker at The Boarding House carefully basted a young chicken until it was tender, in honor of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and served it with creamy polenta, pickled asparagus and a sour cherry sauce. Reflecting on the British wilderness setting of Cymbeline, Iliana Regan served a continuously varying selection of foraged vegetable crudités to diners at her restaurant Elizabeth.

Naha.jpgCarrie Nahabedian at Naha chose Measure for Measure at the encouragement of her brother-in-law, who teaches Shakespeare. The title seemed wondrously culinary. The menu she designed expressed the play’s contrasts of passion and rationality, and of temptation and purity: Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Tarte Tatin of Rhubarb, Young Chicken with Root Vegetables, Floating Island with Summer Fruits. Response among diners at first was slow, so the staff developed a theatrical printed menu and Carrie promoted it on social media, and it took off. What had been planned as a feature for two weeks ran for four months. “The Tarte Tatin was huge,” she said, “and I was making it every night.” Nahabedian made changes of ingredients and preparations as diners responded, staff made suggestions, and purveyors brought new foodstuffs with the shifting season. “Once apricots were gone,” she concluded, “we had to stop.”

The Culinary Complete Works ran from late February to mid-December, 2016, often in multiple locations at any one time, predominantly in the central city, but also in neighborhoods from Berwyn to Uptown to Beverly. Overhead, Chicago nights were filled with Michelin stars. And then, yes, it had to stop. Each meal was, as my friend put it, poetry and performance. But feasts like these are difficult to memorialize, even more difficult than either verse or theater. You can print a poem, or tape a performance. You can even print a menu, videotape a preparation, or put a photo of a dish on your Facebook page. But the singularity of food-as-culture is that we have as yet no way to reproduce the sensation of that first taste as it touches the tongue.


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.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Civil Strife

New Rule: Those who do not repeat history are doomed to not learning from it. By repeat, I mean on the stage. Don’t try it in real life.

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Every performance of history is a kind of rehearsal for life. We glimpse in the passions of the past the tune we may dance to in the future. Hip-hop founding fathers spellbind us in the Chicago Loop, while indie-rock Plantagenets cavort at Navy Pier.

The effect of Tug of War: Civil Strife is arguably very different from the effect of an individual Shakespeare history play all by itself. Richard III is about, well, Richard III. Henry VI Part 2 is about Richard, Duke of York and Queen Margaret. But when you add in Henry VI Part 3 and weave them together over six hours, the individuals recede, and larger patterns emerge. York, Margaret, and Richard remain enthralling and appalling as stage figures, to be sure, but their singular domination over history itself is less, because each rises and falls so fast.

History is of course not what happened, but a story about what happened. Too much happened to too many people to recount every detail. So history is an art of subtraction, selecting out what can produce a coherent story that still suggests the “too much.” Theater in turn makes its own selection. It picks out a few individual people and forces to confront and entwine with one another. Theater re-sequences their world and seeks for emotion as the fulcrum of meaning.

Civil Strife is story upon story upon story upon story: Barbara Gaines reworking Shakespeare reworking the chronicles reworking something that maybe happened. What comes to the fore are emotional choices gone bad: hate over love, faction over common good, mine over ours, domination over decency, service and duty over just staying at home.

Sometimes the pathway from English history to our history is short, as when Kevin Gudahl as the demagogic rogue Jack Cade mimics Donald John Trump adorned with what might be taken for a Brexit button. As Gina Buccola says in a previous post, “The media circus, the rock music soundtrack, the forced patriotism and the faux religious devotion—it all seems uncomfortably familiar.”

At other times the connection of past to present is more oblique, or admits of a possible contrast. Is political murder quite so easy anymore? Are there no laws? But the step is never large from medieval to modern, from endless war to endless war, from endless ambition to endless ambition, from chaos to chaos.

Shakespeare on stage gives abstraction a local habitation and a name, whether the character is the Duke of York or of Gloucester or simply First Soldier. Even minimalist settings, as in Tug of War, have an inherent naturalism, for the bodies of the actors are a mere few feet away from us, or right next us in the aisle. Yet Salman Rushdie has argued that naturalism in the right hands becomes so overwhelming that it breaks through to a dreamlike mystical surreality or even magical realism.

Something like that happens halfway through Tug of WarCivil Strife as Queen Margaret issues her half-mad curses and prophecies. As her fantasies begin to come true, the remaining warriors are seized with dread and are haunted by ghosts. Margaret’s words become apparitions, rash deeds, and neurotic mental states.

Magical reality in theater takes us closer to history, not away from it, moving us toward the other history below and beyond politics or economics or warfare. This is the interior history of human suffering. As York says when his enemies have foolishly provided him with soldiers: “You put sharp weapons in a madman’s hands.” In opposition to those weapons stand our knowledge of the past, and the power of theater to reproduce it. We pray they are the tools of sanity.


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.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Foreign Fire

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If there is one word everyone uses to describe Tug of War, it is “epical.” Six hours, over sixty characters (plus “Soldiers,” “Band,” and “Chorus”), covering a century of events—and that’s just Part 1: Foreign Fire.

Few directors can manage anything this massive. Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Rose Rage more than a decade ago was memora­ble,  monumental and still only half as long as Tug of War will be by the time it wraps up this autumn with Part 2: Civil Strife. In the wrong hands, the result would be chaos. But the right directorial decisions instead can make it deeply tragic, leavened with pathos and comedy, so that the lessons of history come home. And that, in the end is what makes it epic.

Barbara Gaines has made critical and daring decisions in assembling Tug of War out of Shakespeare’s history plays. The top-level decision was to separate out the wars between England and France from those among the English themselves, giving us the two-part structure. The second was to open with the play Edward III, now generally recognized as a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, treating it as a prequel to the very familiar Henry V and the less-known Henry VI Part 1.

As we would expect from Gaines and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the production is deeply respectful of the Shakespearean texts. There is no presumptuous re-writing and no awkward attempts to interweave the three plays. Allowing for merciful cuts, they are strung together like beads on a rosary of national prayer.

This in turn creates challenges. The three plays are written at different times and stylistically very different. Edward III features the highly rhetorical blank verse that Kyd learned from Christopher Marlowe, interspersed with fits of early-Shakespearean rhyming. It is followed by the mature language of Henry V, one moment royal oratory, the next moment the plain speech of common soldiers or the comically rendered accents of various ethnic groups. Then with Henry VI Part 1, it’s back to an early rhetorical style, with occasional glimpses of Shakespearean magic.

The second challenge is the sheer number of characters. Sixty named characters in five hours running time means introducing a new character every five minutes, if they were strung out evenly. Which they are not.

If the shifty language and multiple characters create two challenges, then scene construction creates a third. Sometimes the action rattles along in nearly indistinguishable short scenes of French and English shouting at each other, followed by incoherent battles. Alternately, there are long, almost slow-motion scenes, as when King Edward III tries to seduce—and then to rape—the Countess of Salisbury, or the famous scene of “Harry in the night” before the Battle of Agincourt. The Shakespeare-Kyd script is like a series of short stories interspersed with the odd novella.

There are a lot of ways to mess this up, but one big way to make it work: Trust the material. I’ve seen too many contemporary productions that turn to farce, or rewriting, or forced messages, to cover up their lack of faith in the plays. Too bad, especially when Shakespeare shows them the solutions.

First, let the language be. Skilled actors adjust their delivery to the varied contours and pacing of the language, and the audience adjusts too, and quickly. It’s when actors are fighting the language that audiences get restless.

Second, double up the characters and give the trusted actors a long leash. The doubling of parts was an economic necessity of the Elizabethan theater, and Shakespeare has constructed his plays to allow for the doubling. When it’s done right, it becomes part of the fun. Where will Kevin Gudahl or Larry Yando or Karen Aldridge show up next? Which lead actor is under the hat of the Blue Cap Soldier? And Gaines has indeed given Gudahl and Yando and Aldridge and others their long leashes to be histrionic or solemn or clownish or whatever it takes to move things along.

Finally, let the short scenes be short and the long scenes be long. Abrupt transitions among the short scenes are covered with music or foolery or stylized stage movement. As for the long scenes—they are at the heart of Shakespeare’s earliest theatrical innovations. They have a specific contour to them, which he uses with increasing mastery throughout his career. Two characters confront each other. One is in a very fixed position emotionally, but gradually, as the confrontation unfolds, the fixed character begins to give away, and ends up in the diametrically opposite emotional position from where he or she began. Think of the “willow cabin” scene in Twelfth Night, when Viola/Cesario comes to woo Olivia, who begins in absolute refusal and ends head-over heels infatuated. Or Much Ado, where Benedick goes from resolved bachelor to “horribly in love.” In the tragedies, the “closet scene” is a perfect example, where Gertrude begins accusing Hamlet of having “much offended your father” (meaning Claudius) and ends with her heart cleft in twain. Or King Lear beginning as a regal bully confronting Regan and Cornwall, and ending shut out of doors, mad, and weeping.

The Henry V scene of “Harry in the night,” walking among his soldiers, meditating on his own responsibility for the deaths that will follow, and begging the God of Battles to “think not upon my father’s fault” shows the art of the long scene in its mature form. The scene in which Edward III attempts to seduce and then rape the Countess of Salisbury—the very scene that leads to the attribution of the play to Shakespeare—has to be one of his earliest experiments with the technique. It is, as has often been observed, a first draft for his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. But here Lucrece lives, persuading and shaming the king into conquering his lust.

As the scene (okay—technically two consecutive scenes that play as one) unfolds from its beginning to its long middle, I found myself wondering at first why it was there—what was it doing in the midst of a play-cycle about war? But as the scene evolved, its point became clear, and it was the first iteration of the underlying point of the whole epic. How do we overcome those savage emotional impulses that drive humans—not just them, but us—to do physical harm to others?

Once upon a time we were told in school that the Shakespearean history plays represented some sort of moral tale about the value of stable, conservative, divinely sanctioned government, but it’s hard to give that much credit after the complete savagery of the twentieth century. Instead, Gaines gently de-historicizes the action, partly through the costuming, which I would call grunge-chic, and partly through the stage design. She pulls the action first toward all wars, and then toward our wars.

The program is laced with quotes from participants in America’s wars, from 1776 to 1918. None is more central to Tug of War than Lincoln’s First Inaugural:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The evolution of the long scene in Edward III drives us to this stark truth—that the better angels can prevail, though too often, too late. Edward’s shame overcomes his lust. At Calais, he again remembers to “master our affections,” and pardons the burghers who have offered their lives to ransom the city. At the gates of Harfleur, Henry V restrains the “dogs of war” that would wreak murder and rapine upon the hapless city. Each time, though, the restraint is temporary, and more violence breaks out, just as a long and horrible war ensued before America’s better angels restored Lincoln’s union.

Gaines has made it her project to show the wars through the eyes of the common soldier. Who better to supply her the material than the wise and eloquent child of a glove-maker, armed with a high-school education, who, legend tells us, poached deer before running off to join the theater? What more to learn from our own long scenes of bitterness than how the better angels of our nature might touch our own heartstrings in this time of violent passions?


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.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Othello

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Shakespeare with words—at last!

I have written here about the Russian Measure for Measure and the Hamburg Ballet production of Othello—both wonderful. But after these, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Othello fell on my ears like a mad torrent.

It is an odd and useful experience to see Shakespeare without his words. It brings out how much more there is than just the script. There is setting and costume, expression and gesture, motions of the body, music and laughter, grunts, cackles, and screams of pain and agony.

But restore the words after their absence and they are fresh again. The feeling was particularly strong seeing Othello danced by the Hamburg Ballet and acted by Chicago Shakespeare Theater on successive nights.

We are correctly comfortable with the notion that Shakespeare invented a new dramatic language. He inherited the lofty poetic rhetoric of Thomas Sackville and Christopher Marlowe, ideal for denoting the elevated sentiments of noble characters. He then created a second, prosaic language out of the mouths of common people. In between them, he molded a third language in blank verse that is beautiful in the mouth and on the ear, and yet adapted to the rhythms of natural speech. Initially these languages are distributed among the characters according to social class, but in time Shakespeare dares to mix things up, and give gutter language to nobles and poetry to common folk.

From its opening lines, Othello rings the changes of Shakespeare’s dramatic language:

Roderigo Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
Iago
‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:
If ever I did dream of such a matter,
Abhor me.

Roderigo’s outburst resolves into scannable iambic, only to be disrupted again by Iago’s curse, and resolved again—almost—into meter. In the process, their accents, their voices and their characters are established. But quickly we revert to Iago’s vulgar prose:

…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

though even here Shakespeare cannot resist the word play: “coursers” and “cousins,” “gennets” and “germans.” This wedding of coarse outburst with fantastical figures of speech accelerates as Iago fevers Othello’s jealous imagination:

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on—
Behold her topp’d?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk.

Many scenes later, as Othello greets Lodovico, the wedding of poetry and gutter speech is consummated:

You are welcome, sir, to Cyprus.—Goats and monkeys!

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has always distinguished itself with a purity of diction. Shakespeare’s language is spoken clearly and crisply, and is joined to gesture and expression. This is quite simply a matter of trusting the language. Any of us who have taught Shakespeare in the classroom have encountered students who believe that they don’t understand Shakespeare because of the language. The best refutation of this—the best proof to them that they do already understand Shakespeare—lies in the experience of the theater. Carefully spoken, as meaningful human speech, wedded to expression, the language becomes no less intelligible as the life around us.

This might sound like cant or bardolatry. But the demonstrable proof lay in the audience around me at CST’s Othello. As Roderigo, Iago and Brabantio poured out their swill (“His Moorship…the thicklips…an old black ram…a Barbary horse…the beast with two backs…lascivious Moor…the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou…”) I could feel the per­son next to me—a senior figure in Chicago wealth management—flinch with each racist slur. As Iago worked Othello with each tightening of the screw, the rise of tension in the audience was palpable. People listened even more than they watched, with acute understanding to the words. Such emotionally exact, insanely, rhetorically, over-the-top words as

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.

Or,

Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

After much silence, speech is a sharpened blade.


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.

Hamburg Ballet – Othello

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Measure for Measure in Russian, King Lear in Belarusian, Romeo and Juliet sung in Italian, Othello in—actually, no language. Othello the ballet.

A recent post asked if any rewritten version [or re-motioned version] can measure up to the original. But the real question, I would argue, is not if it can but how it can. And if the result is good, but it’s not “Shakespeare”—so what?

The Hamburg Ballet’s production of Othello uses none of Shake­speare’s words (or at least none I could make out). Instead it uses motion to evoke emotion. It defines the core of the play not as the words themselves but as the feelings and thoughts that the words convey—or in Iago’s case, with the feelings and thoughts that the words disguise.

In his choreography, Hamburg Ballet Artistic Director John Neumeier creates a vocabulary of motion that ranges from the classically balletic to modern-but-still-dancelike to what can best be called street motions, if ordinary people in the street were wonderful dancers. (This has a striking analogy to Shakespeare’s language, ranging from high-poetic to vernacular, always with the condition that it is the vernacular of people who ordinarily talk with the brilliance of Shakespeare.)

Neumeier’s (e)motional vocabulary allows him to juxtapose two very different worlds. One is a dream-like Venetian world of hope, love and desire. People are beautiful, their bodies are garbed in white, their movement is a graceful classicism unfolding to passion. Iconographically this world is as much Florentine as Venetian, recalling fifteenth-century Tuscan paintings of classical scenes, with slender figures draped in short tunics. This is the world in which Othello and Desdemona woo each other and wed. But each is attracted as much to a mythical image of the other as to the actual other. For Othello, that other Desdemona is a Botticellian virgin dressed in flowers. For Desdemona, it is a more dis­turbing figure, an ebony-black body wearing a caricatured mask of red.

So within the white world from the beginning we are allowed to glimpse the jungle fever generated by these mythic figures. It is enacted openly in the world of Cyprus by Othello’s soldiers, dressed in camo, and moving with the scarcely controlled violence of the street. In motions so realistic that one can barely still see that it is dance, Iago brutally beats his wife Emilia into meek submission. In alternating scenes, the soldiers molest and gang-rape women in the street, and pummel one of their members who is done up in blackface, as if they were lynching their commander. The sexual and racial violence is hard to watch.

And it is Shakespeare. In the early seventeenth century, at the beginning of the epoch of white-over-black racism, Shakespeare saw this demon that would haunt our own times, saw its entwinement with misogyny, and unleashed their dual fury through his play. Love, desire, trust, loyalty (male/female, male/male), lust, hatred, suspicion, jealousy, murderous wrath, remorse, despair…they all pour out one after another in taut narrative order. What he could not possibly foresee was how deeply those two demons would inhabit our cultures, both high and low. But Neumeier and the Hamburg dancers have the advantage of knowing it, and in each case suit motion to emotion, the balletic equivalent of Hamlet’s direction to “suit the action to the word,” and draw the picture of civilization entwined with barbarity.

The mythic doubles—Botticelli’s virgin and the ebony male nude—reappear at the end for the murder scene. At this point the production flirts with a distasteful cliché, one that an American company might not have dared to put on stage. But in that four-way confrontation, the two mythic figures are cast aside, and Desdemona and Othello are left on stage, alone, to dance out their final steps. It seemed from the beginning that Desdemona knew she would die, even if Othello did not know he would kill her. For a moment it seems like they might reach beyond the situation, and reach each other. But they succumb to their joint destiny, and the performance ends in profound human sadness.

A friend wrote to me afterward, “How could one not be moved to tears? I was stunned by it, on so many levels, stunned. We Shakespeareans always say, ‘It’s in his language,’ and yet here there was none (well, none SPOKEN that was intelligible to us, at least…). And yet filled with language of its own.”

The Hamburg Ballet has cast aside Shakespeare’s words, cast aside the complex social setting of Venice and Cyprus and the Ottoman wars, cast aside everything except plot, character, the body, its motion and its emotions. Those prove to be more than enough. Preserving the rest, after the silence, would be, perhaps, just taxidermy.


Clark Hulse

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.

Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre, Moscow – Measure for Measure

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.

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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

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.