Shakespeare in measures

October 4, 2015

Bard in common language

Shakespeare in measures

It never ceases to amaze me that the English language as we write it (or even as we speak it) owes so much to Shakespeare. We use his words in every day conversations, in our letters, in our reports and in our composition without ever thinking that we are quoting him: "For goodness sake, stop biting your nails," or "What the dickens does he mean?" His metaphors and images have entered common English far more than we realise.

We all know "To be or not to be…" and "Out, out brief candle!…"; to be Shakespearean language, but not many of us recognise "with bated breath" and "to the manor born" or "in my heart of hearts" to be expressions that he coined. Some of his phrases are so familiar we think they are proverbs. Some, through overuse, have become clichés but we still use them without ever bothering to think that they had not been heard of before he wrote them down.

It is a curious fact that although Shakespeare was successful in his own time (over 400 years ago) and his plays continued to be performed in the 17th century, yet it was not until the later part of the 18th century that he came to be looked upon as a genius who outshone all his fellow poets and writers. No other dramatist has exerted so great an influence over so large a proportion of the world’s population. He was well-regarded in his own time because his work pleased the theatre-goers, but his profound impact on the later generations, and our own times, is due entirely to the efforts of those who interpreted his work to bring out the power of his texts. The source of his power is his universality, his sanity and his humanity.

Each performance of a play is unique, differing from others in pace, movement, gesture, audience response and even -- because of the fallibility of human memory -- in the words spoken. It is likely, too, that in Shakespeare’s time changes in the texts of plays were made to suit varying circumstances: the place in which the plays were performed, the anticipated reaction of his audience which varied from the commoners to the Royals, and so on.

The circumstances by which Shakespeare’s plays have been transmitted to us mean that it is impossible for us to discover exactly the form in which they stood in Shakespeare’s own original manuscripts, or in the transcripts of them after they had been prepared for use in the theatre. But we can take heart that the texts prepared after minute and painstaking research by many worthy scholars, and received by us today, are the words that the Bard wrote.

Last week, my friend, the playwright Mahmood Jamal, called me from London to tell me that he had finished adapting Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ play, Measure for Measure into a film script (in Urdu) set in modern times in Lahore. He had undertaken this task because he felt that the play was of great relevance to our society. He was all set to produce the film himself.

The title, of the play, Measure For Measure comes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:

"Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge,

ye shall be judged:

and with what measure ye mete,

it shall be measured to you again."

The story of Measure of Measure, that of a woman who in seeking to save the life of a male relative arouses the lust of a man in authority, was an ancient one. Shakespeare’s heroine, Isabella, is a virtuous young maiden who is about to enter a nunnery. Her brother, Claudio, has been unjustly accused of rape. His union with Juliet has been ratified by a betrothed ceremony and lacks only the formal blessing of the church. The laws of Vienna (the city in which the play is set) are extremely harsh and a death sentence has been pronounced upon Claudio on the charge of fornication. Isabella goes to meet Angelo, deputising for the absent Duke, to plead her brother’s case. Angelo, who professes to be guardian of morality, is a hypocrite. He demands Isabella’s chastity in return for her brother’s life.

The moral problems in the play are presented in such a manner that we become unsure of our own moral bearing. "If we don’t see ourselves in Angelo, (the hypocrite)" wrote Dr Leavis , "we have taken the play and the moral very imperfectly."

Measure for Measure is not a tragedy; you could call it a tragicomedy. The major portion of the play is occupied with low-life characters who inhabit a diseased world of brothels and prisons. The Duke, who has handed over the city’s command to Angelo does not leave Vienna, but moves about in disguise, observing the licentious life of the city. His manipulation of events turns it into a "they all lived happily ever after" kind of a play towards the end. The production of Measure, that I was involved in, was directed by Braham Murray, a most knowledgeable and understanding director who, quite rightly, thought that the play was about puritan hypocrisy.

In the end the Duke sorts out all the tangles and justice is at last dispensed, but Shakespeare did that to give the play a happy ending. Politics, is still run by the Angelos of the world, self-righteous pompous and hypocritical.

The literary giants of the 18th century, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Johnson, etc., had different responses to the play. Coleridge thought the play to be the most painful of all Shakespearean plays: "The comic and tragic parts equally border on the bad -- the one being disgusting, the other horrible." Hazlitt who had a more insightful sense of the theatre, described it as "a play as full of genius as it is of wisdom."

Dr Johnson, too, was not dismissive. "There is perhaps not one of the Shakespeare’s play more darkened than this, by the peculiarities of its author. The light and comic part is very natural and pleasing but the grave scenes, if a few passages be excepted, have more labour than excellence".

Shakespeare was certainly prescient if nothing else. The chilling scenes between Angelo and Isabella do not merely show the kind of man Angelo is under the façade of moral integrity, but also the rather self-indulgent saintliness of Isabella. The Duke, meanwhile, has aroused sharply opposite reactions from two of the most well-known learned men of Oxbridge. Wilson Knight called the Duke, "the prophet of the enlightened ethic. He is lit at moments with divine suggestion…" Professor Quiller-Couch thought that "the Duke began well but falls off into a stage puppet and ends up a wearisome man talking rubbish".

(to be continued)

Shakespeare in measures