Thursday 21 September 2023

More and more puzzled by Measure for Measure

1/ I still think the Duke goes around pulling all the strings because he wants to test everyone in Vienna. Some readers and viewers of the play complain that the final two acts drag on for too long when the Duke could easily remove his disguise and set everything right, but I don’t think he’s just interested in justice, in setting everything right—I think he wants to experiment, to test everyone to their very limit.

The question is, of course, why? Perhaps he’s bored, never having had much interest in governing. Perhaps he wants to study human nature. Perhaps he wants to play God. Perhaps he turns everything upside down and begins anew when he returns to power, having given the citizens of Vienna a taste of tyranny. Perhaps he wants to demonstrate to everyone, especially those in power, the danger of bias and the impossibility of establishing the truth when we’re in a “he said, she said” situation. 

2/ Barnardine is the minor, seemingly inconsequential character in Shakespeare that interests me the most, because he’s the only character in Measure for Measure that the Duke cannot control. 

“BARNADINE […] I will not consent to die this day, it’s certain.” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

For all his game of playing God and manipulating everything, the Duke also cannot control Lucio’s mouth, but in the final scene, Lucio inadvertently plays into the Duke’s game when he slanders Friar Lodowick (the Duke’s disguise) and thus puts Escalus to the test as a judge (which he fails, coloured by his misjudgement about Angelo). And later, the Duke can punish Lucio by forcing him to marry a prostitute.

Barnardine on the contrary cannot be controlled, cannot be swayed. He refuses to get pulled into the Duke’s elaborate plot. He would prefer not to. 

3/ When I reread Hamlet or King Lear, I saw more layers of meaning and understood them a bit better.

But when I reread Measure for Measure recently, it puzzled me even more—I’m still in the dark—it’s a baffling play. 

For example, people tell me that Measure for Measure is about mercy. But do you notice the absurdity of Isabella’s call for mercy for Angelo? 

“ISABELLA […] My brother had but justice, 

In that he did the thing for which he died. 

For Angelo, 

His act did not o’ertake his bad intent, 

And must be buried but as an intent 

That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects, 

Intents but merely thoughts.” 

(Act 5 scene 1)

How is it justice that Claudio has to die for “fornication”? How is it just intent when Angelo forces Isabella to trade her virginity for her brother’s life—which doesn’t become “action” only because the Duke intervenes and gets Marianna to change place with Isabella—and then deceitfully lets Claudio be executed anyway? What kind of mercy is this? 

We can imagine what Shakespeare would have thought about Claudio’s “crime”—Anne Hathaway was pregnant on their wedding day. 

4/ The Duke is, in his way, also a tyrant. 

Look at the resolution.

He makes Angelo marry Marianna: Angelo doesn’t want her, and she ends up with someone who doesn’t care for her.

He makes Lucio marry the prostitute who has a child with him: Lucio doesn’t want her, how do we know if she wants him? 

He “proposes” to Isabella: she never says yes, and we all know she wants to become a nun.

Isn’t that tyrannical? 

This is not me imposing a modern perspective on the play—Shakespeare depicted over and over again forced marriages, in Romeo and Juliet, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in The Merry Wives of Windsor—we can deduce what he must have thought about them. 

Friday 15 September 2023

Chekhov and shame

I prefer Chekhov’s later and longer stories, naturally. But many of his earlier stories, though just sketches, are very good.

In Volume 8 of Constance Garnett’s Chekhov, shame is the theme in most of the stories: Chekhov depicts an encounter, a confrontation, or a confession, and pinpoints a moment of shame, of the realisation in some character that they have wasted their lives or been unkind to others. And it’s very moving. 

For example, in “The Chorus Girl”, a chorus girl named Pasha is with a man when his wife suddenly appears and asks about him: 

“Pasha felt that on this lady in black with the angry eyes and white slender fingers she produced the impression of something horrid and unseemly, and she felt ashamed of her chubby red cheeks, the pock-mark on her nose, and the fringe on her forehead, which never could be combed back. And it seemed to her that if she had been thin, and had had no powder on her face and no fringe on her forehead, then she could have disguised the fact that she was not “respectable,” and she would not have felt so frightened and ashamed to stand facing this unknown, mysterious lady.”

It is similar to a moment in “A Gentleman Friend”: 

“The staircase impressed her as luxurious, and magnificent, but of all its splendours what caught her eye most was an immense looking-glass, in which she saw a ragged figure without a fashionable jacket, without a big hat, and without bronze shoes. And it seemed strange to Vanda that, now that she was humbly dressed and looked like a laundress or sewing girl, she felt ashamed, and no trace of her usual boldness and sauciness remained, and in her own mind she no longer thought of herself as Vanda, but as the Nastasya Kanavkin she used to be in the old days. . . .” 

To go back to “The Chorus Girl”, the wife screams at her, curses her, begs her whilst the husband is hiding and hearing everything.  

“Pasha shrieked with horror and waved her hands. She felt that this pale, beautiful lady who expressed herself so grandly, as though she were on the stage, really might go down on her knees to her, simply from pride, from grandeur, to exalt herself and humiliate the chorus girl.” 

A large part of the story is about the chorus girl’s shame and humiliation—because of it, she does an impulsive act that she later regrets—but then the wife leaves and the man appears, and now what we see is his shame. 

“At a Country House” is also a sketch, but different from “The Chorus Girl”, shame is not a feeling that runs through the entire story but a moment of sudden realisation: 

“Rashevitch was fearfully confused. Dumbfoundered, as though he had been caught in the act of a crime, he gazed helplessly at Meier, and did not know what to say. Genya and Iraida flushed crimson, and bent over their music; they were ashamed of their tactless father. A minute passed in silence, and there was a feeling of unbearable discomfort…” 

That moment changes the colour, the tone of the rest of the story. 

“When he reached his own room, Rashevitch sat down on his bed and began to undress. He felt oppressed, and he was still haunted by the same feeling as though he had eaten soap. He was ashamed. As he undressed he looked at his long, sinewy, elderly legs, and remembered that in the district they called him the “toad,” and after every long conversation he always felt ashamed.” 

It also changes the way we perceive the character. Rashevitch is the kind of man Chekhov might not have liked in real life, for he speaks of blue blood and disparages the working class, but Chekhov humanises him—through shame—and makes us feel sorry for him. 

The subject of shame is even more developed, and better handled, in “Rothschild’s Fiddle”. Look at the moment when Yakov notices the look of joy on his dying wife’s face: 

“Looking at the old woman, Yakov for some reason reflected that he had not once in his life been affectionate to her, had had no feeling for her, had never once thought to buy her a kerchief, or to bring her home some dainty from a wedding, but had done nothing but shout at her, scold her for his losses, shake his fists at her; it is true he had never actually beaten her, but he had frightened her, and at such times she had always been numb with terror. Why, he had forbidden her to drink tea because they spent too much without that, and she drank only hot water. And he understood why she had such a strange, joyful face now, and he was overcome with dread.” 

Chekhov doesn’t use the word, but it’s a moment of immense shame. The feeling becomes stronger after the funeral: 

“He wondered how it had happened that for the last forty or fifty years of his life he had never once been to the river, or if he had been by it he had not paid attention to it. […] But nothing of this had happened, even in his dreams; life had passed uselessly without any pleasure, had been wasted for nothing, not even a pinch of snuff; there was nothing left in front, and if one looked back—there was nothing there but losses, and such terrible ones, it made one cold all over. […] Why do people always do what isn’t needful? Why had Yakov all his life scolded, bellowed, shaken his fists, ill-treated his wife, and, one might ask, what necessity was there for him to frighten and insult the Jew that day? Why did people in general hinder each other from living? What losses were due to it! what terrible losses! If it were not for hatred and malice people would get immense benefit from one another.”

Now connected with shame is the subject of waste—something that occupies Chekhov throughout his career, in both short stories and plays—the idea that we waste our lives and hinder each other from living. 

I shall end my blog post with a quote from Edmund White, as quoted on Anecdotal Evidence blog

“But surely the stories of Chekhov or the paintings of de Chirico move us not only because they are so well done, but because in each case the artist has arranged exactly the right things in the right order. The choice of subject matter has been at least half of the achievement. Of course, if the rendering were less accomplished, its inaccuracies would distract us or stand between us and what was going on; but the aptness of the rendering alone could never explain the mysterious hold those words in the dark have over us.”