Ah, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure — it’s no wonder Shakespearean scholars consider it a “problem play” (JStor – Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Comedy). Both the Duke and Isabella have some obvious moral issues that raise questions that need to be answered when deciding how the play is to be performed.
The “shifty delays and intrigues” of the Duke and Isabella’s “self-righteous prudery,” (JStor – Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Comedy) let alone the forced marriages of the play, result in a complex investigation into Shakespeare’s characters that make the audience question the very nature of this “comedy”. The answers to these questions are perhaps best traced throughout the various performances of Measure for Measure from the seventeenth century until more recent times.
In 1699 to 1700, Charles Gildon put on an adaption of Measure for Measure at Lincoln’s Inn Fields called Beauty and the Best Advocate. In an era that wished to avoid “moral blemishes and unpleasantness” (Oxford Edition of Measure for Measure), this adaptation of the play eliminates the “lowlife” characters, such as Pompey, Mistress Overdone, and even Lucio (who only appeared in the first scene) (Oxford Edition of Measure for Measure). Angelo and Mariana, as well as Claudio and Juliet, are already married, thus eliminating that “moral blemish” on Shakespeare’s play. Lastly, and most indicative of just how unpalatable the final scene of the play is to the audience, the Duke does not marry Isabella. By removing these “moral blemishes” from the play’s performance, Gildon avoids having to attempt to manage and control the complex issues that arise in the play.
After this instance of performance, through much of the eighteenth century Measure for Measure was adapted more similarly to that of the original play. It’s evident success during this era is contributed to strong actors and actresses who embodies the roles (Oxford Edition of Measure for Measure). However, hand in hand with the conservative nature of the Victorian era, there re-emerged a distaste for the play’s performance. Prosperous actor-managers such as Henry Irving deemed the play “unnecessarily unpleasant and disreputable” (Oxford Edition of Measure for Measure). In Richard Wagner’s operatic adaptation, Angelo was converted into a “romantic hero” (Oxford Edition of Measure for Measure). While no longer completely eliminating characters and Shakespearean plot lines from the performance, performances still felt the need to change the fundamental traits of characters in order to make the play a “comedy.”
In the twentieth century and up until today, the complexity of the play continues. Throughout the 1970s, performances worked to incorporate a refusal of marriage by Isabella to the Duke, or a completely different take on Angelo or the Duke that attempts to explain their behavior (Oxford Edition of Measure for Measure). Even in modern times, performances struggle to find an answer to the complicated moral issues that clearly arise within this play that make it difficult to interpret and perform as a “comedy.” In this article on a current performance of the play, the Duke is treated as an uncertain “dolt” of a character. The full performance history of Measure for Measure can be found in the Oxford Edition of the play (See the online version here). Only through further exploration of the play can the full understanding of these characters and the complex moral issues that they bring to light be grasped completely.
… I would also check out this blog post to see how Isabella has been treated as a character in scholarly criticism — it provides a lot of insight into how she can be performed, and it’s interesting to compare how she is performed to how Shakespeare perhaps has written her.