There’s a saying in the fashion world that talks about how the things that are in style come back in cycles; what was fashionable once comes back years later as stylish. Such cyclical trends are true of history as well. Despite all of our history lessons, it repeats itself. While Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, it retains a robust performance history.
During the Restoration period, the play was appropriately adapted to fit the culture of the time. Restoration plays were known to be incredibly flamboyant, making use of elaborate costumes and set designs with sophisticated moving parts. Additionally, they included plenty of dancing and singing to add to the merriment of the play. One particular production during this time period blended Measure for Measure with another Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, creating an entirely new plot dubbed The Law Against Lovers. The Law Against Lovers, and no doubt other performances of Measure for Measure, followed the Restoration trends by being visually extravagant. The memorable musical numbers and stunning visuals tried to compensate for the more problematic issues within Measure for Measure. The translation from text to stage focused more upon catering to the audience’s tastes through interpretation and focus upon the superficial to garner higher praise.
Similarly, a resurgence of modern renditions of Measure for Measure also interpret the play and manipulate the setting to their advantage. They’re rediscovering the use of ostentatious sets, yet this time around it is helping highlight the greater issues of the play. One performance, put on during the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1998 went to great lengths in creating a disturbingly elaborative set. The floor had been covered in tabloid newspapers and fliers for phone sex juxtaposed with a conspicuous painting of a crucifix in the back of the playing space. Here the artistic director flexed her creative muscles in designing a provocative set through her interpretation of Measure for Measure in order to highlight the issue of sexuality versus righteousness and moral in this play. Another stage production of Measure by Measure in the early 2000s created an incredibly urban set to help portray the cruder, fast-paced nature of Vienna. It modeled itself after New York City, with lots of brick building facades with fire escapes which, while anachronistic, helped capture the hustler aspects of the Viennese characters.
The emphasis upon set creation echoes itself from the Restoration period performances all the way to today’s 21st century ones. While both manage to create elaborate sets, the motivations differ for each. The Restoration period performances, lacking an answer to solving Shakespeare’s problem play, tried to compensate with stunning visuals to mask the issues at hand. The modern renditions, while still lacking a definitive answer, try a little harder at unraveling the problem play by highlighting the juxtaposition of the major issues in Measure for Measure through its manipulation of the set. The trend of interpreting theater further through the usage of set design may have come back hundreds of years later, however funnily enough with completely different motivations, this time slightly less superficial.
Judkins, David. “Remarks on Measure for Measure.” http://www.uh.edu/~djudkins/measure.html
Taylor, Nancy. “Performance Review: Measure for Measure.” https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theatre_journal/v051/51.1pr_shakespeare01.html