Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare.

Claudio and Isabella by William Holman Hunt (1850).
For the past five years or so I've been reading and re-reading William Shakespeare's plays and I've now reached the final title on my list - Measure for Measure, first performed in 1604 and thought of as one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays' (along with All's Well that Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida).

It tells the story of Claudio, a young man who has been arrested by Lord Angelo, the deputy of the Duke of Vienna in charge of the running of Vienna in the absence of the Duke (who in fact is not absent, he wishes to observe the goings on covertly). Lord Angelo is rather puritanical, and wishes to enforce more harshly laws concerning sexual morality: Claudio has slept with and impregnated his fiancĂ© before marriage and Angelo wishes to make an example of him by executing him for his crime.

Angelo, unsurprisingly, turns out to be quite the hypocrite however: when Claudio's sister Isabella, who is on the point of entering a nunnery, goes to visit him to beg for her brother's life he implies that he will let Claudio off if she agrees to sleep with him. Fortunately for Isabella, the Duke is watching and he, disguised as Friar Lodowick, tells her of Angelo's former lover Mariana who he abandoned after she lost her dowry in a shipwreck. If Isabella agrees to sleep with Angelo, he will arrange for Mariana to go in her place: not only will Claudio be saved, but Angelo will be forced to marry Mariana.

The plot is almost successful: Angelo does not pardon Claudio, so another plan is concocted: Angelo is led to believe that Claudio has been executed and Isabella is to submit a complaint to the Duke, who is now officially returned. Eventually all is revealed: Angelo is exposed as a liar and hypocrite, Claudio is finally pardoned, and the Duke will marry Isabella.

It's an odd sort of a play, but of the three problem plays this is easily my favourite. It's the bleak theme of corruption and virtue, perhaps fitting at present in fact what with the Weinstein scandal. The question - is it better to keep your brother alive or essentially be raped by a corrupt and villainous man - is a very depressing one indeed, for the very reason that the question was asked, and that it required an answer. I didn't like Measure for Measure at all, but nonetheless it's a good play.

To finish: Measure for Measure inspired both one of my favourite poems and paintings - Mariana by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1830) and the painting of the same name by John Everett Millais (1851). Here's the poem and painting:

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look'd sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!" 
Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, "The night is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!" 
Upon the middle of the night,
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen's low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem'd to walk forlorn,
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, "The day is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!" 
About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken'd waters slept,
And o'er it many, round and small,
The cluster'd marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarled bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said "I am aweary, aweary
I would that I were dead!" 
And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, "The night is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!" 
All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak'd;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,
Or from the crevice peer'd about.
Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!" 
The sparrow's chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, "I am very dreary,
He will not come," she said;
She wept, "I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!" 


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