When I was recently in London I picked up a box set at The Globe containing a collection of plays that they had filmed and kindly decided to release. As such when I sat down on the train and began reading this play I half expected to be able to then go and watch it at a later date. As it turned out one of the plays that wasn’t included in the box set was this one, which was a real shame because when I was at the Globe I did see a number of plays that weren’t included that could be purchased alongside it (which I had done with Merchant of Venice). Before I continue I probably should make mention that The Globe is one of the most uncomfortable, and annoying, theatres that I have had the displeasure of visiting. When the seat is labled as ‘restricted view’ the view is actually really restricted (I was sitting in front of a pillar). I’m not going to go as far and say that it is ‘the most uncomfortable’ theatre since there are some in Greece (such as the Theatre of Dionysius, though that isn’t actually used, but the Theatre of Herod Antipas just down the road is) that are probably somewhat more uncomfortable.
Anyway, you are no doubt going to hear me harp on about how uncomfortable the Globe is again, which does surprise me a little because they still seem to regularly sell out their plays. I ended up waiting too long to purchase tickets for A Midsummers Night Dream (namely twelve weeks before the show I wanted to see) only to discover that there were no longer any available. That meant that I had to put up with just seeing Macbeth, which really isn’t one of my favourite Shakespearian plays, but still, it was at the Globe, and it was Shakespeare done well, so I’m not complaining about that (though I am complaining about the hard seats and the pillar that was in front of me).
Enough of my experience at the Globe because I’m sure you are more interested in my take on this play. The problem is that like many of the other plays that I have read I would have really liked to have seen this one performed (even if it is on screen) because it actually seems to be one of those really cool plays. One of the things that I particularly like about the version that I read is that it contains essays on the play itself at the end, and these essays can be really engaging. Anyway, the thing about this play is that there are so many Christian allegories in it that it doesn’t actually seem to be very Shakespearian. For instance we have the main plot of the Duke going on a holiday and handing over the rulership of the city to Angelo, who then begins to rule it with an iron fist. We also have the concept of forgiveness permeating throughout the play, and not the form of forgiveness that we see in the Tempest where Prospero decides that he has had enough fun with his captives, reveals himself, and says all is forgiven, but rather more Christlike forgiveness where the guilty party is forgiven without any form of revenge being taken out, and not deserving it one bit.
You have probably guessed the story already, but as I mentioned before the Duke decides to go on a holiday (well, not really, but that is what he tells everybody) and appoints Angelo in his place. However Angelo is a bit of a purist and realises that Vienna is a pretty sleazy place and decides to clean it up a bit (actually a lot). The thing is that it isn’t as if the sleaze is permitted, it’s illegal, it’s just that nobody particularly cares (or at least the Duke didn’t). So, he basically decides that since the laws are on the books they should be enforced, which creates a few problems because Claudio, another protagonist in the play, has got his girlfriend pregnant, which is a big no-no, and he has him arrested and sentenced to death. Mind you, it isn’t as if Angelo is all that pure either, namely because he ended up dumping his fiancee because her dowry was lost when the ship that was carrying it sunk in a storm.
The parable of Jesus that automatically comes to mind is the parable of the vineyard where the master goes off on a journey and leaves his plantation to his servants, and the servants basically run amok causing all sorts of problems. However this is slightly different in that the duke doesn’t actually go anywhere, he just disguises himself as a monk and watches to see what happens. Also, Angelo isn’t actually running amok, but rather he is trying to clean the place up. However there is a little catch – it seems as if there is actually an ulterior motive – get rid of Claudio and thus marry Isabella. This was the plot in the original story. However they decide to get around the problem by executing a pirate instead and passing it off as Claudio, and then having Angelo’s old flame pretend to be Isabella.
In fact now that I think about it it seems as if Angelo is playing the hypocrite in this play – while he is insisting that everybody live moral and upstanding lives, he himself is doing the complete opposite. Sure, maybe it was well within the law to execute Claudio for being a little randy (and it is interesting that it is the man that is being punished here as opposed to the woman because it seems that in our day and age the holier than thou lot seem to want to punish the women), but the fact is that Angelo wants the opportunity to be randy himself, and almost gets himself into no end of trouble in doing so. The thing is that he effectively gets away with it in the end, which some have found to be a little unsatisfactory – here we have a guy that is pretty much throwing his weight around and executing people for minor indiscretions and effectively getting away with it, while commiting those same indiscretions himself.
In the end I guess it is one of those plays that we need to sit down and chew on a bit, and one that I would like to visit again in the not too distance future, though this time I would like to see it performed as opposed to reading it in a book. At least there is a modern, non-BBC version on Youtube (I really don’t like the BBC performances – they were so dry, dull, and completely lacked any life).