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Text. - Measure for Measure was first printed in the Folio of 1623, and was reprinted with slight changes in spelling and grammar in the later Folios. It was registered with the Stationers' Company, together with fifteen others of Shakespeare's plays, November 8, 1623, as not before entered. This play and The Tempest are the only plays by Shakespeare of which the First Folio prints the place of action. With six others, it gives the list of all the Actors, and with sixteen others it is divided into acts and scenes.
Date of Composition. According to a statement by Malonel in some manuscripts now preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, there can be little doubt that Measure for Measure was presented at Court by His Majesty's Players on December 26, 1604. That it was a new play especially written for the occasion does not at all follow. The nature of the plot, as well as the presentation of The Comedy of Errors and of Love's Labour's Lost during the same Christmas festivities, make that idea highly improbable. Its use seems merely to indicate its popularity.
Tyrwhitt and Malone, followed by some modern critics, believe that the play contains several direct allusions to King James and the early years of his reign. The Duke's words,
I love the people
are thought to be a complimentary allusion to the King's well-pretended modesty. A passage with similar import is spoken by Angelo in II. iv. 30–33. Malone also thinks “ the sweat ” (I. ii. 78) is an allusion to the plague of 1603. And in IV. iü. 13-15, of the ten prisoners listed by Pompey, four are in jail for violating the law just proclaimed in King James's time, and called the “ statute of stabbing." These passages, although of little weight alone, are at least contributory evidence with that of the Court production, and may well indicate a date of revision if not of actual writing.
The date of the present form of the play, if we may judge from the matter, spirit, and style, cannot have been much earlier than 1603. Measure for Measure is one of several plays dealing essentially with problems growing out of sex. Many of the terrible things which can happen because men are men and women are women are here portrayed; but pure women and noble men are still dominant in the world. In Hamlet the impure love of a man and a woman sets the tragedy going; but the hero puts aside his love for a pure woman in order to carry out the paternally imposed vengeance. Sex relations are powerful for evil, but a few men are still above their control. In Much Ado, the sex motive almost brings about a tragical conclusion, which is prevented by the revelation of Hero's innocence. In Othello, on the other hand, the innocence of Desdemona becomes her weakness against the machinations of Iago, as does the intensity of Othello's love. Finally, in Troilus and Cressida, every phase of the sex relation as presented tends toward vulgarity and impurity. Now Measure for Measure presents a phase of the sex question more nearly akin to those of Hamlet and Much Ado than to those of Othello and Troilus and Cressida. Illicit love of man for woman sets the action going and keeps it going, but virtue wins, and the misled are reclaimed. Such treatment and the ultimately optimistic attitude of mind closely associate themselves with Much Ado and Hamlet rather than with Troilus and Cressida and Othello. Finally, the ironical touches in purely humorous prose, the condensed phrasing mingled with direct simplicity, the many beautiful verses, and the growing frequency of run-on lines, weak endings, and feminine endings, point also to at least a middle period for the composition of the play. The consensus of opinion places the main part of the present text at about 1603, with a possible revision for the festivities of Christmas, 1604.
Source of the Plot. - George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra is generally accepted as the immediate source for the main incidents in the play of Measure for Measure; but it is highly probable that Shakespeare knew the prose version of Cinthio's story as translated by Whetstone, and he may have known the story in the original. The story as told by Cinthio is one of several versions of an incident purporting to have occurred in many places and at many different times, but with certain fairly constant elements. A ruler hands over his authority to a magistrate, who enforces the old law against adultery, but when about to bring a young man to execution for technical guilt, is entreated by the guilty man's sister. With her the deputy
falls in love, and promises to save the brother at the cost of her honor, then breaks his promise, is accused by the injured sister before the returned ruler, and is compelled to marry the girl. The young man about to be executed is in some instances a political prisoner, the young woman is sometimes the wife or daughter of the prisoner, and the resulting punishment of the magistrate varies. The main theme, however, of a woman injured in her honor in order to save a man dear to her, is constant.
As Douce points out, the incident is reported to have occurred at two different dates (1547 and 1646) in the Ducal Court of Ferrara, in the Court of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, in that of Louis XI, and with some variations in Sweden. Simrock believes Cinthio founded his story on similar incidents from Italian and Hungarian sources combined with a story of a judgment delivered by Otto I. A French tragedy, Philamire, printed in 1563, but not now extant, is cited by Foth as having a similar theme, and curiously enough came out two years before Cinthio's novel. Ward calls attention to Macaulay's comments on similar charges brought against Colonel Percy Kirke, late in the seventeenth century. In short, it was a common story in the south of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and may well have had some basis in fact in several places.
There is no evidence that Shakespeare used any of the other versions of the story, and his indebtedness to Promos and Cassandra is only for the main incidents. Moreover, he changes some of the important parts of the story, especially in the solution; he invents Mariana, formerly
betrothed to Angelo, to save the honor of Isabella vicariously; and he sends the Duke away on a pretended journey that he may return in disguise to serve as the deus ex machina for the discovery of Angelo's guilt and the rescue of Claudio. Such changes in the plot, however, are less important than the differences in characterization and phrasing. Whetstone's play contains only crudest prototypes of Shakespeare's characters, except in the low comedy scenes, and his phrasing has suggested nothing in the later play. In a word, then, Shakespeare has revised, shortened, and changed the plot of Whetstone's play, has given life and new traits to the characters, and has transformed the lifeless verse into vivid prose and real poetry. Measure for Measure has thus become a new creation in Shakespeare's hands.
Stage History. — Following the custom of the time, D'Avenant made a crude play in 1662 called The Law Against Lovers, by clumsily uniting parts of Measure for Measure with parts of Much Ado. Again in 1700 the play was revived, this time by Gildon for a performance in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He gave it the sub-title, Beauty the Best Advocate, and described it as written by Shakespeare, and now very much altered.” The next revival came in 1720, in the same theater, when a form of the play described as by Shakespeare is recorded by Genest. Between then and 1824, Measure for Measure was revived no less than seven times in Drury Lane and six times in Covent Garden, in a form probably not much departing from the original. The popularity of the play is shown by the fact that Mrs. Woffington's Company revived it in