Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Transposing Measure for Measure to New York in the 1970s

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Transposing Measure for Measure to New York in the 1970s

Article excerpt

Most literary critics consider Shakespeare's Measure for Measure a "problem play" because it mingles comedy and tragedy, presents both the degenerate and the noble aspects of humanity, frequently changes tone, and concludes without fully resolving the issues raised by the characters and events. Audiences often find productions of Measure for Measure unsatisfactory because spectators feel alienated from all of the deeply flawed main characters. For example, G. B. Harrison finds Isabella "hard, cold, and self-righteous" ("Introduction," Measure for Measure 1101). Directors and actors also struggle with this complex drama. However, the Goodman Theatre's 2013 production in Chicago brings the play to life by setting Measure for Measure in New York during the 1970s, using a multi-racial cast, alluding to similar historical events of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century in New York, and fully engaging the audience with the issues that Shakespeare raises.

Although Shakespeare states that Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna, the characters have Italian, Roman, or English names. Furthermore, the drama does not allude to specific sites in Vienna, nor does it mention the city's history or the exact century. The vagueness of the play's setting makes it relatively easy to move the locale and the era of Measure for Measure. In 1974, director Paul Barry of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival moved the drama's time period to the reign of Franz Joseph I (1848-1916). Dissatisfied with that setting, in 1990, Barry changed the city's location to Renaissance Italy and emphasized the Catholic aspects of Measure for Measure (e-mail to the author and 129). In a 1993 production for the New York Shakespeare Festival, director Michael Rudman put Measure for Measure on a sunny Caribbean island during the 1940s. In 1994, a television adaptation set the play in the late twentieth century, and a 2006 film directed by Bob Komar located Measure for Measure in a modern-day British Army camp where there is lots of drinking, drug use, and debauchery. Director David Thacker's BBC television adaptation places Measure for Measure in a twentieth-century police state (1995). So there is ample precedent for Falls's choice to transpose the drama's setting.

Neena Arndt, the Goodman Theatre's associate dramaturg, explains the parallels that Falls's team saw between Shakespeare's London and late twentieth-century New York: "London in 1603 was gritty and dirty and filled with prostitution; New York in the '70s could be described the same way" (27 May 2013 e-mail). In general, the Goodman staff viewed the 1970s as "a time of excess -when the 'free love' of the 1960s had been taken a little too far, to a point where it was mind-numbing." Many people then "were also just drugged out/tired/detached from their own lives" (17 June 2013 e-mail). Both London and New York also had inadequate law enforcement. Finally, "We were interested in the challenges of urban life in any era-the particular challenges of people living very closely together" (27 May 2013 e-mail). In his program notes, Falls comments that New York City in the 1970s experienced "an era in which economic challenges, urban flight and the sexual revolution transformed what had been arguably the greatest city in the world to one of the most troubled." The director views Measure for Measure as very modern in its "questioning of society's values and the conflicts among them" ("Notes").

When Measure for Measure premiered in 1604 in London, James I was a new English king who had begun his monarchy in 1603. (The play was not published until 1623, after Shakespeare's death in 1616.) Measure for Measure was performed for King James at court in December, 1604. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare designed the character Duke Vincentio to comment on James I's reign. James had been a successful king of Scotland; however, he was not popular in England. Historian J. P. Kenyon observes, "James I did not see England until he was thirty-seven" and did not understand the country very well (47). …

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