One of the highlights of Christmas this year was giving my wife a copy of "Measure of Measure."
This is a video adaptation of the play that we each saw in college during a Shakespeare course we took. It was made in 1979 during a BCC effort to produce movie versions of each of Shakespeare's plays. It is, for reasons that defy explanation, the only one of those movies that is out of print in the United States, even though it is widely hailed as an excellent video production of the play. (The rest of the series is uneven and usually panned.)
Whenever the movie has come up in casual discusson, Natasha has always spoken highly of it, so this past Thanksgiving I realized I had to get her a copy. I did mention that it's out of print, didn't I?
I checked at Barnes & Noble, on Amazon, and on eBay, all to avail. I searched BBC America, and even wrote to a professor at the English department, begging for help in finding a copy. She had no idea where I could get one.
I put about a billion feelers out, and with less than a week to go, one of them got a nibble, and I was able to reel in a copy of the movie.
The story begins in Venice. As the reigning duke is about to embark on affairs of state, he appoints to rule in his place a strict enforcer of the law named Angelo. Over the past seventeen years, the duke has enforced issues of justice well, but he has let slip matters where the law governs morality, a lapse that Angelo sees fit to rectify, pulling down whorehouses in the suburbs and in the city as well.
He also sentences to die a young man named Claudio who has got his fiancee pregnant; he has, after all, broken the law, and it is pointless to complain that the law has gone unenforced these past seventeen years when it has remained the law the entire time.
As he is imprisoned, Claudio sends word through a friend of him to his sister, Isabella, who is about to become a nun, and asks for her to plead for clemency. She does, in a stunning set of arguments about the meaning and value of justice and mercy. Then comes the stunning twist: Angelo agrees to spare her brother's life, on one condition: She must sleep with him.
These developments come to the notice of the duke, who has not left on affairs of state at all, but who has remained in Venice to see how Angelo conducts himself with his new power. The duke, disguised as a friar, conspires with Isabella to have her agree to Angelo's demands, only to have Angelo's spurned former fiancee take Isabella's place at the tryst.
What follows is a further complication: Angelo, not wanting anyone to delve too deeply into the reasons for his change of heart, orders Claudio executed anyway. Shortly afterward, the duke "returns" to Venice, resumes his power, and lets the whole scandal come out. Since Angelo has slept with Marianna, he now orders him to marry her, and then, because Angelo ordered Claudio executed for the very offense he himself has committed, he orders Angelo to be taken away and executed as well.
And at this point, Marianna falls to her knees and begs Isabella to implore the duke for mercy for Angelo's sake.
It's a stunning play, in the true Shakespearean style, and I'm at a loss to understand why this video is out of print, or to why "Measure for Measure" is not peformed or filmed more frequently. Especially in today's political climate, where we have leaders claiming the moral high ground in demanding justice or denouncing sin, only to be rocked by scandal for the very behavior they have derided, it's a play we need to see more of.