Roger Allam on The Duke from ‘Measure for Measure’

In 1979 I played Angelo at the Contact Theatre in Manchester. The production was influenced by Jan Kott’s view of the play, and showed the state as an instrument of total repression. To this end the Duke, excellently played by Simon Molloy, became the arch-manipulator and machiavell, totally ignoring Isabella’s feelings of revulsion for his proposed marriage to her, in his display of ultimate power in the fifth act. Also to this end we cut the ‘be absolute for death’ speech to shreds. It seemed, within the context, over-repetitive. I always thought this a shame, for no very articulate reason, but because I thought it a speech of great beauty. I read through the speech many times, long after we finished our run, and in doing so it came to represent to me an embodiment of utter despair. It was from that time that I began to develop hazy notions of the different interpretation of the Duke, and of his reasons for leaving Vienna at the start of the play. It was also from this point that the Duke became a part I passionately wanted to play one day. I did not, however, expect to play it in the 1987 season at Stratford, considering myself, at thirty-three, too young. Luckily for me, the RSC were having great difficulty casting it, as it is one of those roles traditionally considered by actors to be a complete pig. Also the director, Nicholas Hytner, being young himself, had no difficulty imagining the role played younger than usual, and so, to my great and lasting joy, I was cast. In initial discussions with Nick, he spoke about the two separate worlds of the play, the government / court versus the street, and how these worlds seemed irreconcilable. I spoke of my hunches as to why the Duke left, which was that he seemed to be in the midst of a deep personal crisis about the value of life itself. This seemed to be a useful starting-point, as it linked the public and private worlds in a dilemma of fragmentation. This was in January 1987 and we did not start rehearsals until August. In the meantime I opened in Julius Caesar playing Brutus, another play which deals with tensions between public and private life. For Brutus I dipped into various books recommended to me by friends who worked in education: Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man, a brilliant book which ranges through history examining the diminution of all forms of public life, and rigorously exposes modernity’s obsession with the self. Also, Quentin Skinner’s excellent study of The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, which covers the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, the decisive period of transition from medieval to modern political theory, and concentrates particularly on the concept of the state. I wish I could say that I made an exhaustive and meticulous study of these books. However, I tend to use material like this in a quite dilettantish way to stimulate my imagination, and provide me with ideas that can set off my own trains of thought. So- I dipped. Much of this reading was, of course, invaluable for the Duke as well.

Nick had asked me if I wanted to be in on some of his discussions with Mark Thompson the designer. No director has ever asked me to do that before, so I leapt at the opportunity. They had decided to set the play in the twentieth century, but not in a particular period, something of which I very much approved. If you shift the period of a classical play, the danger is that the production can become about how clever you are in your re-creation of the detail of that period, rather than releasing the meanings of the play itself. Mark side-stepped this problem quite brilliantly. He and Nick had already developed the two massive towers that referred to the confident public architecture of the nineteenth century. These they had then deliberately spoiled by added to them the odd twentieth-century junction box and air-ducting unit. For the street scenes the towers turned around and inside out revealing the inner workings of postmodern disintegration in a plethora of ducting and brightly coloured piping that made Richard Rogers look restrained. The costumed equally strongly contrasted the formality of court dress and the anarchy of the streets.

It is significant that much of the play is set in a prison, the ultimate embodiment of the state’s desire for control. None of us, fortunately, having actually experienced prison life, we arranged a visit to Pentonville. The prison service, being anxious for better public relations, do guided tours of various prisons, and so Mark, Nick, and I, and a large group of local government officials, spent an entire afternoon being shown round Pentonville by a prison officer who took a ghoulish delight in the history of the place. ‘Crippen’s buried there,’ he announced with relish, pointing to an inoffensive-looking flowerbed. From our point of view it was perfect. Michael Ignatieff, in his fine book A Just Measure of Pain, a history of the penitentiary in the industrial revolution, says of Pentonville that it ‘represents the culmination of a history of efforts to devise a perfectly rational and reformative mode of imprisonment’. Its architectural design is based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a central observation tower with wings going off it. Under this system, punishment became about the prisoner’s isolation from the world and his fellow convicts, and the vigorous ordering of his day around work, prayer and meals- a punishment seeking control of the mind rather than wreaking vengeance on the body. Rules governed every detail of existence; personal identity was reduced to a number. To walk around Pentonville now is to see that system in complete breakdown. The terrifyingly small cells, which in 1842 used to contain running water, a proper lavatory, and perhaps a loom for one prisoner, now contain two prisoners, and no water, lavatory or work occupation. Later that day we had tea with one prison officer and a young female graduate assistant prison governor.

To hear them speak, they could have been anyone currently working for a public service, a teacher, nurse, doctor or railwayman. They complained of lack of funds, so that prisoners had to be locked up twenty-three hours a day sometimes, as there wasn’t the staff to supervise work. They talked with a kind of fatalism about the impossibility of prisoners actually reforming under the present conditions, and of how negatively they experienced the service being made into a political football. By chance I had a friend who had recently spent a few weeks at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Pentonville. From him I heard stories of how many prisoners subverted the system of punishment. He told me how they brewed up lethal alcoholic concoctions; of the breathtaking quantities of drugs they smuggled in; of how one of them had stolen a phone which, when doing odd jobs around the prison, he plugged in and called his wife. Indeed our prison officer recounted similar stories to us, almost with a kind of pride in the prisoners’ inventiveness at avoiding regulations.

While I was up in Stratford that summer, Michael Ignatieff’s splendid series Voices was being shown on Channel Four. Each week he and two guests would explore different aspects of the problems of modernity. I remember Saul Bellow speaking of the ‘moronic inferno’ of modern culture and Christopher Lasche on the ‘culture of narcissism’. A constant theme was the fragmentation of society into sectional interests and the decay of the public realm. Ignatieff summed up one programme in a way that was particularly pertinent to Measure for Measure. For Aristotle, ‘a human being cannot become a human being in full, until he becomes a citizen and shares the collective life of the public realm. This is the tradition we start from, the tradition that haunts us. The modern self, since Freud, poses acute questions to that classical political tradition. We are no longer producing selves capable of realising the Aristotelian vision.’ This was the varied soup of thoughts and experiences I brought in at the start of rehearsals to begin the more practical task of finding some sort of character for the Duke.

The Duke’s first speeches in Act One, Scene One I found difficult to understand because of the complex and involved sentence structure. He constantly repeats and qualifies himself, trying to pin down his meaning more precisely. He is reductive of his own worth and ability to govern in comparison with that of Escalus:

your own science
Exceeds, in that, the list of all advice
My strength can give you. (line 3-5)

Even though he says he has elected Angelo to be his deputy ‘with special soul’, he twice asks Escalus what he thinks of the idea, betraying the lack of confidence in it.

‘Lent him our terror…’: this struck me as fortuitous double meaning. ‘Terror’ means both the Duke’s temporal power of government, and also literally his own fear. Perhaps fear is driving him from the court: fear of government. When Angelo enters, the Duke again goes into complex and self-deprecating arguments about Angelo’s inherent virtue and his public use of it:

Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee

for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. (lines 29-35)

The implication is one of self-criticism by way of praising Angelo. Once he tells Angelo of his appointment, he becomes far less repetitive in his haste to leave. He clearly hands over to Angelo the power of judgement:

Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good. (lines 64-6)

In Act One, scene Three we learn not only the Duke’s reasons for leaving, but also hear an interesting self-description:

No, holy fatheMeasure for Measure 11r, throw away that thought;
Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom

My holy sir, none better knows that you
How I have ever loved the life removed
And held in ideal price to haunt assemblies
Where youth and cost a witless bravery keeps. (lines 1-10)

The last sentence is a variant on a sentiment he expresses in Scene One; not exactly self-deprecating here, in fact a rather rarefied opinion of himself as being somehow above life, or certainly above ordinary human existence.

He then admits to having made a complete mess of governing
We have strict statues and most biting laws

Which for this fourteen years we have let slip. (lines 19-21)

‘Fourteen year’, no less. A long, slow, process of decay. When criticised by Friar Thomas for not carrying through the difficult political task of unloosening ‘this tied up justice’, he expresses guilt at what he has done and fear of the consequences of putting it right. He makes interesting use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ throughout the scene.

I do fear, too dreadful.
Sith twas my fault to give the people scope,
Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what bid them do: for me bid this be done
When evil deeds have their permissive pass… (lines 34-8; italics mine)

Perhaps this shows how enmeshed his own personality has become with his public office. This is something Angelo does later in Act Two, Scene Two when he identifies himself with the law. The Duke overrides any misgivings Friar Thomas may have about his disguise plan, and ends the scen with a description of Angelo as being inhumanly certain:

Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses
That his blood flows. (lines 51-2)

The last line seems to suggest that the Duke is testing Angelo in some way:

Hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (lines 53-4)

He then disappears for a long time.

I could only begin to make sense of this seemingly contradictory picture of the Duke by looking at Act One, Scene Two, in which he does not appear. Here we see the direct results of fourteen years of non-government, and also the immediate effect of Angelo’s rule. We move from the court into the world of pimps and whores, a public street-life teeming with vitality, but one that is corrupt. We stressed this very strongly in our production. The grey cut-away coats and knee-breeches of the court gave way to outrageous cycling shorts and Doc Marten boots. Most of our whores were rent-boys, run by Pompey, working a gents’ toilet that rose from the floor. This was our attempt to de-anaesthetise the clichéd presentation of prostitutes in Shakespeare’s plays, and thus shock and awaken our audience anew to the meaning of the scene. Jeremy Sams’s jazz-rock music helped enormously here. The brothels are being closed, we discover, although a ‘wise burgher’ seems to have bought up those in the city.

The public parade and imminent execution of Claudio focuses the issues. It is Angelo’s first act as deputy. An example is going to be made, not of a prostitute or pimp, but of someone who, as Escalus says, ‘had a most noble father’. A fundamentalist and prescriptive government is making its intentions clear. This scene helped me get a sense of how Measure for Measure 9massively the Duke has failed. I began to form a picture of a man who was a recluse, an intellectual, and a celibate; a man with a rapid mind, but who has, in a sense, thought himself into paralysis and inaction. We tried to get this idea across, at the beginning of the play, with the Duke transfixed, staring into space, while around him civil servants were trying to get him to sign important papers. Only Escalus could wake him from his trance, and even then his hand trembled so he could barely sign his own name.

The Duke has to do something drastic before he ceases to function altogether. Flight seems the only solution. The disguised ruler who seeks true knowledge of his world is an old story that Shakespeare refers to and makes revolutionary use of. Above all things the Duke lacks certainty. Angelo, on the other hand, seems absolutely certain of how to live and govern. Perhaps fourteen years ago the Duke was certain too.

Hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (lines 53-4)

Does the experience and responsibility of power change your belief in how to live, even if you seem absolutely certain? The line relates to the Duke as much as to Angelo. He needs to discover how power has changed his own purpose. The only way he can do so is by becoming someone else. Angelo is used because he seems certain, not because he is suspected of being a hypocrite. But above all the Duke is testing himself. The Duke constantly uses other people, Angelo, Claudio, Isabella, even Lucio, as a means of self-knowledge. The breakdown in the state is reflected by a breakdown in the Duke himself. This also ties in with the sense of self-importance he betrays to Friar Thomas in Act One, Scene Three. Having a nervous breakdown is quite an egotistical thing to do. The pride is concealed but none the less is there.

The next time we see the Duke, in Act Two, Scene Three, so much else has happened that we almost need to be reminded of his existence. Like Angelo, he equates sexuality with sin: ‘Repent you, fair one, of the sin you carry?’ (line 19). This scene always felt like the descent into Hades, as lines of prisoners were being signed into the prisoner.

‘Be absolute for death’ seemed not only the Dukes nadir, but also the nadir of the whole play. Life itself has become utterly valueless, sex and procreation are equated with sin and death. Angelo rejects sexuality and sentence people to death for it. He can only conceive of his own desires as bestial. The Duke at this point seems to agree, and becomes passionately articulate as never before as he equates life with all that is worthless, foolish, base and ignoble:

Thou art not thy self.
For thou exists on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not,
For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get,
And what thou hast, forget’st. Thou are not certain,
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. (lines 19-25)

These seemed to me the central lines of the speech. I found that if I related the lines to myself as much as to Claudio the speech was unlocked for me, and a central part of the Duke’s character fell into place. His sense of self has fragmented into ‘many a thousand grains’ of dust. Certainty about how to live is therefore no longer possible, as wants and desires are affected by something as arbitrary as the moon. I found again and again that it was more fruitful and dynamic to try to say the words as if the ideas were being discovered for the first time. In a sense the purpose of the Duke’s journey through the play so far is to realise completely his own sceptical fatalism. But somehow this can only be expressed through someone else’s situation. The Duke is therefore using Claudio to realise something about himself. For the Duke at this point, life equals being dead but having to live.

The revelation of Angelo’s utter hypocrisy is a complete bombshell. Rape is the very last thing the Duke expects of him. This, and hearing Claudio passionately express an opposite view of death and life, is the turning-point for the Duke:

The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death

Sweet sister let me live (III. i. 132-7)

‘Let me live’ could easily be the Duke’s motto from now on. The problem here is how to view the Duke’s knowledge of Mariana and Angel, as it seems to suggest that the Duke has always thought Angelo a hypocrite. Nick encouraged me to tell Isabella the story very much in the present tense, almost discovering it on the moment. Doing it this way, Angelo’s corruption becomes a vital new factor that makes it possible to completely reinterpret his previous behaviour towards Mariana. The Duke then seizes on Angelo’s failure with enormous relief and ‘this well-seeming Angelo’ became a line expressing delight. Isabella’s predicament becomes a straw that the Duke clutches at to haul himself out of his own crisis. Revealing his true identity is not yet possible- he has no actual legal proof as yet, but somehow, more importantly, he is not ready. Being a Duke would still mean paralysis, whereas as the Friar he has become someone who can use his intellect to solve problems, make judgements, and act upon them immediately whilst responding to events as they occur. He is, as it were, living. He is also speaking prose rather than verse.

‘It is aMeasure for Measure 10 rupture that you may easily heal’ (line 236). Perhaps he senses dimly that his ‘rupture’ could be something more all-embracing than just bringing to book a corrupt deputy. The ‘rupture’ certainly apples as much to himself as to that between Angelo and Marianan. The stakes are very high. Everything hangs by a thread: ‘If you think well to carry this, as you may, the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof’ (line 256).

‘If’ is one of the most important words in the play.

ISABELLA: If he had been as you, and you as he,
You would have slipped liked him; but he, like you,
Would not have been so stern. (II. Ii. 64-6)
Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault; if it confess
A natural guiltlessness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life. (II. Ii. 136-41)In Act Two, Scene Two Isabella asks Angelo to consider an alternative course of action, and to put himself in Claudio’s place. He rejects this even when he admits when he admits his ‘guiltiness’ to himself. Although Isabella is in some ways as ‘absolute’ as Angelo in her attitudes, she is able to consider alternatives, and to take them, both through necessity and through a more generous spirit. The ability to this on her part and on behalf of others like that Provost is crucial in the play’s movement towards a fragile optimism.
The evil that thou causest to be done,
That is thy means to live.

Say to thyself,
From their abominable and beastly touches
I drink, I eat, array myself, and live. (III. Ii. 18-23)

The Duke may now have taken on a more positive attitude towards life, but the problems of exactly how to live are still as present as ever- except of course for Pompey and Lucio, who represent for the Duke everything that fourteen years of non-government have produced. The scene with Alex Jennings’s Lucio was always great fun to play. Throughout the run of more than a year we would always give each other notes on how it had gone, in the interval. The Duke is flustered and angered by Lucio’s scandalous descriptions of him; at the same time he is provoked to begin reconstructing his view of himself: he becomes humanised by being the object of humour. It amused me very much that the insult which really works and upsets him is not his supposed lechery, but his lack of wisdom: ‘A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow’ (III. ii. 132). It is this that makes the Duke let rip in his own eloquent defence. This seemed to be a further clue to the strange sense of pride the Duke has in his own seriousness of purpose. He is almost proud of his nervous breakdown. He somehow wants credit for giving himself a very hard time.

We had taken the decision not to stress the Duke’s disguise in any physical way. Having been such a recluse, he would only be recognised when wearing the outward trappings of dukedom. The only person who would recognise him under any circumstances would be Escalus, so I took great care to cover my face with my friar’s hood in the scene with him. Escalus was beautifully played by the late Mark Dignam, who effortlessly gave the sense of the older, easy-going, senior civil servant man. He had played the Provost in Tyrone Guthrie’s 1934 production, and also in Peter Brook’s 1950 production, and was heard to remake close to opening night that our effort had ‘got to be the best since Brook’s’. He was of course biased- but it did boost my confidence.

ESCALUS: What news abroad I’th’ world?
DUKE: None, but that there is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it… There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but security enough to make fellowships accursed. (III. ii. 211-16)

The last line was rendered more effective by our decision to remain in the prison for this scene. This is a wonderfully compressed speech which I found useful in the way it shows how the Duke has been observing the particular betrayals of Pompey and Kate Keepdown by Lucio, and making connections between them and the state of things in general.

ESCALUS: One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself.
DUKE: What pleasue was he given to?

ESCALUS: … a gentleman of all temperance. (III. ii. 222-7)

The Duke desperately needs to hear a more positive view of himself than Lucio’s. I used to clasp Escalus’s shoulder with relief and then whip it away in case I got recognised- which got a nice laugh.

If his own life answer the straitness of his proceeding, it shall become him well; whereas if he chance to fall, he hath sentenced himself. (line 246)

Here is further evidence that a plan is forming in the Duke’s mind of how to use Angelo’s failure to heal the rupture of which he has spoken to Isabella. I tried to suggest on the line that the Duke is literally imagining Angelo sentencing himself.

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe. (lines 249-50)

This is one of the two short soliloquies the Duke has: the more I did this speech, the more I became convinced that in developing a critique of fundamentalism, the Duke is questioning the validity of bearing the ‘sword of heaven’ at all: ‘Craft against vice must I apply.’ Practical, political ‘craft’ must be used against ‘vice’ rather than some abstract heavenly notion of absolute virtue. A big ‘if’ hangs over the Duke’s ‘craft’, however, for his plan relies completely on Mariana agreeing to it, and also on the Provost’s assistance:

The best and wholesom’st spirits of the night
Envelop you, good Provost. (IV. Ii. 70-1)

The Duke is breezy and confident on his return to the prison, as Mariana has agreed to the plan. David Howey’s world-weary Provost, wearing an old cardigan over his breeches and clutching a mug of tea, was a great help here.

PROVOST: What comfort is for Claudio?
DUKE: There’s some in hope. (line 74-5)

The Duke almost enjoys the Provost’s lack of hope in the knowledge that Claudio’s reprieve will come. He feels in control, until Angelo’s further betrayal destroys it. Once again he clutches at straws and comes up with the Barnardine plot: ‘O, death’s a great disguiser.’ In his desperation, death has become a useful ‘disguiser’ rather than something to be absolute for.

The Provost’s unwillingness to commit himself almost forces the Duke to reveal his identity. Instead he shows him the letter he has written to Angelo announcing his return:

This is a thing that Angelo knows not, for he this very day receives letters of strange tenor, perchance of the Duke’s death, perchance entering some monastery, but chance nothing of what is writ. (lines 192-4)

I felt strongly that if Angelo had not proved a hypocrite the Duke would never have returned to Vienna. He would either have entered ‘some monastery’ or, remembering the despair of ‘be absolute for death’, would have committed suicide. The only reason this is not happening is ‘by chance’. A series of chances and ‘ifs’ has occurred to pull the Duke back from despair. I tried to achieve this in the speech by allowing brief refelective moments, although the main objective is the persuasion of the Provost: ‘All difficulties are but easy when they are known’ (line 198). Again, I tried to realise this as an all-embracing statement as well as an explanation to the Provost.

The Duke is very up at this point, his mind is racing and he is making connections on many levels about himself, at the same time as explaining what has happened to the somewhat dazed Provost. Phil Daniels, as a marvellously sleazy Pompey, is now practically running the prison, handing out drugs with the books from his mobile library unit. The realisation of these scenes and the attitudes of the prisoners, Provost, and guards was directly influenced by our visit to Pentonville.

The Barnardine sequence is central in the working out of the life and death themes in the play. Here is someone who has spent nine years in prison, is a convicted murderer and yet somehow is absolute for life. He refuses to die, and will live whatever the circumstances. He also refuses to be controlled, and with Gordon Case’s massive physique as Barnardine, it was believable that he could resist. Barnardine, Pompey and indeed all of the prisoners embodied a spirit of resistance to all control and an affirmation of life which may be corrupt but is positive.

The following scene, with Isabella, provided the most difficult problem concerning the detail of the Duke’s behaviour. Why does he not tell her that Claudio is alive? I hated the idea that hewas somehow going to teach Isabella about mercy, rather than the other way round, but at first the scene seemed to force one down that path.

We looked very closely at the scene just before it, with the Provost. He now knows the Duke’s true identity and they are working as a team. The Duke seizes on the Ragozine solution, but the Provost makes him consider the difficulties:

PROVOST: But Bernardine must die this afternoon,
And how shall we continue Claudio,
To save me from the danger that might come
If he were known alive?
DUKE: Put them in secret holds

You shall find your safety manifested. (IV. iii. 81-8)

Also the Duke’s line when the Provost is taking the head of Ragozine to Angelo:

Make a swift return,
For I would commune with you of such things
That want no ear but yours. (IV. iii. 120-3)

The situation is very dangerous; it is of the utmost importance that no one other than these two should know of the Duke’s plan to ‘enter publically’ at the city gates and ‘proceed with Angelo’ ‘by cold graduation and well-balanced form’.

It satisfied me intellectually that we could pursue this interpretation without bending the text. It was, however, difficult to make clear in playing, as it happens so quickly. One further thing helped us. Almost by accident, we ignored the editorial exit for the Provost after his line ‘I’ll make all speed’ (line 103) keeping him on and therefore allowing him to hear Isabella’s offstage ‘Peace, ho, be here.’ This meant I could do the following speech as a shared problem:

The tongue of Isabel. She’s come to know
If yet her brother’s pardon be come hither. (lines 103-4)

That has, yet again, to be very quickly on the hoof: ‘But I will keep her ignorant of her good.’ Then, in a desperate attempt to make a virtue out of necessity- ‘To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected’ (iv. iii. 108-9)- just, in a sense, as she has done for the Duke. A hasty solution from a desperate man, who then has to face the awful consequences of telling Isabella that her brother is dead. I tried in performance to show how difficult and agonising this was for the Duke and was greatly helped by the emotional honesty and directness which Josette Simon brought to Isabella:

If you can, pace your wisdom
In that good path that I would wish to go. (lines 131-2)

‘If’ again. The plan still relies on Isabella being prepared to confront Angelo in public:

For my poor self,
I am combined by a sacred vow
And shall be absent (lines 142-4)

Josette used to fling her arms around me in desperation at the prospect of the Friar not being there to support her. Throughout the play the Duke has used Isabella’s crisis as a means to solve his own. His desperation borders on ruthlessness, and I think at times he realises quite how much he has put Isabella through. In Act Three, Scene One he says to her ‘It lies much in your holding up’ (line 263). And indeed here he is relying on her again. In exchange he offers her

Grace of the Duke, revenges to your heart,
And general honour. (lines 134-5)

His gratitude and guilt are transferring into love, and a nun and a friar are clasped in each others arms:

LUCIO: Good even, Friar (line 148)

If course it got a huge laugh, Alex doing the line in his most suggestive manner. The Duke is still totally flustered by Lucio, and as we played it, Alex forcibly detained me to pour yet more filth in my ear.

I loved playing this scene, as it shows the wonderfully varied and daring way in which Shakespeare uses his material, constantly undercutting pathos with farce, and sustaining a thriller-like quality.

Act Five seemed a minefield of problems in rehearsal, but never in performance, as the working-our of the story seemed to take over. At the start we know the Duke intends to ‘proceed with Angelo… by cold graduation and well balanced form’ (IV. iii. 98-9). The public nature of the plan is all-important and is something to which the Duke ironically refers in his opening speeches to Angelo:

we hear
Such goodness of your justice that our soul
Cannot but yield you forth to public thanks,
Forerunning more requital. (v. i. 5-8)

In Act Four, Scene Five he has said to Friar Peter:

And hold you ever to our special drift,
Though sometimes you do blench from this to that,
As cause doth minister. (lines 4-6)

He is aware that although he may be is possession of more information and therefore one step ahead of Angelo, that still does not put him in complete control; things could go wrong. For me, then, his entrance was powerful and impressive but shot through with nerves.

The first problem he encounters is Angelo’s claim that Isabella is mad. Indeed, she seems hysterical in the public context, using extreme language to describe Vienna’s most famous puritan. She calls him ‘a murderer’, ‘an adulterous thief’, ‘an hypocrite’, and a ‘virgin violator’. The Duke has to seem to dismiss her until she argues more rationally. Even so, when she later calls Angelo ‘this pernicious caitiff’, the Duke has to warn her ‘That’s somewhat madly spoken.’ Through the first section Angelo has several opportunities to confess, and I used to make small pauses to give him the chance to speak; before

Away with her. Poor soul,
She speaks this in th’infirmity of sense. (lines 46-7)


Many that are not mad
Have sure more lack of reason. (lines 67-8)

and after

If he had so offended,
He would have weighed thy brother by himself,
And not have cut him off. (lines 110-12)

Later, however, he does annoying and unpredictable damage to the Duke’s plan.

In ‘Be absolute for death’ the Duke has encouraged Claudio to ‘reason thus with life’, in a completely negative way. Now Isabella asks to Duke to put his ‘reason’ to proper use:

but let your reason serve
To make the truth appear where it seems hid,
And hide the false seems true. (lines 65-7)

Her line describes a crucial change that has taken place in the Duke since ‘Be absolute for death.’ Throughout the scene I kept my eyes very much on Angelo. The Duke is half convinced that he will break down and confess. When he does not, the Duke is forced to arrest Isabella to prevent her disappearing in the crowd, and also to get her to name Friar Lodowick as her accomplice: ‘Who knew of your intent and coming hither?’

LUCIO: My lord, I know him, ’tis a meddling friar.

A saucy friar,
A very scurvy fellow. (lines 127-36)

The Duke is again flustered and thrown off course by Lucio. He needs to hear a more favourable view of Friar Lodowick from Friar Peter, not only to suit his plan, but also because he cannot bear Lucio’s constant slander of him, whether in disguise or not. Also, there is a slight element of truth in ‘a saucy friar’, as he was found in rather compromising circumstances with Isabella.

Come, cousin Angelo,
In this I’ll be impartial. Be you judge
In your own cause. (line 165-7)

This is the point the Duke has been leading up to sing ‘if he chance to fail, he hath sentenced himself’ (lines 239-40), at the end of Act Three, Scene Two.

After the Mariana section Angelo is convinced that Isabella and Mariana are involved in a plot against him, but thinks he may be able to avoid the consequences:

ANGELO: Let me have way, my lord,
To find this practise out,

DUKE: think’st thou thy oaths,
Though they would sear down each particular saint,
Were testimonies against his worth and credit
That’s sealed in approbation. (lines 236-43)

There is much concealed anger towards Angelo in the bitter irony of the Duke’s reply, and disbelief that he is prepared to go so far in denying his guilt.

It always amused me that the only excuse the Duke can think of tow leave the stage to change is simply, ‘I for a while will leave.’ I used briefly to pause, panic-stricken, before the line, trying to think of a good reason, and then just rush off. It got a nice laugh.

My business in this state
Made me a looker-on here in Vienna,
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’errun the stew. Laws for all faults,
But fault so countenanced that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber’s shop,
As much in mock as mark. (lines 314-20)

The Duke wants and needs to say these things publicly- ‘Stay, sir, stay awhile’- and clearly has more to say, by way of leading up to an impressive revelation of himself, but, once again, Lucio messes things up.

‘Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure’ (line 408): obviously the Duke cannot actually have Angelo executed, as then how could he reveal that Claudio was alive? I felt that he wants to put Angelo through exactly the kind of despair and anguish that Claudio went through whilst facing death. ‘Measure still for Measure’ then suggests that there is still more judgement to be meted out. Perhaps, also, it is a kind of gift of revenge to Isabella, as he promised her in Act Four, Scene Three:

And you shall have your bosom on this wretch,
Grace of the Duke, revenges to your heart,
And general honour. (lines 133-5)

This means that he still cannot tell her that Claudio is alive. I resisted the notion that the Duke teaches Isabella about mercy in this scene. It can be played that way, but we rejected it and in doing so did not have to bend the text. We felt strongly that Isabella is a positive character. Her wish to be a strict nun may be naive, in some ways, but on the other hand a life of contemplation praying for the world is a noble aspiration. The play questions living life by absolute abstract values, but in the end the absolute value of mercy, which Isabella embodies in her plea, is celebrated:

Thoughts are no subjects,
Intents but merely thoughts. (lines 133-5)

She has the great generosity of spirit to take the curse of guilt off Angelo, and in doing so teaches the Duke one final lesson. At the start of the play, people are sentenced to death for sex, the act of procreation; after Isabella’s plea the Duke sentences everyone to life, even Barnardine who ‘apprehends no further than this world’, and especially Angelo, who ‘craves death more willingly than mercy’.

For me then, as the Duke, Isabella’s plea was an astonishing unlooked for event. When Mariana first begs her to plead, I played a moment of horror that yet more should be asked of her. Then, on Mariana’s second speech, I half hoped that she would plead. On ‘He dies for Claudio’s death’, I thought that she couldn’t, and was returning to the original scheme of taking Angelo to the brink of death. The Duke’s plan has become a quest for resolution, an attempt to heal the public and private ruptures of himself and the world; a quest for a happy ending. Isabella’s plea achieves it in unimagined ways. Marriage represents a happy ending in the comedy form, but in Measure for Measure the ending is deliberately ambiguous. Isabella says nothing to the Duke’s proposals. I stammered hesitantly on the first one, and Josette used to look at me in disbelief at the Duke’s crass timing. It got a wonderful laugh on ‘but fitter time for that’, but I was trying to show the Duke’s realisation of the anguish and pain he has put Isabella through. Marriage for Angelo, and for Lucio, is double-edged. They have to live with the consequences of their actions. But marriage has a large meaning. Many things have to be married in order that life may go on in a better way and with more honesty than it has in the past.


In the closing speech I used to look at Isabella between each sentence, trying to summon up the courage for another attempt:

Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine. (line 531-4)

A last, final, big ‘if’. Josette gave me a long appraising stare, and still did not consent. The play stops rather than ends, leaving many possibilities in the air. Shakespeare often writes characters who refuse resolution in his comedies- Malvolio, Jacques, Shylock, Antonio- but here he uses the device for the whole play. Connections have been made between Measure for Measure and the Romances, and indeed there are similarities. But the Duke has no magic like Prospero, and there is no statue to come to life. You are left at the end with a number of meanings and possibilities, and a number of new stories about to start. The possibility for Angelo resides in the crucial figure of Mariana. Because she has remained faithful, Mariana has somehow made sexuality and desire all right. Perhaps hope for them resides in what happened in Angelo’s ‘garden house’. Perhaps it was a intensely erotic experience.

In our production we tried to show this open, unresolved ending by putting a wordless coda after the text has finished. In Mark Thompson’s set the huge city gates had been drawn up to reveal a kind of idyllic pastoral never-never land beyond. The people of Vienna were behind crash barriers at the back. The Duke is left standing between them and they reach out over the crash barriers at the back. The Duke is left standing between them and they reach out over the crash barriers to shake his hand. (This was in the London version; in Stratford they used to surround me, but this was constantly misunderstood as threatening.) They go, leaving Claudio, Juliet, and their new baby on one side of the stage, Angelo and Mariana on the other. Isabella goes towards the pastoral scene at the back, stops, and turns back towards the city and the Duke as the lights go down. People often used to ask me whether they married or not, annoyed at our denying them a happy ending, or suspicious at our being over-optimistic. We thought probably they did, but only after a very long conversation.

Peter Brook has likened Shakespeare’s plays to planets. At certain points in history particular plays orbit closer or further away from earth. Measure for Measure seems close to us now because the unresolved tensions between public and private worlds, and it looks at these tensions through the prism of sexuality. We could only have come up with our particular view of the text at our point in history, that is, post-feminism, post-Aids, and post-Thatcherism. Fifteen to twenty years ago, in the first flush of sexual-liberation, productions of the play often revolved around whether or not Isabella was a sexual hysteric. Post-feminism and post-Aids , Isabella has become a much more sympathetic character. Fifteen to twenty years ago many people viewed the state and its public institutions as corrupt, or useless, or repressive. After all the Thatches privatisations, many of those same people look back with nostalgia and regret to those times of greater consensus. Productions of Measure for Measure, a play which deals so directly with these very issues, will inevitably reflect these changes.

if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine. (v. i. 533-4)

The play’s refusal to end neatly throws these questions back at us. It almost seems to open its hands and shrug to us, as, like Isabella, we are asked to consider the possibilities. It leaves me with the sense that life is all there is, so we might as well live it as best we can; that being human is not a given but something we have to strive for. That the reason we are here it to live and that this involves making many difficult judgements.

The role of the Duke was the most difficult, rewarding, and varied that I have undertaken. Whenever I got stuck on matters of individual motivation, it was usually thinking about the whole play and the direction it seemed to be taking that unlocked the character for me.

Written for Players of Shakespeare 3: Further Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1994.

2 thoughts on “Roger Allam on The Duke from ‘Measure for Measure’

  1. I’m doing Measure for my A-level, and this was really helpful and interesting, even though I couldn’t disagree more. Really looking forward to seeing the Dogwalker play with Ian McKellen this June!

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