What I love about this play: Vice laws. Prostitution. Abuse of power. Reassuring proof that political sex scandals worked exactly the same way 400 years ago: the ones caught up in them are always the loudest moral crusaders. One of the tensest, kinkiest seduction scenes in the history of drama, surpassing even Richard and Lady Anne. (Also, “groping for trouts in a peculiar river,” which is the most awesome euphemism for sex since “making the beast with two backs.”)
Continuing my usual practice of Liking the Villain Better, I must confess that I have a lot more sympathy for Angelo than Vincentio. (Oh, all right, I think Angelo is hot. I recognize that what he does to both Isabella and Mariana is appalling, but I’d have capitulated somewhere around “We are all frail” – there’s something about the repressed deputy having to confess that his blood is not, after all, very snow-broth. Also, his soliloquies always get me – the way he recognizes the trap he’s fallen into – “the temptation that doth goad us on / To sin in loving virtue” – and wants to turn away from it, and isn’t strong enough. And then, afterwards, he’s tortured by it: “This deed unshapes me quite ... Would yet he had lived. / Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, / Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not.”)
“Grace” is such a key word in this play; there are constant reminders that “in the course of justice none of us / should see salvation”; grace is the best that humans can hope for, and we’d better start by granting mercy to each other. (I think it’s really Mariana, rather than the Duke or Isabella, who personifies this principle, with her “best men are moulded out of faults” line. I wish we saw more of Mariana.) This is an imperfect philosophy, as imperfect as everything else in this play, and taken to extremes it leads to absurdity (witness Barnardine, who has been in prison for nine years and can’t be executed because he’s perpetually “unmeet for death”). But it’s all we’ve got. And without the ability to give or accept mercy and forgiveness, we’re all Barnardines – “careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal,” in the Provost’s chilling words.
Oh, and Isabella is such a fantastic character – smart, eloquent, determined to hold onto her integrity in the face of incredible pressure – but she has to learn to embrace compromise and accept human frailty the hard way. (I like to think her silence is a “no,” by the way; I recognize it’s at odds with the structure of comedy, but so is much else in this play. I think the clue comes early, in Francesca’s explanation of the convent’s peculiar rule: “Then if you speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak.” At the end of Act 5, I believe that once Isabella has made the public accusation she came to make, she considers herself already vowed and subject to the rules of her order.)
Finally: There is a Plot Device Pirate in jail in Vienna. That always cracks me up; was Shakespeare under the impression that Vienna, like Bohemia, possessed a seacoast? (Well, OK, from the character names, he also seems to be under the impression that it’s in Italy, so why not?)
Favorite memory: A Washington University student performance a few years back – probably the single best undergraduate Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen. I think this one shaped a lot of my affection for Angelo, because he was clearly shaken to the core by the revelations of the last scene, to the point where he seemed about to collapse if he hadn’t had Mariana to prop him up, and it made me believe absolutely in their relationship.