{Sun 13 May 2007}   Overdoing Mistress Overdone in Washington?
Yesterday we hosted one of our regular Shakespeare readings at home. The company was jolly and the food delicious, if very simple (crudites with organic hummus to start, then homemade veggie soup with homemade crusty bread at the halfway point, and strawberries and Lindt Lindor Extra Dark choccy balls for the final act!). With the help of some French organic cider and a very good Pinot Noir, the group launched into Measure for Measure with great energy, scrambling bravely over the rocky bits (French velvet and English kersey) and breaking out every so often for a spot of outrage or insight as we are wont to do. We were delighted by the variety of temperaments our readers captured in both large and small parts, with a menacingly sepulchral Angelo, Lucio as a canny, sassy, irreverent ne’er-sit-down whose wordplay gleamed like swordplay, Francisca sporting an Irish accent, a self-righteous Elbow, a truculent Barnardine, the passionate virgin Isabella, and all the other characters whose hilarious and shocking contrasts only fully emerge when embodied.

The play was, as always, very timely. We yielded willingly to the Bard’s genius in creating characters, situations and wordplay that make us laugh uproariously while reflecting on themes of moral hypocrisy, the unequal values placed on the testimonies of women and men, the power-relationships of relative rank, money, reputation, class and gender, over-legislation and interference by the state, and the obsession with sex as a focus for legislation and judgement due to supposed “public interest”, with repression the chosen tool despite the evidence of history that it is neither possible nor desirable to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (Pompey to Escalus, MforM Act II Sc i).

These topics are so ubiquitous and familiar still from our own everyday politics that it’s hard to blame anyone who takes up an attitude as cynical as Lucio’s, determining simply to follow whichever path (and suck up to whichever power source) is likely to lead to the greatest personal licence right now. However, in Shakespeare’s time one had a lot less choice about one’s position and advancement in society (at least relative to those who live in more or less democratic cultures now — I know that the majority of the world still lacks this privilege). Why don’t those of us who can in the 21st century require our leaders and opinion-formers in church and state and media to concentrate on education, health, gender equality and poverty relief or any of the other things where their intervention could actually be useful, rather than spending our time and our money on the prosecution of people whose service exists because of society’s need and desire to use it?

I say this in connection with “The madam, her girls and a city in fear” in the Mail&Guardian. How much has changed since Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure? Well, I smiled as I thought that it seems clear that the primal needs and the political motivations of the players haven’t altered at all, but at least there is a possibility that Mistress Overdone may get more airtime. That, at least, brings a bit of balance to the exploitation equation.

Overall, the play’s a peachy preach on a theme that’s too little heard these days:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

And I love the open question at the end… did Isabella say yes to Vincentio?

Gerry Timlin says:

A rich reading indeed, great fun and such wonderful hospitality and generosity of spirit too! As a visiting ‘outsider’, I reflected later whether a pre-reading requirement followed-up by group discussion of issues/themes, based on textual instances/quotes, could reap further insights and rewards rather than so much time devoted to merely mouthing the entire play? And, in typical self-reflexive mode I’ve decided to answer myself…. It is, in fact, more entertaining to render the whole play and to spontaneously bring up or respond to aspects of the text than perhaps being tempted to focus on one or two specifics. Lang may yer Bardophile lums reek. I vote for KL next.

Hilary Lee says:

I don’t think the play was one of Will’s liveliest, but it does seem to reflect a change of culture under a change of monarch. I have just read the article you linked re Mistress Overdone in Washington, truly pertinent to the themes Shakespeare was highlighting, and I do agree that there many other issues that should receive attention. Maybe people should rather be helped to celebrate life and the joy of living than be pilloried in our modern stocks for trying to stay sane in a political and business environment which is pressurized and mechanistic.

Regarding Gerry’s thoughts on just dealing with the themes, I think our friend, Will, deals with stories so secretively that we generally find that the themes pop out, surprising us.

My vote is to avoid another ‘problem’ play for the time being. I’d rather go for something a bit lighter, but my vote goes for 1st King Lear, 2nd Merchant of Venice, 3rd Cymbeline.

Wonderful food indeed…the best we’ve had…thank you Tia and Eyal.

Well I arrived rushed and anxious with a sense of urgency…late for the reading…I certainly was straight into my character, Isabella…feeling anxious and is it all too late for my brother to be saved from death and the very next day was to be his execution!!!

There I was pleading for his life even though I was a novice Nun and against sex out of wedlock and indeed sex itself!!!

The only course of action that might save Claudio, was to have sex with the “judge”…how hypocritical indeed of him. I was determined to get him to see sense and equally determined to stay true to myself and my virginity and not go against my beliefs and values. By staying true to myself, the Law of Attraction, stepped in and a solution appeared against all odds! However it did not save my brother.

In my life, I believe it is important to stay true to my core beliefs and values. I beliver whoever we are, whatever we want, we attract. What a wonderful group of Shakespeare lovers I have attracted.

How interesting also that the “judge” as Tia said was indeed judging Claudio and wanting, no desperate to have sex with me, Isabella, out of wedlock! I remember explaining to my children when they pointed at each other saying “He did this” or “She did that” how they each had one finger pointing forward and three pointing back at them. What we don’t or do like in others is in us. What we see is who we are…or at least a part of who we are. This is so important to remember in a relationship. How many times do couples accuse, “You said this” or “You said that”, just like my children and part of the plot in this play?

So did I say “Yes” to Vincentio? I felt very drawn to him despite the disguise as a Monk! And me a Novice!

Very interesting…thank you Tia.

Anita Jackson, author of “Rekindle the Magic in Your Relationship ~ Making Love Work” http://www.rekindlethemagic.com

Tia says:

Gerry, thank you for visiting and commenting. As you saw on Saturday night, we do enjoy discussing the themes of the play, but the main point of the evening is to engage with and experience them in Shakespeare’s own words. The plays as drama and poetry are beautiful and rich. Few of us can afford to see as many of them on stage as often as we’d like to, and few of us have acting experience or other opportunities to “take on” these characters that are so much a part of our literary and cultural history. We want to experience the play, rather than be academic about it. I love analysing literature and I do believe that analysis can enhance one’s enjoyment and deepen one’s appreciation of it, but the play must come first and most of us don’t have much more time than we’ve already set aside for this engagement! I’m glad you concluded that there was value in our approach and I do hope that you will join us again.

Hilary, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you agree that the Washington story is highly relevant to Measure for Measure (or vice versa). I’m not sure I agree with you fully about people not being “pilloried in our modern stocks for trying to stay sane… “. I think that depends very much on the circumstances. I do feel quite strongly that consensual sex, whether paid for or not, between two adults who are not coerced in any way, ought to be nobody’s business but their own, but I do believe that hypocrisy should be outed. The legislators who create the laws that enable the state to focus a city’s attention and crime-fighting resources on a high-class madam and her well-educated, well-paid girls, but don’t want it to be known that they use her services, are hypocritical. They are also hypocritical when they denounce her services, but ignore the exploitation of under-empowered and non-consenting women in their own country and around the world.

Anita, well, her actions did save Isabella’s brother at the end, but poor Isabella was kept in the dark about the fact that Claudio had escaped execution until almost the last moment of the play. I might have been inclined to deck the Duke rather than marry him at that point!

[…] TiaTalk {Thursday 13 March 2008}   Reality and truth Two things I read today seem to intersect – the first is this article by Elizabeth Pisani in The Guardian, Thursday March 13 2008 entitled “Spitzer’s true folly” and subtitled “A governor who pays for sex should know to mould social policies on reality, not morality”. Although light and not in-depth, it seems to me a very balanced and realistic view of the sex trade and I instinctively agree with the idea of regulation rather than the impossible fantasy of the elimination of the trade. I’m sure that when I think about it more deeply any number of caveats will arise, but essentially I’m not disposed to think of the women in that trade as any more “sinful” than anyone else and many of them may well be a lot more canny and a lot more grounded than most. There are some related thoughts in my post titled Overdoing Mistress Overdone in Washington. […]

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