Why does Shakespeare still fascinate? What can a 400-year-old play have to say in the age of Weinsteinian rapaciousness, Trumpian hypocrisy, government deadlock and battles over the place of mercy in the court?
For 15 years, questions like these have been aired and enacted at “Shakespeare and the Law,” a coproduction of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company — the folks who bring Shakespeare to Boston Common every summer — and the local chapter of the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative and libertarian legal professionals who are committed to limited government. Participants in the event always include a range of legal philosophies and, this being Boston, many lean far to the left of the Federalists.
The play under consideration this year was "Measure for Measure," which is all about the law and its application in a messy world.
Vincentio, the ruler of Vienna, is appalled by his city’s debauchery and decides to take a leave of absence. He appoints a young councilor, Angelo, to reign in his absence, with assistance from the more seasoned Escalus. Angelo is determined to enforce the laws against immorality and promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancée pregnant. Claudio’s sister, Isabel, who is about to take her vows as a nun, begs Angelo to spare her brother’s life. At first, he flatly denies her request — the law requires an execution. But Angelo becomes overwhelmed by lust for Isabel and says he will pardon her brother only if she will have sex with him.
The program took place at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston in the Back Bay. There was no set, no lighting, and no microphones; just a line of music stands and 11 judges, men and women, dressed in various shades of black holding binders. Amateur readings of Shakespeare usually range from boring to painful, but Steven Maler, director of Commonwealth Shakespeare, reassured us that this abridged reading had been rehearsed for several hours under the direction of theater professionals.
The play came to life. There was laughter at the bawdy bits. And when Isabel threatened to tell the world that Angelo had offered to save her condemned brothers’ life in exchange for her virginity, there a few gasps at his answer, which smelled of Cosby and The Donald.
"Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil'd name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i' the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny.
After the reading ended — with a well-practiced bow — the performers sat down with a few invited guests, while attorney Daniel J. Kelly — mastermind of “Shakespeare and the Law” — moderated a discussion. There was general agreement that laws regulating sexual conduct were pointless and doomed, and that Angelo’s hypocrisy and abuse of power were too blatant to warrant debate.
The conversation turned to the subject of how judges should enforce the law. Early in the play, Angelo, a strict constructionist, argues that that if the law will lose its power if it is not enforced:
“We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.“
Escalus, Angelo’s older colleague, disagrees. He compares the law to a tree that needs to be pruned in order to stay healthy.
“Let us be keen, and rather cut a little,
Than fall, and bruise to death. “
The Federalists in the room argued that within the American system of checks and balances, it is up to legislators — not judges — to change laws that contradict changing values, such as the statutes that, until recently, criminalized sodomy, mixed-race marriage and premarital sex. That is the way it’s supposed to work, but how much longer would it have taken to desegregate the nation’s schools without the legal challenge of Brown v. Board of Education?
When the subject of immigration came up, there was merit to the conservative argument that the law has been “made a scarecrow” by widespread disobedience. But when politics holds all legislative remedy hostage, Escalus’ case for judicial trimming and pruning seemed even stronger.
One of the more liberal judges talked about how mandatory minimum sentencing laws forced her to convict an 18-year-old boy of statutory rape because he’d had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. The rest of the jurists — including those who argue against the slippery slope of judicial discretion — shook their heads in sad recognition of the problem. One of the guest Federalists quietly added, “And then he has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.”
It was a pin-drop moment.
Before we adjourned, there were a few questions from the audience, the last one from a young man who stood up and asked, “What about mercy?”
Indeed. In the final scene of "Measure for Measure, the Duke reappears and reveals that he never left the city. He had seen the goings-on disguised as a humble friar and in that role orchestrates a finale full of plot twists.
Angelo, who had been tricked into thinking he’d slept with Isabel, reneges on his promise to spare Claudio and orders him executed anyway. For this, the Duke pronounces sentence on the villain:
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
The audience knows that Claudio is still alive but Isabel does not. And when Angelo’s spurned fiancée asks her to help her (“to lend a knee”) to save his life, Isabel pleads for him on the same grounds she used to defend her brother: that human frailty is universal and should be met with mercy.
“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 guiltiness, such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life.”
If Shakespeare had not tempered justice with mercy, "Measure for Measure" might have ended with a pile of corpses. But because mercy prevails, it ends with four weddings and the play becomes a comedy. It’s a peculiar comedy, in which justice is perverted, injustice is barely averted, the law is applied differently to people of different classes and women do not have the same rights as men.
No wonder we’re still watching.