Saturday, 6 November 2010

'Measure for Measure' - a Catholic play with a Protestant ending?

A whole raft of critics have recently shown an interest in Shakespeare and Catholicism. Alison Shell, Professor of English at Durham University, for example, has argued that "the relationship between Shakespeare and Catholicism is an interesting one which has often been underplayed; that Shakespeare's life and works can usefully be discussed in the light of it; and that Shakespeare may well have come from a Catholic family, though this need not imply that he was a Catholic himself." It may, incidentally, be worth pointing out that Shell is an Anglican and so has no Catholic axe to grind.

Other critics have also emphasised the importance of seeing Shakespeare in his Catholic context. Thomas Rist , for example, has written some interesting books and articles about Shakespeare and Catholicism while Manchester University Press has published books about Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare  and Secret Shakespeare: Studies in theatre, religion and resistance .

Given all this interest, what do we make of Measure for Measure, a play about a nun (and a friar, or a duke disguised as a friar) in Catholic Vienna?  According to Ernest Honigmann in Shakespeare. The 'Lost Years' (Manchester, 1985), p.123, Measure for Measure "activates latent active anti-Catholic feelings - while at the same time it manages to present a Catholic point of view persuasively from the inside." Alison Findlay , writing from a quite different critical perspective, comes up with a similar conclusion: "To regard Measure for Measure as anti-monastic satire, where Isabella's ideas 'are meant to differ sharply from those of a largely Protestant audience', fails to take account of the ways in which women might share her point of view because of religious or feminist sympathies."

In many ways Isabella is indeed the play's most interesting character, which, on the face of it, is rather surprising. Shakespeare's ability to give the marginal a voice is, of course, part of what makes him great but Isabella was not only a woman but a Catholic and not only a Catholic but a nun.

The big question is whether she can remain a nun after the play ends: the Duke, still dressed as a friar, twice proposes marriage and Isabella remains silent both times. As Arthur F. Marotti has argued, this is the dramatic crux of the whole play. Does Isabella abandon her vocation for marriage or does she hold out? Is this a Catholic play with a Protestant ending, where the foolish Catholic woman realises the error of her ways?

Or is it, more subversively, a Protestant play with a Catholic ending? Catholic Vienna, as depicted in this play, is rampantly dissolute: a 17th Century Protestant audience would have lapped it up. But Isabella doesn't give them the answer they would have wanted. She remains silent. The play remains ambiguous. The Catholic option is still open.

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