by David Cain
Our producers had determined to stage Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, one of the strangest of all his plays. The wild boy Claudio is sentenced to death for having sex by the uptight bureaucrat Angelo. Hypocritical and corrupt, Angelo offers to let Claudio go free, if he, Angelo, can have sex with Isabella, Claudio’s sister. Isabella, of course, intends to become a nun and not just any nun but an uber-chaste nun. Presented with the lascivious bargain as a way to save her unjustly condemned brother, Isabella refuses. Her chastity is more important than her brother.
Casting the play went well. The fellow playing Angelo was stern and serious, manly with a twinge of cowardice, confident while overly self-adoring. Claudio, by contrast, was smooth and attractive. His every word sounded charming but, in ways, a bit too staged, delightful and contrived. Everyone in the cast and crew lusted for Claudio.
Isabella proved more problematic. No one can lay claim to understanding the mind of Isabella. Beautiful beyond measure, innocently seductive, as desired as she is unavailable, the character is an enigma roll. What actress can wrap herself around a role like that? Our Isabella was certainly selected for her beauty, for none of the story made sense without that driving force of sparking longed-for sexuality. She was tested, then, in containing that aesthetic with an acted will. As pretty as the woman was, she had a proportionally herculean task of asserting her unavailability.
I don’t know how well the players knew each other before the play began rehearsal, but any deficiency in their acquaintance was rectified soon. All the stage is an orgy, a rotating and teeming conflagration of emotions and bodies, splayed across the hard wood, teasing and touching and wearing and wanting, pleading and pleasing. I won’t attempt to chart the interplay of relationships that came and went with each drawn and closed curtain. Actors are lovers. Despite any rules designed to contain the furious eroticisms, they loved.
No one can say how Isabella fell under Angelo’s spell. I think we all assumed that Isabella would join up with Claudio. They seemed to be cut from the same cloth, visually appealing, socially talented, licentious and libidinous. Angelo had a seriousness that seemed separate from the characters of the other two, sharp and severe. He carried an air of disapproval that seemed completely contrary to the libertine attitudes of our Isabella. Perhaps it is because opposites attract that Isabella was drawn to Angelo. Under his stern gaze, she became a melted youth. By the eighth rehearsal, in our second week of working together, Isabella shared Angelo’s bed. A symphony of signs made their union undeniably apparent. Her hand rested easily on Angelo’s thigh.
Love is never a static affair. Like any force of nature, with every action there is a reaction, although in the realms of lust, the equal and opposite nature of the resulting vectors are anything but equal. Our Claudio expressed, in almost subtle and generally non-verbal ways, an intense dissatisfaction at Isabella’s choice of companion. His antipathy worked in two distinct directions. First, Claudio believed that Isabella would be better suited to his company. In this we all agreed but love knows no reason and that was for Isabella to decide. Second, Claudio held steadfast to the idea that under no circumstances, even in the unexplainable reality where she did not choose him, Isabella should not abide Angelo. He was insufferable and Claudio was offended that Isabella should degrade herself so terribly.
We did not agree that Angelo was such a horrible choice, but we could understand why Claudio felt so. It seemed an odd selection, at the least.
Several weeks into rehearsal, we began to focus on the scene when Isabella informs Claudio that she has been given the opportunity to save his life by sleeping with Angelo. To the modern mind, this scene is unfathomable, for Isabella refuses to consider the possibility. She would rather let her brother die than submit to an hour of friendly groping. Isabella is a stone cold bitch. During the scene, she explains to her death-row sibling that the beheading is on because the maiden-head is secure.
Imagine this; you are about to die and your sister can save you by sleeping with some perfunctory administrator. She refuses to sully herself and you die with an axe blow to the neck. Do you speak well of your sister?
Of course, it may be the case that Isabella is aware of the literary antecedents that invoke the monstrous bargain. As the story goes, in the history of such stories, which is a rich history, when the woman agrees to the bargain and sleeps with the governor, the deal is universally reneged and the captive dies anyway. Assuming Isabella was well read, therefore, she could assume that had she slept with Angelo, Claudio would die anyway and so what’s the point?
It was clear, in rehearsal, that our modern day Isabella took issue with this heartless and overly chaste condemnation. Her distaste for the lines she spoke became a subtext to her reading. Although merely fiction, as she looked into Claudio’s eyes and told him, this man before her, supposed her beloved brother, that she would pray a thousand times for his death and never once for his redemption, the threads of this young woman’s heart broke, tearing the very fabric of her sensitive emotions. She could not bear to be so cruel, yet under the Bard’s direction, cruel she had no choice but be.
One late night at the theater, I commiserated with Claudio, as he bared his heart to expose his endless lust for our Isabella, sisterly distant though she had taken to keep him. He wanted her; he would have her; yet she maintained a serious familial response. She was cast to be his sister and as the play’s the thing, she would not bear to bring him to her more than sisterly embrace. He would have her but she would have no more of him than the relationship would endure.
In this air of near despair, Claudio and I happened to encounter a scene between our Isabella and the cold-hearted Angelo, in the back recesses of the dressing rooms. Although she kept her emotions in check, expressing perhaps some disdain for this method-acted perfunctory, he pleaded most eloquently for her attentions. He did not woo her heart, nor even her time, but merely her attention, namely the pleasure of her tongue to quickly satisfy the eagerness of his member.
There are things that cannot be seen on stage that are all too easily seen behind the stage. This was our vision, Claudio and mine, as the beauteous Isabella knelt before Angelo, albeit reluctantly, if manner be a reflection of her attitudes. Her lovely face, dimmed in the shadows of the unlit back room, opened to allow the entrance of Angelo’s turgid cock into the soft kiss. For as many as twenty seconds, he thrust his rude pelvis toward her kindness, groaning all the while. A sudden foray of spurts graced her delicate lips and she swallowed down his tensions. Wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her blouse, Isabella rose and left the scoundrel behind, spent and satisfied.
Claudio was beside himself with rage and no small measure of excitement. Within a few short hours, he sought Isabella’s counsel and begged and pleaded her indulgence. Yet not as lover did Claudio make his arguments, but rather as a brother might. “Deny me everything,” he made his case. “I would have you as my own, make no mistake, but I would sacrifice everything, if only you would honor my request; Never give yourself to Angelo. No more. Not once. Never again.”
In this, fair Isabella did accede. She cared more for the play than for any mere man, and she would not have her sexual indiscretions become the instrument of the drama’s downfall. She would no more give herself to Angelo than to our Claudio.
The frustration of Angelo was soon apparent in his role. He believed he had conquered the heart of Isabella, as fools are wont to do, convinced that in her acquiescence to his lust, she had conceded so much more. She was his, thought Angelo, and would remain forever so, yet like the shooting star gleams with a ferocious light, the sparkle vanished into the night, never to be shown again. Isabella became as cold as ice. Angelo fumed. Claudio rejoiced.
As the run of our play ended, Claudio even believed he might seduce our Isabella, but this was not to be. She had fixed him as her brother and gave no more thought to him than she gave to the all-too-cruel Angelo. We could suppose the novice found her cloister and renounced men altogether, so stern was her refusal of these two cads. Yet that would not be a proper ending.
Rather, she came away with me, her Duke. And that’s how the play should end.