Notes on Measure for Measure: Playing Escalus as Zhou EnLai

Edward G. Nilges, “Study for the Unknown Helper”

‎”For God so loved the world he sent his only begotten Son”. This “structural” theme is repeated multiple times in Measure for Measure.

God as the Duke sends Angelo into the world but knowing Angelo to be “old testament” in outlook, believing in the strict Law, God as the Duke becomes his own father and sends himself secretly into the “world” (Vienna).

But: Shakespeare somehow knew that although Christ died for our sins (by law, he was required to attend church every week and hear this message over and over again), Christ’s sacrifice was curiously ineffectual. It didn’t stop sinning, it didn’t stop punishment for sins, it didn’t eradicate evil from the world. It was hypothetical: “since God was willing to sacrifice his son, perhaps he is merciful, perhaps you’ll get a break” (Paul Simon reflects on this in his latest album).

Not the sort of promise I could redeem at HSBC. When Father Westendorf, the frightening pastor of St Mark’s handed out grades I would think if Christ loves me why is he so mean? For he would snarl at the kids with bad grades and his sermons on Sunday (many of which had no higher theme than the need for donations to pay for the church building) caused babies to wail.

And, the theme of human sacrifice (for that’s what it is) is repeated most poignantly in Claudio and Isabella, who are the REAL victims…as if the “good thief on the cross”, who asked Jesus for pardon and got it and who, it is said, was the ancestor of the Siegourners, the Gypsies (victims more than Jews because it’s still fashionable to kick ’em around), was the true Victimae Paschal IF the pure victim qua victim don’t get no glory.

The “Claudio and Isabella scene” should be played with the intensity of the scenes in which Lear rages at his daughters for it should remind the audience of lower middle class kitchen scenes out of working class drama (Yiddish theater or socialist realism)…or Mamet.

Claudio and Isabella should tear at each other. They should go at it like the husband who’s just been terminated again and comes home drunk, and the wife who screams at him. Because Angelo, and not the Duke, knows how hard it is to be good; in fact, he knows it’s impossible; the Duke learns this watching Claudio and Isabella. Isabella must be conscious when she rages at a fearful Claudio that in preserving chastity she is committing the greater sin of anger. Because who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Duke disguised as a Monk should then jump in like the countertheme in Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge with the “good news” of Gnosticism: that the tragic impasse has a solution BEYOND good and evil even as the mathematician is pleased to learn that there is a square root of one, even as Keynes was pleased to learn that there was no neoclassical way out of a depression past a certain point save something smelling of charity.

Deception is a sin but lesser than lust and anger, and like Rosalinde in As You Like It, the Duke will use it. He has a Christlike compassion for Claudio and Isabella.

He also reminds me of the police officer played by Harvey Keitel in Thelma and Louise, a tragedy and not a comedy in which Keitel’s character tries constantly to “save” Thelma and Louise, working behind the scenes in cop cyberspace with an uncooperative and unforgiving FBI.

Personal note: my boss at Princeton said “you remind me, Ed, of Harvey Keitel in Thelma and Louise, for when you talk about your ex-wife it’s always as if you’re trying to write the script and save the marriage and her soul”.

But the theme is even more deeply embedded. The lower the character is (above a certain level, defined by the way the Shakespeare of 1604 had realized the consequences of drunken folly) the more she shines, especially Mariana, the woman Angelo dicarded.

Perhaps Shakespeare was thinking that Christianity is complicated, more a sort of way of relating to others that is also found in Emmet Fox’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount. Certainly, in the American business world, I found that “by swaggering I could never thrive” and that the most successful salesmen (in an American world where all are salesmen all the time) were good guys to be around, reasonably honest but always looking for an angle, and full of relatively benign racist and sexist jokes (if that’s not an oxymoron).

Fortunately I just have to play Escalus. He’s a bit resentful in Act1 sc II at being passed over. But when he converses with the disguised Duke his love for his friend and lord must shine through. Escalus must be a Zhou En-Lai, popular with the common people and intellectuals because he is ready to go to bat for people out of favor with Mao or his other lieutenants…whilst never forgetting, any more than did Zhou EnLai, that he loves his long time friend and master.

For there is no cheap equation between Mao and Stalin. Mao was quite serious to the end whereas Stalin, from the beginning, was a cynical rat. Mao, like Angelo, wanted to perfect society whereas Deng realized that to perfect society he had to make room in Shenzen for the worst kinds of imperfection (at the White Swan Hotel the girls came on like bawds on the Nanjing Liu).

But Deng was also responsible for Tianamen. But…my coworkers in 2005 were reasonably happy. There were shadows and ghosts in Shenzen but life went on as it does in Shakespeare’s Vienna.

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