Today's play is Measure for Measure, which belongs to the group of comedies sometimes called "the problem plays." Exactly which plays constitute the "problem" group and precisely what time frame that period encompasses are two things very much up for debate, but Measure for Measure seems to be a point of agreement for all sides of this academic tug-of-war. It is NOTHING if not problematic for nearly every main character.
Poor, poor Isabella. Gal just wants to become a nun and have done with the secular world. Not only is Isabella saddled with a horndog older brother who's landed himself a death sentence for knocking up his fiancee (because that is the law in Vienna, where we are), but she's also prettier than a daisy. That's what Angelo thinks, at least. Angelo is standing in for the Duke of Vienna while the Duke is away. Angelo, being an upstanding citizen, offers to pardon Isabella's brother... if she'll give him her virginity. She protests and declines and says "no," but he just gets nastier and more threatening, because he is a politician and a perv. Not only is Angelo sleazy enough to propose essentially raping her, he points out that, should she try to tell on him, no one would take her word over his. Here, she weighs her options in a wrenching soliloquy coming heavy on the heels of a ruthless scene:
To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Who would believe me? O perilous mouths,
That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,
Either of condemnation or approof;
Bidding the law make court'sy to their will:
Hooking both right and wrong to the appetite,
To follow as it draws! I'll to my brother:
Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour.
That, had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he'ld yield them up,
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr'd pollution.
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.
I'll tell him yet of Angelo's request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul's rest.
So that's Isabella's train of thought: very... utilitarian. ("More than our brother is our chastity?" Really? Wow, that's some commitment to virtue.) Claudio's not so keen on this strategy, surprisingly...
While Isabella and Claudio whine at each other ("Why won't you just sleep with him?" "You're so mean!" "No, YOU'RE mean!"), the Duke of Vienna (who actually didn't go out of town at all, but decided to skulk around dressed up as a friar, for some reason) enters and hears all about the perfidy of Angelo. Having known Angelo for years, the Duke knows that Angelo jilted a woman named Mariana once upon a time. The Duke-in-cognito arranges for Isabella to pull a Helena*: Tell Angelo to expect her in bed, then smuggle in Mariana wearing a veil, of course, because no one would find it weird if you showed up in bed with a full veil. Of course not. I guess some people are just kinky like that.
What with one thing and another, Angelo falls for it and sleeps with Mariana. The Duke "returns from out of town" sans religious costume. Isabella, believing her brother's execution has gone forward despite the agreement with Angelo, pleads with the Duke to listen to what a rat-bastard Angelo really is. He tells her to tell it to Angelo, because he appears to enjoy really effed up mind games:
O worthy duke,
You bid me seek redemption of the devil:
Hear me yourself; for that which I must speak
Must either punish me, not being believed,
Or wring redress from you. Hear me, O hear me, here!
My lord, her wits, I fear me, are not firm:
She hath been a suitor to me for her brother
Cut off by course of justice,--
By course of justice!
And she will speak most bitterly and strange.
Most strange, but yet most truly, will I speak:
That Angelo's forsworn; is it not strange?
That Angelo's a murderer; is 't not strange?
That Angelo is an adulterous thief,
An hypocrite, a virgin-violator;
Is it not strange and strange?
Nay, it is ten times strange.
It is not truer he is Angelo
Than this is all as true as it is strange:
Nay, it is ten times true; for truth is truth
To the end of reckoning.
Away with her! Poor soul,
She speaks this in the infirmity of sense.
O prince, I conjure thee, as thou believest
There is another comfort than this world,
That thou neglect me not, with that opinion
That I am touch'd with madness! Make not impossible
That which but seems unlike: 'tis not impossible
But one, the wicked'st caitiff on the ground,
May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute
As Angelo; even so may Angelo,
In all his dressings, characts, titles, forms,
Be an arch-villain; believe it, royal prince:
If he be less, he's nothing; but he's more,
Had I more name for badness.
And do you know what the Duke does then? Do you know what he does? He has Isabella taken away under guard because he is not done with his effed up mind game yet! WTF?!
Anyway, in the end, the Duke admits to Isabella that he was the friar who hatched the Mariana plan with her. Dukey also compels Claudio (who is not dead) to marry his knocked up fiancee; forces Angelo to marry Mariana; and confesses to Isabella that he has fallen in love with her, offering her his hand in marriage. Unfortunately for Isabella, this isn't really so much a "suggestion": He's the Duke. He gets what he wants. Think Prince Humperdink. All the... uh... happy couples leave the stage together.
And that, children, is why Measure for Measure ranks as the most undeniably Problem of the "problem plays." In the classical sense, it is a comedy: everyone ends up married and no one - not even the bad guy! - ends up missing a skull. However, at least two of the three marriages (the possible exception is Claudio's) are being forced upon at least half of the new spouses.
I'd definitely call that a "problem" for someone.
*That would be Helena from All's Well That Ends Well, who tricks her husband into sleeping with her instead of a younger woman and is only able to secure her marriage by getting knocked up on that single, miraculous night. Happy ending!!!