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Amending Mariana in «Measure for Measure»

Par Michael Dobson : Professor and Director of the Shakespeare Institute - University of Birmingham
Publié par Clifford Armion le 11/04/2013

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With all of this provocative and intriguing play to choose from, complete with a beguiling cast list that includes figures as complex and compelling as Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke, I have chosen to discuss the person who may seem in her own right the least interesting of the six newly-married, betrothed-and-expecting, or potentially betrothed characters who dominate ((Measure for Measure))’s final tableau: Mariana.

With all of this provocative and intriguing play to choose from, complete with a beguiling cast list that includes figures as complex and compelling as Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke, I have chosen to discuss the person who may seem in her own right the least interesting of the six newly-married, betrothed-and-expecting, or potentially betrothed characters who dominate Measure for Measure’s final tableau: Mariana. I have done so for two main reasons. One is that her treatment in the theatrical tradition across the centuries since the play’s premiere has provided an especially telling indication of the misgivings which the action of Measure for Measure has usually, and perhaps deliberately, occasioned, as well as a convenient and even detachable handle by which stage adaptors might start turning the play in more acceptable directions. The other is that Mariana’s status as a convenient and easily-manipulated substitute, which the play’s reception history has both underlined and extended, usefully highlights the ruthless worldly logic of exchange and delegation by which both Measure for Measure and its presiding Duke operate, a logic which may be at variance with the larger moral and spiritual claims by which the rhetoric of both play and central character may wish to launder it.

Forms of vicarious action and delegation are vital both to Shakespeare’s chosen art form and to the workings of the justice system which here provides its subject-matter. The theatre, like the courtroom, is by its very nature a place of delegation – where actors, like barristers, speak on behalf of characters (who may or may not be speaking on behalf of the playwright), and where the audience, as if in the public gallery, vicariously experience a whole range of crimes and condemnations, offered up as public examples. Shakespeare nowhere explores this logic more thoroughly than in Measure for Measure. The whole play starts with the Duke appointing himself a deputy, and it can only end as a comedy if Isabella appoints one for herself too. Substitution, indeed, pervades the entire plot.  In the first few scenes alone, Angelo, substituting for the Duke, condemns Claudio to death for fornication, and Lucio, speaking as Claudio’s proxy, persuades Isabella to beg Angelo for mercy. When she launches her appeal on behalf of her brother (once Angelo and Escalus have finished dealing with a bawd, another trader in others’ affairs), Isabella at first invokes the example of Christ – who died on behalf of us all – before simply asking Angelo to put himself in Claudio’s place:

Got to your bosom:
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault.

This works only too well; Angelo, imagining Claudio’s crime, desires to try it for himself – on Isabella. (‘She speaks, and ‘tis such sense/ That my sense breeds with it...’).  He promises to cancel Claudio’s sentence only if the powerless novice will agree to lose her maidenhead in lieu of her brother losing his head. In the event, Angelo will decide to have Claudio executed anyway, for fear of reprisals, and hence by the end of the second act of Measure for Measure the stage appears to be set for a harrowing and claustrophobic tragedy of rape and judicial murder. In Shakespeare’s main source, after all, George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra (1578), the Angelo character succeeds both in coercing the heroine into bed and in having her brother killed, and the ending is very little palliated by her being obliged to marry this corrupt judge afterwards.

Shakespeare rejected this outcome, but he could avert it only by the provision of yet more deputies. Someone else must die on behalf of Claudio, to provide a substitute head with which to satisfy Angelo; and meanwhile, for Angelo’s further satisfaction, someone else must have sex with him on behalf of Isabella. Finding someone willing to be decapitated proves tricky – a condemned murderer, Barnadine, once brought onto the stage, proves far too stubbornly vivid a character to be killed off merely to serve the plot, and in the end a convenient offstage pirate has to die of natural causes. But finding someone to sleep with Angelo proves if anything shockingly easy. In the third act, Angelo’s personal history is retrospectively rewritten; rather than being hitherto inflexibly virtuous, he has jilted a fiancée, Mariana, for mercenary reasons, and this fiancée is perfectly willing, it transpires, to go to him in Isabella’s stead. Hence Isabella is left virginal and unattached at the end of the play, and she can be propositioned once again, but this time by the Duke. Was Angelo a proxy for him in the sphere of love, as well as that of justice?

It is Shakespeare’s invention of Mariana, then, that is the key to saving Measure for Measure for a troubling sort of comedy, but from the first she has stood out as only a belated and supplementary presence in the play. Like irritating sand in an oyster, however, she has produced all sorts of incidental pearls over the course of the play’s reception, as other writers have taken up the play’s own logic of delegation and undertaken a little rewriting on Shakespeare’s behalf.

From incongruities in the play’s earliest text, not published until the Folio appeared in 1623, it looks as though Mariana’s role was already being expanded within a few years of the premiere ((This matter is dealt with most thoroughly in the Oxford edition (1986 et seq); see especially Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).)). In the play’s original form act 4 probably flowed straight on from act 3, and Mariana didn’t come onto the stage at all until after Isabella’s conversation with the Duke about the terms she has feigned to agree for the impending rendezvous with Angelo. Mariana arrived patly in the play, in short, at the Duke’s call, only to be immediately taken off and successfully propositioned by Isabella in a piece of dialogue which Shakespeare discreetly refrained from writing, sending the two women to ‘talk aside’ while the Duke fills in a little time with a soliloquy.  It’s one of those unwritten conversations one would be curious to hear sometime. However beautiful and forceful Shakespeare’s verse would doubtless have been, it would have had to run something like this:

ISABELLA: Hello! I’m the would-be nun I believe this Friar has told you about, the one with an interesting suggestion to make.
MARIANA: Yes, I’ve been expecting you – how nice to meet you, sister.
ISABELLA: You too. Now listen: you remember that Angelo who was once your fiancé? Well, he really fancies me, and he is going to have my brother executed for fornication unless I go to the little house at the bottom of his garden later tonight in the dark and have sex with him. I’ve told him not to light a candle or a lamp and not to expect any small-talk or lying around afterwards. You wouldn’t mind going and having sex with him in my place, would you, keeping quiet throughout so that he doesn’t know it isn’t me?
MARIANA: Funnily enough, that’s just what I was hoping you were going to suggest. Pleasure to do business with you, sister. I can hardly wait.

At some point before 1623, however, someone clearly felt that the audience needed a little preparation for Mariana’s indecent willingness to consummate her aborted betrothal at such short notice. The scene was split into two, with the Duke’s rhyming, plot-recapitulating soliloquy ‘He who the sword of heaven would bear’ transposed with ‘O place and greatness’ to end the first of the two newly-distinct scenes, even though the two speeches make much more obvious sense in their original contexts. The opening of the new second scene, meanwhile, was provided with some music, to lasting effect.  In the text as we now have it, the action recommences – or is briefly suspended – with the poignant spectacle of Mariana, all alone, listening as if forever to a song of love betrayed:

Take, O take those lips away
That so sweetly were forsworn...

By the provision of a boy to sing this song for her, Mariana is even spared the indelicacy of expressing her continuing desire for Angelo herself: the lyric substitutes for an unwritten soliloquy. This unspoken soliloquy would finally be written years later in the form of the exquisite gloss on this tiny interpolated scene published by Tennyson in 1842, ‘Mariana’:

She only said ‘My life is dreary,
    He cometh not’, she said;
She said ‘I am aweary, aweary;
    I would that I were dead!’

Meanwhile, though, the added song and the added woman alike would elicit further responses, both positive and negative. In 1662 Sir William Davenant, rejecting the bed-trick entirely, cut both; his adaptation The Law Against Lovers, shunning Mariana, pairs off an apologetic Angelo with Isabella (hereby returning to the play’s sources), and thus leaves the Duke uncompromised by any role in a love plot. Davenant too rewrites the pernicious deputy’s character in retrospect, but this time favourably – he only propositioned Isabella to test her virtue, it transpires, and he never meant to carry out his threats. The extra time provided by this simplification is filled in by some more light-hearted characters, Beatrice and her laughing cavalier Benedick, imported from Much Ado About Nothing. This Angelo, instead of being the Duke’s disowned alter ego, is at heart just a less self-confident version of Benedick, who in this unlikely hybrid is his brother.

When Charles Gildon rewrote the play again in 1700, however, as Measure for Measure, or, Beauty the Best Advocate, it seems to have been Mariana to whom he responded most favourably. In this version the interpolated song of the forsaken fiancée is supplemented by an entire interpolated opera of a forsaken fiancée, since Angelo spends much of the play attending an inset performance of Purcell and Tate’s Dido and Aeneas in instalments, in an unsuccessful attempt to take his mind off Isabella. Crucially, the whole play would finally metamorphose into opera in 1836, as Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’). Even if this version, its composer’s debut, received only one performance in his lifetime, Measure for Measure and its brief, added foray into song thus helped launch the career of Richard Wagner. Mariana again disappears, but in Wagner’s version of the play her role as a figure of female desire is delegated to Isabella, who here defies a repressive Teutonic Angelo not on behalf of chastity but in the name of a Wagnerian life-force. Comedy triumphs again, albeit very earnestly.

For other revisers of the play, it was Angelo and the Duke to whom Shakespeare’s comic ending did inadequate justice: in Angelo many found a villain-hero as intensely self-divided as Macbeth, but cheated of actually committing the crimes he intends, cheated of any major part in the action for most of the latter half of the play, and even cheated in the last act of the penitent death he comes to crave. Intuitively conflating Angelo with the disguised Duke, Matthew Lewis set all this to rights in the sensational Gothic novel The Monk in 1790: his wicked protagonist Ambrosio, with a reputation for monastic virtue but a secret life of lust, is closely modelled on Angelo, and he gets to perform all Angelo’s intended crimes and more, including (in an echo of Angelo’s proposed equation between Isabella’s deflowering and Claudio’s death as well as of Isabella’s reproaches to Claudio when he suggests that she might accept Angelo’s proposition in order to save his life) brother-sister incest. So far from being bathetically married off at the end of the story, furthermore, Ambrosio is dropped onto the Pyrenees from a great height by Satan himself. This immensely popular book soon came to colour Shakespeare’s play in its turn; throughout the 1790s John Philip Kemble played the Duke in Measure for Measure in the same cowl in which he played Ambrosio in the stage adaptation of Lewis’s shocker, and audience members alert to any corresponding hints of incest must have been struck by the fact that the Duke’s intended bride Isabella was played by Kemble’s sister, Sarah Siddons.

For most of the English nineteenth century, however, too shocked by the bed-trick for the play to be revived at all until William Poel’s antiquarian, non-professional version in the 1890s, it was Mariana who emerged as the acceptable face of Measure for Measure. For readers of Tennyson’s poem, notably the Pre-Raphaelites, the woman whom we first meet in stasis at the threshold of the play, before she has been contaminated by her involvement in its action, became an important figure for the transcendent, time-defying power of art, and she became the subject of some important paintings:

Mariana, John Everett Millais, 1851

John Everett Millais’ Mariana of 1851, for instance.

Mariana, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1870

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Mariana of 1870.

This reading of Mariana and the play alike – whereby the abandoned woman seemingly exempted from time comes to embody a higher realm of truth than that represented by the zero-sum game of substitution and retribution conducted by the Duke and by the plot – has been thoroughly contested since. For more recent commentators and revisers, any claim that either the Duke or the convenient replacement for Isabella whom he uses as one of his pawns represent any higher claim or realm has seemed a misreading of a play instead seen as either cynical or satiric. Perhaps the simplest and most revealing adaptation of this much-supplemented play, indeed, is one that removes material out rather than inventing it. In 1978 Charles Marowitz produced his own adaptation of Measure for Measure ((The text of Marowitz’s version is published in Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, Shakespeare Adaptations (London: Routledge, 2000), 188-207.)). It doesn’t add new dialogue to Shakespeare’s script, but it does take a few things out. Claudio, for one thing, isn’t miraculously reprieved, nor is Isabella spared her nocturnal rendezvous with Angelo. And when the Duke stages his return at the end of the play, his endorsement of Angelo’s actions in his supposed absence is quite without irony. The deputy has served his purpose, and his master has enjoyed watching its consequences at close quarters; the pleading Isabella, just as Angelo had predicted, is overruled, silenced, led away as a slanderer, and the feigned friar for once leaves with the feigned puritan instead of with the would-be nun, both laughing cynically. If the Duke got a deputy but Isabella didn’t, this would turn out to be a very unmerciful play indeed.


I am grateful to Isabelle Schwartz-Gastine and Estelle Rivier for organizing the conference in Caen at which this paper was delivered; and I am grateful to Elizabeth Holman for comments on an earlier draft.


Cette ressource a été écrite à partir du texte de l'intervention de Michael Dobson lors de la journée d'étude "Measure for Measure in performance" organisée à l'Université de Caen Normandie le 18 janvier 2013.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Michael Dobson, "Amending Mariana in «Measure for Measure»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), avril 2013. Consulté le 14/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/Shakespeare/amending-mariana-in-measure-for-measure