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Audience Reactions to Measure for Measure

Alexandra Jones 04
Audiences have been experiencing the works of William Shakespeare around the world since the
late sixteenth century !n modern times there are those who en"oy productions of Shakespeare#s
works immensely$ and others who would be much more content at a %roadway musical %ut how
did audiences react to Shakespearian plays before the twentieth century& Measure for Measure
was written and produced by Shakespeare in the early '(00#s )ifferent audiences have had
different reactions over the years Some felt that the play did not make much sense the way it
was written *thers believed that the actors and directors failed to see Shakespeare#s intentions
for the play and thereby produced revivals that left something to be desired
+here is much discrepancy about exactly when Measure for Measure was written and first
performed +he first recorded performance occurred in the court of ,ing James on )ecember -($
'(04$ however there is speculation that it appeared for the first time in the .lobe +heatre in April
of '(04 /ueen 0li1abeth#s death$ lent$ and the plague kept theatres closed for most of '(02 %y
the time '(04 rolled around$ the plague was everywhere in 0ngland except 3ondon +hat summer
there remained a general fear of the plague +heatres were alternately opened and closed based
on the plague death figures of the previous week 4or this reason speculation can be made that
Measure for Measure may have been performed in '(04 after the lent season and before plague
deaths rose with the warm weather of June 5%arroll ''67''89
!n '((-$ a man named Johnson wrote about Shakespeare#s works :+here is$ perhaps$ not one of
Shakespeare#s plays more darkened than this$ by the peculiarities of the author$ and the
unskillfulness of its editors$ by distortions of phrase$ or negligence of transcription *f this play$
the light or comic part is very natural and pleasing$ but the grave scenes$ if a few passages be
excepted$ have more labour than elegance; 5<alliday -2=9 <e also commented on the time of the
action$ saying that it was :indefinite$; but also went on to say that there was unity in the action and
the setting 5<alliday -2=9
European Magazine criti>ued the opening night performance of Measure for Measure on
?ovember 2$ '6=2 at )rury73ane :Shakespeare#s Measure for Measure$ was performed$ for the
purpose of introducing @rs Siddons in the part of !sabel; 5Salgado -'(9 :*f this general effect of
her appearance we see nothing in @rs Siddons An ample atonement$ however$ is made$ at least
to a great part of the audience$ by artificial variations of voice and countenance$ in the interesting
points of the situations already mentioned; 5Salgado -'(9 0uropean @aga1ine did not seem to
be impressed with the overall production of the play$ but made references to the actors playing
the other characters as :useful appendages of the theatre; 5Salgado -'69
European Magazine seemed far more impressed with the Aovent .arden revival of Measure for
Measure in '='( :+he infinity of Shakespeare#s genius is no where more comprehensive than in
the machinery of this play <e fathoms the depths of the human heart$ not as an in>uisitorB but by
combining those secret sympathies which invest distinct degrees and attributes in society with the
elo>uence of truth; 5Salgado -'=9 +he author of this criti>ue seemed to en"oy the play more as a
whole when a new actress replaced @rs Siddons in the role of !sabella <e was able to focus
more on the story and the general production values rather than commenting solely on individual
actors# performances
William Cobson recalled an '='' performance of Measure for Measure starring John 0mery as
%arnadine in an '=4D edition of The Old Playgoer :When ! saw 0mery crawl from his den with
the straws sticking in his clotted hair and filthy garments$ growling out his remonstrance at being
disturbed from his sleep$ ! absolutely startedE ! had read the play often$ and the character was
familiar to me as that of a depraved$ abandoned wretchB but here was a real$ sombre splendour
thrown upon it by the power of genius$ and$ with an oppressed chest$ ! sighed$ *h$ natureE *h$
ShakespeareE Who shall ever know the end or depth of your beauties&; 5Salgado -'=9 Cobson
was able to see Shakespeare#s genius accented by the comedic presence of an outstanding
Another critic$ )r Johnson$ wrote about a later performance played by many of the same cast
members :!t is somewhat strange that !sabel is not made to express either gratitude$ or wonder
or "oy at the sight of her brother;5Sprague (D7((9 <e went on to say that this was clearly a
revision$ :perhaps F@rs SiddonsG originated the business *r was it a boy7actress$ some two
centuries before&; 5Sprague ((9
!n +he +heatrical World for '=82$ William Archer wrote about a Shakespeare Ceading Society
performance of Measure for Measure<e was not impressed with the staging techni>ues chosen
by the director <e also commented on the inability of the director and actors to properly
represent Shakespeare#s intentions for the play :there is no other play of Shakespeare#s in
which so much of the dialogue is absolutely unspeakable before a modern audience +herefore
large cuts were inevitableB and having begun to cut$ the actors went on with a sweeping hand$
and made huge excisions for the mere sake of brevityHsome of the actors 5>uite improperly9
recited their verses so fast as to be totally unintelligibleH; 5Salgado -'89 <is conclusion was that
the Shakespeare Ceading Society did no "ustice to a play that had a great deal of potential
Author Cobert %ridges studied the influence of Shakespeare#s audience on his writing for the
stage :Hhow incomprehensible is the neglect of !sabella at the close$ when her brother$ whom
she thought worse than dead$ is restored to her +he actress is not denied a fine opportunity$ but
the situation passes with out a word$ and it must be concluded that the audience took no interest
in !sabella#s religious characterI reserved for the first pri1e of stage7marriages she has to stand up
with the sinners and patiently endure the exposure and torment of the theatrical suspense and
display$ which the good )uke has devised to wind up the dramaI and in order to lighten the
elaborate finale Shakespeare associates with him the worthless profligate$ 3ucioB who$ if he
amused the audience bi his impertinent intrusion half as much as he degrades the already difficult
situation$ must have been a great success; 5%ridges '29 Shakespeare had to write for all classes
of people$ most of whom$ in the Cenaissance$ would have appreciated some twist of sexual
tension rather than a purely virginal and religious character
Measure for Measure is not one of Shakespeare#s most popular plays After its debut it was not
produced again in Shakespeare#s lifetime !t can only be concluded that it was produced so rarely
because it is so difficult to perform and understand +here are inconsistencies in the plot that
critics have attacked @ore importantly$ audiences of Measure for Measure through the years
reacted much more strongly to other Shakespearian plays$ probably leading to theatre companies
to produce his more popular works :+he years have sifted into dust the .lobe and all who
gathered thereB no scholarly effort nor feat of the imagination can reverse that ancient process
And even if the miracle occurred$ if we could mingle with Shakespeare#s audience reincarnate$ its
secret would prove no more penetrable than the secret of audiences now What occurs in the
minds and hearts of some thousand men and women is not casually revealedI and audienceJ
almost any audienceJis as difficult to appraise as the human race itself; 5<arbage 29
Works Cited
%arroll$ 3eeds Kolitics$ Klague$ and Shakespeare#s +heater LSAI Aornell Lniversity Kress$ '88'
%ridges$ Cobert +he !nfluence of the Audience on Shakespeare#s )rama ?ew MorkI <askell
<ouse$ '8((
Shakespeare N <is Aritics 3ondonI .erald )uckworth N Ao 3td$ '8D=
<arbage$ Alfred Shakespeare#s Audience ?ew MorkI Aolumbia Lniversity Kress$ '8(4
Salgado$ .amini 0yewitnesses of Shakespeare LSAI <arper and Cow Kublishers $ !nc$ '86D
Sprague$ Arthur Aolby Shakespeare and the Actors Aambridge$ @AI <arvard Lniversity Krinting
*ffice$ '844