Friday, December 4, 2009

A Moment of Silence in Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure. Dir. Desmond Davis. Perf. Kate Nelligan and Kenneth Colley. DVD. BBC / Time Life, 2001.

Silence punctuates many of the most important moments in Measure for Measure—and readers (as opposed to those who enact or view a production of the play) are apt to miss time.

One that is often unnoticed comes in the middle of Isabella's first appeal to Angelo:
No ceremony that to great ones ’longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge's robe,
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.
If he had been as you and you as he,
You would have slipt like him; but he, like you,
Would not have been so stern. (II.ii.59-66)
The silence comes in that empty space after “As mercy does.” There are six more potential beats in that line that simply are not there. It's quite a remarkable pause, and it indicates a shift in Isabella's approach—in addition to letting a cadence fall on all our ears as we contemplate mercy.

Another silence may come late in the play. In this instance, it's not based on the absence of beats in a line but on the absence of a response where we might reasonably expect one. The silence seems to occur immediately after the Duke asks (for the second time in the scene) for Isabella's hand in marriage.

To give you the full effect, I've taken the speech in question and divided it in true cliffhanger style. Here's Duke Vincentio’s proposal:

Does she accept him at this point? Does she reject him? What's going through her mind? Tune in next time . . .

The moment is fraught with possibilities. She may fling herself into his arms and kiss him passionately. She may turn her back on him and walk right off stage. She may even walk up to him and slap him in the face.

We're pretty clear on what she doesn't do. She doesn't utter a speech in which she explains her motives for accepting or denying his proposal.

With all those potentials hanging in the air, we can return to the BBC production to see what choice Kate Nelligan, Isabella, and Desmond Davis (the film's director) make:

Fair enough. That seems to be in line with the genre (in general) of the play. Plenty of marriages adorn the pages of Shakespearean comedy—why not one more?

But Isabella's response at least puts the possibility of an alternate ending into the play. But, of course—and (admit it) you knew this was coming—the rest is silence.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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