On the Sunday morning of Hurricane Irene, I sat in a long line of folding chairs set up in a barn-like rehearsal hall at the Peterborough Players, a fine summer theater deep in the New Hampshire woods. Before me, an eager troupe of actors and musicians, still in sweatshirts and blue jeans, worked their way through Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, their first full run-through before an invited audience. Monday they'd tech the show, Tuesday would be dress, and Wednesday they'd open. The troupe still had much to polish, but they'd come a long way from the first table read only ten days before, and we in the folding seats had no trouble following the Duke, Angelo, Claudio, Isabella and Lucio and the rest of the dramatis personae through the tangled plot and through the palaces, courts, and bawdy houses of wicked old Vienna.
Outside, tall pines and oaks whipped back and forth in Irene's grip. Rain, instead of dropping gently from the heavens above, dashed itself in great gusts against the windowpanes as if it wanted to flood the hall and soak the poor players. Had the play had been King Lear, with poor Lear howling on the heath:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
— the consonance of stage and offstage would have been perfect.
Irene, it turned out, spared Peterborough her worst fury, and Measure for Measure is a play far sunnier than Lear. Yet that morning, as often happens when watching Shakespeare, I sensed the energy of our Grand Master's writing. Shakespeare's make-believe, acted before my eyes, had as much if not more oomph than the storm blowing outside the windows. How could this be? Measure for Measure is only black ink on white paper, the spidery tracings of thoughts thought by a man who died half a millennium ago. How can his handmade marks, pressed on the page, have the get-up-and-go of a tropical storm, a tidal wave, or even our daily lives progressing along their well-worn ruts?
The shortest and truest answer is magic, writing's abracadabra of vowels and consonants, nouns and verbs, commas and semicolons that can, in skillful hands, conjure up in other minds vivid images of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of life. So in the calm after the storm, I sat down to read Measure for Measure, to see if I could discover by what sleight-of-hand the Bard creates the supercharged energy that cascaded over me that stormy Sunday morning. My report in a nutshell: Shakespeare uses no one magic trick unique to himself to spark words to life; instead he uses with unique intensity every magic trick used by fine writers since the art was in its infancy.
Shakespeare tells a gripping story. The wise Duke of Vienna announces that he's leaving Vienna, installs Angelo as his deputy, then, instead of leaving, disguises himself as a friar so he can see what happens in the city when people think he's gone. Angelo, a stern man, enforces the letter of the law, ordering the beheading of handsome young Claudio for getting his lady with child out of wedlock. Claudio's sister Isabella pleads with Angelo to spare her brother's life; only if you sleep with me, Angelo responds. The Duke sheds his disguise, saves Claudio, punishes Angelo, and falls in love with Isabella.
Shakespeare concentrates his energy with unity: the whole play revolves around the Duke. His disguising himself begins the action; his merciful treatment of the miscreants he discovers ends it happily. Shakespeare expands his energy with variety. The seventeen named characters, plus unnamed "Lords, Officers, and Citizens," run the gamut of Viennese society from aristocrats to prostitutes, giving us as complete a picture of urban life as we get from Balzac or Dickens. His characters are distinct people, each with their own voice and point of view. Here is Isabella, a virginal gentlewoman:
The impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing had been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame.
— Lucio, the cynical playboy:
...'tis my familiar sin
With maids to seem the lapwing and to jest,
Tongue far from the heart. I play with all virgins so.
— and Pompey the pimp who, when a judge tells him that fornication will be forbidden in Vienna, replies:
Pompey: Does your worship mean to geld and spay all the youth of the city?
Escalus: No, Pompey.
Pompey: Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to it then.
Variety breeds conflict. The tolerant Duke versus severe Angelo creates the play's primary conflict, the sexual/moral tension between Angelo and Isabella creates its secondary, and a half-dozen other conflicts, including Pompey's squabbles with Elbow, the simple constable:
Pompey: By this hand, sir, his wife is a more respected person than any of us all.
Elbow: Varlet, thou liest; thou liest, wicked varlet. The time is yet to come when she was respected with man, woman, or child.
Pompey: Sir, she was respected with him before he married her.
— give the play's structure a dynamic, push-pull flexibility that Shakespeare accents with dozens of neatly balanced antithetical phrases:
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
I had as lief have the foppery of freedom as the morality of imprisonment.
There is a vice...
For which I would not plead, but that I must,
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war 'twixt will and will not.
From opposites it's a short step to word play, the double entendres on "respected" above, for instance, or Elbow's steady stream of malapropisms:
Elbow: I do bring in here before your good honor two notorious benefactors.
Angelo: ...Are they not malefactors?
Elbow: If it please your honor, I know not well what they are.
— that remind me of constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.
Such moments of comedy lighten the drama of the play that in Angelo/Isabella seduction scenes becomes unbearably intense:
Angelo: Then must your brother die.
Isabella: ...Better it were a brother died at once
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die forever.
How else does Shakespeare pack his play with energy? The duke's disguise lets us in on a secret; audiences love to know more than the characters know. Here Lucio, thinking he's talking with a lowly friar, calls the Duke a philanderer:
Duke (as Friar): I never heard the absent Duke much detected for women; he was not inclined that way.
Lucio: Oh, sir, you are deceived.
Duke (as Friar):'Tis not possible.
Shakespeare's grounds his make-believe on homely metaphors. The Viennese ignore his lenient laws, the Duke explains, because:
Duke: ...as fond fathers
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mocked than feared.
Rhyme and rhythm energize Shakespeare's writing, as do verse and a vivid vocabulary, including words Shakespeare coined himself. Sex and love add their age-old powers, so do the soul-stirring emotions of anger,jealousy, and fear.
Space and time demand I end my catalogue here, but this I guarantee: the more we read, hear, and watch Shakespeare, the more we'll see how our great friend Will cooks writing's classic ingredients — story, unity, variety, conflict, word play, drama, disguise, and all the rest — into a hot-and-spicy, meat-and-potatoes stew infused with titanic energy that does not blow itself out in a day or two as did weak Irene, but energy that will live on, bubbling and sizzling, crackling and popping, through tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow until the last syllable of recorded time.
Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program.Click here to read other articles by Michael Lydon