Measure for Measure is a weird play. Check any source, and you’ll read about the troubling lack of freedom for women or the problems categorizing the play or some other such problem. But I’m not really referring to these traditional critical problems. I just think the main premise is weird. Vincentio, Duke of Vienna (Will was never very good at mainland geography), puts his second-in-command in charge and pretends to leave town in order to see how he’ll do.
This situation has always reminded me of Jesus’ parables of the kings and masters going away on a journey and coming home suddenly. But what seems weirdest to me is the Duke’s disguise. He dresses up as a friar, gives advice and spiritual solace, and takes confession. He also comes up with a crazy plan involving sex with the wrong woman (who is actually the right woman) in the dark – not as crazy as Friar Laurence’s scheme for Juliet and the sleeping potion, but pretty crazy and, I would think, out of character for a man of orders. And isn’t it a little sacrilegious, or at least disrespectful to the cloth, for a layman to impersonate a friar and hear confession?
But something occurred to me reading the play this time. Maybe Shakespeare was making a Protestant point. Maybe he intentionally made his friars a little outrageous as a minor anti-Catholic rant. Maybe he wanted to show a layman hearing confession to demonstrate the priesthood of all believers. Perhaps he did it all to please his very Protestant queen.
But then I’ve read that he probably wrote the play in 1603 or 1604, just as the much-less-Protestant James I came to the throne. Well, now I see another problem.