Stu­dents per­formed Shake­speare’s “Measure for Measure.” Courtesy | Rachel Stanford

Isabella stands before a tyrant dressed in blood-red clothes. Her feet are pressed into the ground as she looks him in the eye: An Antigone in modern dress. “Sir, believe this,” she says to him with her chin upraised, “I had rather give my body than my soul.”

This is Isabella, the epic heroine of William Shakespeare’s dark comedy “Measure for Measure,” this year’s Shake­speare in the Arb pro­duction, directed by senior Andrew Kennedy, working in close con­junction with the Shake­speare Society.

“Measure for Measure” is a gritty play dealing with themes of vice, hypocrisy, political cor­ruption, and the dif­ference between the law of the state and the laws of morality. The play’s pro­tag­onist, Isabella, played by junior Eliz­abeth Bachmann, is training to become a nun when she is abruptly thrust into a world of vice, political intrigue, and mur­derous vio­lence.

It all begins when Duke Vicentio, played by senior Alexander Frigerio, briefly steps down from his position as duke of Vienna so that he might travel to Poland. His cousin Angelo sub­sti­tutes for him while he is away.

Angelo, a violent and lech­erous man who, as leader of Vienna, is described as “taking the law by the nose,” con­demns to death those people whom he deems sex­ually immoral. Two of these victims are Isabella’s brother, Claudio, and his pregnant lover Juliet, whom he intends to marry. Encouraged by her friend Lucio, Isabella begs Angelo to set Claudio free. Angelo offers her an ulti­matum: to sleep with him and free her brother, or remain a virgin and watch Claudio’s exe­cution.

Given the dra­matic nature of the play, “Measure for Measure” is clas­sified as a “problem play.” The British Library says “it sits uneasily between tragedy and comedy,” and thus is rarely staged. As a result, most problem plays are not as well-known as Shakespeare’s more straight­forward genre plays, such as “Macbeth.”

This is not the first time Shake­speare in the Arb has tackled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Last year, the racially-charged comedy “The Mer­chant of Venice” was directed by senior English major Molly-Kate Andrews.

Senior Stephen Tan­quist, who played Lucio in the pro­duction, offered some insight into why Shake­speare in the Arb selects these seldom-pro­duced plays.

“I think often times the directors are inclined to choose plays that people haven’t seen before, because then that gives them the oppor­tunity to sur­prise the audience,” Tan­quist said. “One of the plays that was tossed around for this year was ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ which was almost imme­di­ately shot down, because everyone knows ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and there’ll be no sur­prise for the audience. With plays that people don’t know, there’s more freedom to interpret and to put your own reading of the show in, whereas with more popular and well-known shows, everyone thinks they know what it’s about.”

The tal­ented, pow­erful cast did not fail to sur­prise and astound the audience. One audience member, sophomore Isabella Biernat, said she had never seen or read “Measure for Measure” before attending Shake­speare in the Arb last weekend.

“I really liked the play as a whole. It was a wild ride from start to finish and I was engaged the whole time,” Biernat said.

Although Tan­quist and the Shake­speare Society’s faculty super­visor Pro­fessor of English Benedict Whalen both indi­cated how tal­ented the cast was. They truly embraced Shakespeare’s lan­guage with a loving, informed imag­i­nation, while still allowing the original text to shine. No comedic oppor­tunity was lost, nor was the play’s taut dra­matic intensity loosened.

Shake­speare in the Arb pre­sented both the audience and the cast with an oppor­tunity for edu­ca­tional advancement.

“I think Shake­speare has a ten­dency to deal with complex, dif­ficult sub­jects in intricate ways,” Tan­quist said. “Hope­fully ‘Measure for Measure’ will con­front them with things they haven’t thought before, con­front them with ideas like justice and mercy, and startle them. Force them to come to terms with sce­narios and ideas in ways that are alien to our expe­rience here at Hillsdale.”

Whalen also encouraged stu­dents to seek out the moral and the­matic meanings of “Measure for Measure.”

“There is much that we might learn from ‘Measure for Measure.’ Some of the more prominent themes in the play are hypocrisy and deceit in rulers, the rela­tionship between the public and the private, between law and morality, between justice and mercy. It is a play that swings between the comic and the tragic, and it has a remarkable, apoc­a­lyptic ending,” he said.