restricted access Silence, Rape and Politics in Measure for Measure: Close Readings in Theatre History
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Silence, Rape and Politics in Measure for Measure:
Close Readings in Theatre History

This article builds on Philip McGuire's work on the silences in Measure for Measure to re-examine them in the light of scholarship in theatre history (in particular Tiffany Stern's work on rehearsal and Scott McMillin's reflections on the sharer-apprentice relationship) to suggest that the cue-script and apprenticeship systems combined to put the boy performer playing Isabella in a position which would highlight his momentary embarrassment at being unable to respond to the Duke's proposal. The article produces close readings of the encounters between Isabella and Angelo in the centre of the play and relates those to their silence at the end to argue that the Duke's marriage proposal in act 5 is a replay of Angelo's attempted rape of Isabella in act 2. This observation becomes a springboard for looking at present-day performance practices and arguing that six RSC productions staged between 1970 and 1998 (directed by John Barton (1970), Barry Kyle (1978), Adrian Noble (1983), Steven Pimlott (1994) and Michael Boyd (1998)) each engage with contemporary politics in their respective stagings of Isabella's silence. A complex understanding of the relationship between silence, rape and politics underpins each staging, whether it ends on stunned unresponsiveness, a kiss, or a cathartic slap in the face.


Silence, Rape, Politics, Close reading, RSC, Measure for Measure, Theatre history, Boy actor

When I started working in the field of performance studies, one of the books that had the most profound impact on my way of thinking about the relationship between text and performance, and about how to do a ‘close reading’ of specific moments in a performance, was Philip McGuire’s Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare’s Open Silences (1984). McGuire’s concern was with those moments in the playtexts when a character’s silence, whether simply because the character is supposed to be on stage but has no contribution to make to the dialogue or whether the character stays silent in response to a question or direct address that requires a reply, can be interpreted in various ways that subtly change the meaning of the play. In the chapter on Measure for Measure which I found particularly inspiring, McGuire explored the remarkable conjunction of the ‘final silences’ of six different characters, three of which I want to revisit here to explore their relationship to rape and, in their staging, modern politics. The first of these is the silence of Angelo who, from the moment the Duke commands him to marry Mariana, has not another word to say. The other two are those of Isabella in response to the Duke’s two proposals of marriage to her. All three fall into McGuire’s category of silences that might express the characters’ “mute, accepting wonder” or that could “testify to a resistance that wordlessly but effectively drives home that [these marriages] . . . result far more from the Duke’s exercise of his legal authority than from the imperatives of shared erotic love” (69). No close reading of the playtext on its own can help us interpret these textual silences: the object of our attention, therefore has to shift from the playtext to the performance-as-text,1 ‘for in such business, / Action is eloquence’ (Cor. 3.2.76–7). [End Page 1]

I want to use this article to demonstrate how one may want to go about reading such eloquent action. What has changed since McGuire’s days is our greater awareness of the link between textual criticism and performance studies and the need for a theoretically-informed, responsible and transparent critical practice. It is worth pointing out that I have only actually been an audience member in one of the RSC productions of Measure for Measure I have researched for this article, and it is a production which I have chosen not to discuss because its treatment of Isabella’s silence did not add anything to my argument. As will become clear, my close readings in recent theatre history are entirely based on the painstaking reconstruction of specific moments based on a great number of different, and sometimes contradictory...