restricted access Late Seventeenth-Century Alterations to Measure for Measure
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Late Seventeenth-Century Alterations to Measure for Measure

Isabella's character remains one of the central preoccupations of critics of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Specifically, her attitude towards her brother's conduct and her participation in the bed-trick has led scholars to characterize her as cold, unforgiving, morally questionable, and inconsistent.1 Although these studies have done much to advance our understanding of her problematic nature, they neglect two of the earliest statements we have regarding Shakespeare's play: a pair of late seventeenth-century adaptations of it. Sir William Davenant's The Law Against Lovers (1662) and Charles Gildon's Measure for Measure, or Beauty the Best Advocate (1700) reveal the concerns these early modern playwright-critics had with the issues of morality raised by Shakespeare's original. Davenant and Gildon change Isabella's character to remove the morally ambiguous nature of her actions. Their alterations suggest that they had concerns beyond decorum or the desire to entertain their audience. They suggest they regarded the moral (in the didactic sense) of the original to be fundamentally flawed, or that they feared their audiences would see it as being so, particularly in the case of Isabella.

A moral-philosophical analysis of these plays, and of Isabella over time, might seem unnecessary in the light of two recent essays that urge scholars to stop regarding the conclusion of Shakespeare's play as problematic. Foregrounding politics and ideology, Jonathan Dollimore claims there is no problem in the play. The Duke's coercion of Isabella and their subsequent assumed marriage demonstrate Shakespeare's real message: the ultimate triumph of secular over religious authority (83). Kathleen McLuskie argues we need not trouble ourselves too much with Shakespeare's conclusion, which is no more implausible than any other romantic comedy of the period. She also observes that we have no reason to privilege how we think early modern viewers might [End Page 37] have interpreted the play, which is ultimately unrecoverable (94). These statements are welcome and important if only because they challenge us to reconsider our positions on this play. Davenant's and Gildon's adaptations, however, would seem directly to refute such claims. Neither adaptation depicts Isabella as the passive victim of a monarch who manipulates her so completely that she is not morally accountable for her actions. Both Davenant and Gildon were extremely familiar with early modern romantic comedies, and yet both independently decided that the ending of Measure for Measure could not be performed as originally written; to them it was, in fact, more implausible (and morally dangerous) to audiences than other romantic comedies were. The fact that Davenant and Gildon targeted the features that the overwhelming majority of modern critics regard as being the most problematic suggests we might benefit from attending to how these early modern critic-adapters sought to "solve" this play and how they altered Isabella's character.

How do Davenant and Gildon change Measure for Measure to solve the problem of Isabella? Davenant began by removing obscenities according to the terms of his patent and by crafting a play that Restoration audiences would find entertaining. His revisions were influenced not only by the need to enhance the play's popularity in order to draw in an audience, but also by the dictates of contemporary genre and theory; specifically, he adheres to a tragicomic model, which employs a split plot and mixes elements of mirth and grief in order to produce a happy ending. The tragicomic form compelled him to fix the problems of the marriage and the bed-trick by removing them altogether, although he ultimately fails to resolve doubts about Isabella's virtue; she still suggests a bed-trick, only this time it is of her own invention, and she suggests it directly to Juliet in Act 4. Influenced by neo-Aristotelian critical theory and Jeremy Collier's anti-theatrical writings, Gildon included both the Marianna story and the bed-trick as he revised the marital relationships between the couples to add what he considered to be poetic justice and a correct moral to the play. Driven by the desire to correct the morality of the play for his audiences, Gildon...