Artist Interview: Charles McMahon
The MEASURE FOR MEASURE director on the play’s plot and the psychology that drives the central characters.
Onstage at Lantern Theater Company March 14 through April 21, 2019, Measure for Measure deals with politics, faith, power, hypocrisy, and gender dynamics. Its characters trade in deception to bring about clarity, and those who live by their principles find flexibility, whether for good or ill.
Measure for Measure’s plot — and its psychology — are complex, dealing with both immediate action and metaphor. After watching his city sink into lawlessness, the Duke decides to go undercover as a monk to help set Vienna back on course. From this incognito position, he orchestrates a plot to catch his hypocritical deputy, help a woman preserve her autonomy, and save a condemned man. According to Charles McMahon, the Lantern’s artistic director and the director of this production, Shakespeare is trading in allegory with this complex plot. “I think that what he’s doing in the play can only really make full sense as a sort of psychological allegory: that Vienna is a diseased organism. The Duke is the rightful ruler of it, so he should act as the mind or super-ego: the part that needs to be in charge of a healthy state. But he is not doing his job well, so the state/organism suffers.”
This allegorical foundation for Measure for Measure helps to highlight some of its major questions and explorations, particularly about the role of the ruler in keeping the state healthy. “The question at the allegorical level is: What is a human being? What is the human mind? What should be in charge of the human mind? What happens when the thing that should be in charge of the mind goes absent? Is something or someone capable of restoring that diseased body to health?” McMahon asks. “What we start out with is a state — a society — that is diseased. The body politic is diseased. And the play is essentially the process by which the body puts itself right.”
In an effort to set the body politic right, McMahon says the Duke who oversaw Vienna’s decline and now wishes to see its rebirth applies the principles of alchemy to his people. In Shakespeare’s time, alchemy was still considered a legitimate science, and the 13th century polymath Roger Bacon — himself a Franciscan monk — wrote extensively to integrate alchemy, morality, and salvation. “The process of the play and the Duke’s actions — they resemble alchemical processes in that the characters are tested and put into the furnace just as the various elements in an alchemical process need to be. They need to be baked and purified and the false separated from the true,” McMahon says.
But what Shakespeare might have seen as the acceptable machinations of a powerful ruler might read to a modern audience as manipulative or underhanded. To honor both Shakespeare’s intention and our perspectives as modern American audience members, McMahon says “I think you have to find an approach to the play that allows these characters to be to be fully human without turning them into terrible, terrible people. And one of the things that happens in the real world is that very well-intentioned people can make very bad decisions.”
The motivations that lead to these bad decisions are, at least in the case of the corrupt deputy Angelo, due in part to inflexibility and pride. According to McMahon, “Angelo and Isabella both start out with a passion for self-mastery. I think both of them take tremendous pride in being masters of themselves and their appetites. In Angelo’s case, I think that pride overflows into hubris. This is the arrogance of power, it’s the arrogance of privilege, it’s the arrogance of somebody who’s never been on the other end of things.”
Shakespeare sets the novice nun Isabella up in contrast to this hubris. As McMahon says, they start from a similar place of moral inflexibility, but where Angelo’s pride and austerity give way to depravity and corruption, Isabella’s melts into mercy. “She starts out as one thing and the events of the play transform her into something that is stronger and deeper,” McMahon says. “I’d say that the inflexibility and the pride — the inflexible part of the pride — that she has at the beginning of the play is probably burned away by the events. What replaces it is a deep sense of mercy. The mercy that she understands and extols intellectually in the beginning of the play, she’s actually able to demonstrate at the end of the play.”
This movement from rigidity to mercy, from punishment to forgiveness, inflects each of the characters’ motivations by the end, and highlights Measure for Measure’s movement toward redemption. “I think that in the macro cosmology of the play, that’s what the world needs,” McMahon says. “The world needs a miracle. The world on its own is doomed, and the miraculous thing is love and mercy and forgiveness, that has to come from somewhere that doesn’t exist yet. It has to be redeemed by something outside of and above and beyond itself. Isabella is the one who ultimately takes that on, and I think that in doing so, she allows the Duke to be transformed as well.”