Politics, Power, and Purpose in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure
In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, observing that his Dukedom has fallen into licentiousness and chaos through his neglectful government, has pretended to leave Vienna and has turned over the government to Angelo, his upright and up-tight Deputy; and that the Duke has resolved to remain in Vienna, in disguise, so that he may observe how Angelo's character is revealed or transformed in the crucible of the power with which he has been invested. The Duke tells Friar Thomas, who is party to the plot:
Lord Angelo is precise,
Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (1.3.5-54)
My subject is how "power" changes--or at least influences--"purpose." But the "purpose" in question is not, as in the play, the government of a city or of a state, nor even (as in the case of Angelo) the government of one's psychological and physical appetites, but the creation of a work of art, of a theatrical performance. Talking about Angelo, the Duke poses his assertion as a conditional: he wishes to test "if power change purpose." My hypothesis is that, in the theatre, power does indeed change purpose.
I base this hypothesis upon several premises: that the theatre, as a complex collaborative art form, depends upon the coordination of the talents and temperaments of a wide range of individuals; that, in the theatre, these individuals must be organized into a process which inescapably involves the establishment and articulation of power; that theatrical artists are, by their very nature, sensitive, egotistical, easily offended and ultimately cajolable, and therefore particularly vulnerable to the articulation of lines of authority and the exercise of power; that the primary raw material of the theatre is the actor and the dramatic character he or she is playing; that plays in performance are constructed from the subjective, sensitive, malleable and yet ultimately uncontrollable raw material of human beings in action; that, therefore, the theatre event is particularly sensitive to the slightest breeze, not to mention the gale-force winds, of exercised power; and finally--and this may be my most controversial, and possibly even unsupportable, premise--that the effect the exercise of power has on the theatrical process inevitably makes its way into the theatre event created by that process, and is ultimately perceivable by the audience in the theatre. In claiming that power in the theatre does change purpose, I am in fact asserting that process affects meaning.
Now, before I go too much further, I should tell you that theatre does not, by itself, necessarily mean anything. Or, to put it more precisely, theatre doesn't, ideally, make statements about anything. Rather, theatre happens. Things happen in it. What...