I have two go-to books when I’m studying Shakespeare: Harold Bloom’s The Invention of the Human and Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare after All.
In my Shakespeare Comedies course, we did a couple farces (Errors and Taming), a bunch of Festive Comedies (Midsummer, Merchant, As You Like It, and 12th Night) (yeah, the festives are my favorites, so sue me), and now we are finishing the chronological and generic sequence with a “problem play” (Measure for Measure) and will wrap it up with a Romance (The Tempest). Of all these plays, the only ones I didn’t write about in my dissertation were Like It, 12th Night, and Measure. As You Like It and Twelfth Night are simply favorites and I know them well, so I was able to sail pretty smoothly through them even though I hadn’t done the extreme work on them I had on my dissertation texts. Measure for Measure not so much. So…
When I need to catch up on critical thought on a play, I have my two go-to commentaries. Harold Bloom is a Yale professor who, according to that other great resource, Wikipedia, continues to teach the Shakespeare class at age 82 (and why not?). Marjorie Garber is 14 years younger* and a professor at Harvard who teaches Shakespeare among other courses. Both texts discuss all the plays. What makes me laugh and love these resources is this: They absolutely disagree on everything. Every time one loves something, the other is going to hate it. Every time one postulates a particular theory or line of query, the other slams it. The texts were not written in dialogue, but they should have been. It’s fabulous. So Garber quotes Coleridge talking about Measure for Measure as a “hateful work” and Bloom claims it as one of his two favorite plays. Every time, without fail. In truth, it’s helpful to see such disparate views, but it makes me smile. Every time!
My vote in the match-up of course goes to Garber, but that might have been inevitable. She stands in the tradition under which I came of academic age.
Measure for Measure is difficult and I’m not sure what to do with it, but it is an interesting point in Shakespeare’s arc, the last true comedy–if one is willing to term it a comedy–as he moves into his great tragedies and then finishes with the Romances which I argue are, in fact, comedies, though certainly of a different nature than the farces or festives. The darkness that Shakespeare always points to even in the most farcical and physical of farces is enhanced in Measure and the other problem plays and then redeemed, perhaps, in the romances. They all have light and darkness, disorder (dis-ease) and redemption, albeit to varying degrees.
*14 years younger to the day. According to that website, both were born on June 11, birthday also of my Tennessee Roomie whom I miss dreadfully and whom I saw play Kate in Taming of the Shrew when she was in college and I was in high school before we were friends or I even knew who she was.