Several of Shakespeare’s plays defy modern categorisation. Measure for Measure has been classed as a comedy, and certainly contains some farcical elements, but there’s more to it than that, although it doesn’t seem right to call it a ‘problem play’ either. The first record of its performance is on Boxing Day 1604, although it could have been written over a year earlier.
Unlike his better-known plays, Measure for Measure has had relatively little influence and seldom been adapted or reworked. During the eighteenth century, its productions were often cut heavily, and in the nineteenth century it was all but banned, until it was revived in the twentieth century.
It thus hasn’t featured in many paintings, except for its character Mariana. Despite its unpopularity on the stage at the time, a plethora of paintings of that character started appearing in 1850, only to vanish again by 1900.
Set in Vienna, this play relates events which take place when the Duke of Vienna makes it known that he is going away on a diplomatic mission. His deputy, Angelo, assumes control, although the Duke doesn’t actually go away at all, but remains in disguise to observe Angelo’s behaviour in his feigned absence.
Angelo starts enforcing ancient laws which the Duke had allowed to fall into disuse. This results in Claudio being carried off to prison, where he faces a death sentence for getting Juliet pregnant, as they weren’t legally married, because of her relatives’ objections. Claudio’s sister Isabella is expected to appeal to Angelo to save her brother’s life. Although she is about to take her vows as a nun, she agrees to plead Claudio’s case for him.
William Hamilton’s Isabella Appealing to Angelo from 1793 shows the chaste Isabella before Angelo. Her rhetoric impresses the Duke’s deputy, and he increasingly lusts after her. At their second meeting, he offers to spare her brother on the condition that she lets him take her virginity. She threatens to report him, but Angelo is confident that his word would be believed, rather than hers.
William Holman Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella from 1850 shows Isabella visiting her brother in prison. When she hints at Angelo’s offer, he begs her to comply and let him deflower her. At the time, the Duke is also visiting the prison in disguise, and he persuades Isabella to attempt the ‘bed trick’, in which she tricks Angelo into sleeping with his former fiancée Mariana in place of herself.
Angelo had been betrothed to Mariana, but her dowry had been lost at sea, so he refused to marry her, leaving her isolated and in perpetual sadness, with no promise of any solution. Mariana welcomes this deception, as she’s still in love with Angelo, and this could be construed as consummating their frozen marriage.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of Mariana (1870) depicts moments in which a boy sings to her. Rossetti dresses the woman in the same blue as Millais (see below), and uses Jane Morris as his model. Mariana sits full of yearning, her embroidery on her lap, as she listens to the boy’s song, bringing in the art of music.
Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s fairly sketchy painting doesn’t show the boy in song, as he stares at Mariana’s face, which we cannot see, as she is looking into the canvas. Her purity is confirmed by the white lily flowers.
Angelo hasn’t kept his side of the deal, though, and the disguised Duke tells the executioner to send the severed head of another prisoner to provide evidence to Angelo of Claudio’s execution – the ‘head trick’. The Duke then lies to Isabella, who as a result thinks that her brother has already been executed.
The Duke then ‘returns’ to Vienna. Isabella is brought before him, and she accuses Angelo of deflowering her, to which the Duke feigns ignorance and has her arrested for defaming his deputy. The heavily veiled Mariana is then brought to the Duke and, keeping her identity from him, she claims that she and Angelo have already consummated their marriage. Angelo accuses Mariana of lying, at which the Duke retires briefly to don his disguise as a friar. His true identity is revealed by accident, and Angelo then realises that the Duke has known the truth all along.
Consequently, Angelo asks to be executed, but the Duke instead orders that he marries Mariana, and is executed immediately afterwards. Mariana pleads for his life, Isabella argues her case eloquently, and Claudio is revealed to be alive after all. Finally, the Duke asks Isabella to marry him, and the outcome is left hanging at the end of the play.
Paintings of Mariana were greatly complicated by the fact that, in 1830, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote and published a poem titled Mariana, which focussed solely on Mariana’s ‘despondent isolation’ before most of the events occurring in the play. Its 84 lines end with the summary
Then, said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!”
Not content with that complication, a couple of years later, Tennyson rewrote the poem and published his new version under the title Mariana in the South in 1832. That follows more closely the tragic circumstances of The Lady of Shalott, ending in Mariana’s death. This left artists with a choice of three different Mariana narratives, and a fourth if we include Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth, published in 1853, which was apparently inspired by Millais’ painting below.
The final version of John Millais’ Mariana (1851) was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1851, together with lines 9-12 of Tennyson’s original Mariana:
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary;
I would that I were dead!”
Millais’ superb and richly-coloured painting is full of symbols: fallen leaves to indicate the passage of time, her embroidery as a means of passing that time, the Annunciation in the stained glass contrasting her with the Virgin’s fulfilment, the motto in coelo quies ‘in heaven is rest’, and the snowdrop flower in the glass meaning consolation. Mariana’s posture is intended to indicate her yearning for Angelo.
Marie Spartali Stillman’s highly accomplished watercolour may have been inspired by Millais’ painting, and uses the same basic setting of Mariana gazing out of a window with yearning. However she dispenses with Millais’ complex symbols, and fills her paper with Mariana herself, relying on her facial expression and body language alone.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti made two quite different studies before painting his finished work of 1870 (shown above), which are generally accepted as being part of his Aesthetic style rather than the earlier Pre-Raphaelite.
The Heart of the Night (Mariana in the Moated Grange) (1862) is an intriguing watercolour study quite unlike any of the other depictions of Mariana, but clearly referring to Tennyson’s first poem. The figure is obviously yearning deeply, but instead of facing a window, she inhabits the dark. Some symbols are apparent in the distance, including a spinning wheel indicating time, and there are love letters scattered in the foreground.
His next study of 1868 is transformed by his use of Jane Morris (wife of William Morris) as the model, and this probably developed from a study of her head alone. There is also a link to reality, in that the Morris’s marriage was going through a difficult period, and Jane and Rossetti were becoming increasingly close.
Valentine Cameron Prinsep’s Mariana from about 1888 was intended to serve as an illustration for a printed edition of Shakespeare’s play; this version was printed by Goupil in Paris in 1896. He uses a very similar composition to Stillman, in which Mariana is dressed in white, symbolising her purity, and stares out of anachronistic diamond-pane windows, full of yearning.
Almost fifty years after Millais’ first painting, John William Waterhouse chose Tennyson’s later reworking of his poem, Mariana in the South.
One study has survived, showing how Waterhouse has moved much closer to the popular images derived from The Lady of Shalott. The moated grange is now kept in permanent darkness, shutters closed. Mariana yearns in front of a large mirror, as if dressing herself in preparation for her death.
Waterhouse’s finished Mariana in the South (c 1897) places her in a posture more closely derived from that of Millais. On the floor are some of her love letters, and there is a large red rose (of love) on her breast. At the left edge, on a distant mantelshelf, a candle burns its vigil for her lost betrothal, and her prayers that she will one day marry. This matches Tennyson’s words “And in the liquid mirror glowed the clear perfection of her face” from his second version of the poem.
What might have appeared to be paintings of a simple theme from Measure for Measure may not be anything of the kind.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.