Open Silences in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

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How Productions from 1720 to 1929 Close Shakespeare's Open Silences in Measure for Measure

Prologue: Playtext. Performance. and Open Silences

In the Preface to his edition of Shakespeare's plays, and even as he vigorously defended the playwright against attacks by other neo-classical critics, Samuel Johnson nonetheless also offered his own survey of Shakespeare's weaknesses. Among the more well-known and provocative remarks is his assessment of the endings of the plays:

It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented. [Preface, in Sherbo VII: 71-72.]

That Measure for Measure, in particular, was taken to be an example of Shakespeare's tendency to "remit his efforts," and that these failures created problems about the ending of the play symptomatic about larger issues of genre, is testified to by Charlotte Lennox's often quoted criticism:

The comic Part of Measure for Measure is all Episode, and has not Dependence on the principal Subject, which even as Shakespeare has managed it has none of the Requisites of Comedy. Great and flagrant Crimes, such as those of Angelo, in Measure for Measure, are properly the Subject of Tragedy, the Design of which is to show the fatal Consequences of those Crimes and the Punishment that never fails to attend them. The light Follies of a Lucio may be exposed, ridiculed and corrected in Comedy.

That Shakespeare made a wrong Choice of his Subject, since he was resolved to torture it into a Comedy, appears by the low Contrivance, absurd Intrique, and improbable Incidents he was obliged to introduce in order to bring about three or four Weddings instead of the one good Beheading, which was the Consequence naturally expected. [Lennox, I: 27, quoted in Vickers, 4: 112.]

As we shall see, these strictures reappear in at least one edition of the play, namely in Francis Gentleman's commentary on the play in the 1773 edition (Bell's edition) examined below.

In this presentation, and concentrating on the issues raised by Johnson, rather than the wider issues raised
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