AN: I went on a WRITING SPREE this weekend, y'all. Here's the second Measure For Measure chapter, again inspired by the evocatively weird Vakhtangov Theatre. In homage to their weirdness, I decided to undertake an experiment of my own, combining three second person POVs to create the full narrative.
I firmly believe that the only positive couple in this play, in terms of how they relate to each other, what their love is based on, and what they're willing to do to maintain their relationship, is Claudio and Juliet: our two primary voices. Naturally, their love provides one major source of conflict in the play, as the zealous Angelo seeks first to punish fornicators in his quest to clean up Vienna. And who better to make an example of than a well-liked, more or less innocent, child-expecting gentleman like Claudio? Naturally, the more equitable characters in the play do NOT approve, leading to a quite interesting amount of pleas in his favour. People really do not want to see this guy hurt.
One of these characters, the Provost, or prison-keeper, provides the third voice binding the narrative. This character is praised by the disguised Duke for his "honesty and constancy"; indeed, he goes further than that to claim "this is a gentle provost; seldom when the steeled gaoler is the friend of men." In fact he might be the only character in the play, with the exception of the advisor Escalus, who possesses a true and unsullied understanding of equitable justice. This seeming contradiction made his character the most compelling to me when I read the play, and given that most of his onstage appearances coincide with those of either Claudio or Juliet, I couldn't not include him in their story.
Juliet's portion of the narrative is written in italics, Claudio's in plain font, and the Provost's in bold.
The prompt was "dancing," which Claudio and Juliet did a LOT of onstage. Made for some very cool stage pictures.
In your beloved's embrace you seek shelter from all storms. His arms promise safety, a cage of strength surrounding your fragile frame; his warm hands stroke comfort like vitality into your skin, chilled more from the dread of threads of fate yet unwoven than the pernicious moue of winter, still glowering at the falling light. Expensive shoes, firm beneath your stockinged feet, scarcely yield to your meagre weight, shoring you up and boasting all the while of stability, security. Constancy, despite, the relentless shift of your soundless waltz.
You step, turn, breathe as one, IN-two-three-OUT-two-three, locked in tandem as only lovers lost to time within each other can be. He is yours, and you are his, and you dance, and dance, willfully impervious to the lustre gilding your intertwined dreams cracking as the world you thought you knew falls to condemned dust.
X X X
"Why dost thou show me thus to the world? Bear me to prison, where I am committed!"
"I do it not in evil disposition, but from Lord Angelo by special charge." For the first time since you were forced to lead this farcical parade your reviled shadow speaks, but the words pass through you as the wind, stinging and raw. In the voice of a prodded bear he mumbles, as though resentful of the charge, or perhaps the demon who put it on him. You don't know and dare not ask, for despite his youth he is hard as stone and inexorable as the tide, and you are too footsore, too heartsick, too bitter in contemplation and too forsaken in condemnation to even play at fighting the inevitable.
Jailer, you call him, for jailer he is, but when your second shadow, she, beloved, draws you aside to sit, cool hands an undeserved balm upon your fevered spirit and pallid brow, he lets you go with nary a narrowed eye in protest.
You watch them, and an iron fist clenches around your throat and sinks into your gut, mindlessly smothering each breath you begrudge yourself the luxury of taking. You watch them, and your swollen eyes yearn, burn, with the wretched weight of tears thirty years unshed.
Jailer, you call him, for jailer he ought to be, but when you beg for a minute more of respite-to finish the cigarette she holds to your lips in pitiful substitution of a kiss, to speak to your impetuous friend, who fair spits fire to hear your tale of woe, to wish the weight of her head upon your shoulder would drive you into the ground, into her, away from here-he turns away from you.
And so you turn from them, loathing yourself for failing in your duty, loathing yourself still more for so meekly accepting it in the first place. Duty. Burden. Devil's work, and you the bitter deputy. The fool, who in battle would cut men down with a steeled heart and a steady hand, but would now balk at a pregnant girl's tears, at the youth's trembling hands and shadowed eyes. It sickens you, their love. Lily-pure. Naivety dashed to bits on the jagged coast of needless suffering. Suffering you lead them to, bound but better blind, the cruellest sort of shepherd.
Acquiescence too easily won.
They sicken you.
You pretend not to see the hurt glimmering sharp in flat and weary eyes.
You sicken yourself.
There is only room in your heart for the hurt in hers, each falling tear a plea and prayer her cracked lips cannot utter as you rise to fall.
Beside you, that gentle fop turns to speak. Mild mien and crazed eyes, thoughts flitting across his white face like shadows across the moon. He seeks answers to questions you'd damn yourself to ask, and to stay his foolish tongue you snatch the wooden cup from his tremulous hand.
Vodka. Watered down. It barely stings as you drain it.
Teeth clenched against a cry of rage, you fling the cup away, stride back to your damned ward and his twice-damned maid: dry-eyed, now, and clinging to him for more than she's worth.
"Come, away," you whisper, her small hand a dying weight in yours.
Jailer, he calls you.
For surely she will die with you.
Damn you, his proud gait snaps. Help him, her hollow eyes plead. You wish the liquor had burned as strongly as the fire of their resignation.
X X X
In your beloved's embrace you seek shelter from all storms, but here the storm surrounds you always, seeps into your very marrow and lingers there like a sickness, or an uninvited guest. Stale air pregnant with voices, glutted with the bilious rage and bitter sorrow they spew day in and out.
The cells of the ground floor house last night's drunkards and last eternity's mad; their rolling, leering eyes prick at your skin like so many flies as they lustily drink in the sight of those afforded greater liberty than they might ever claim, to roam the grounds freely.
The chaotic bustle of the ground floor proves a welcome respite from the unhallowed silence two levels below, where the walls are so thick, the halls so dark, that you felt yourself to be the only living soul for miles, dropped into an infinite well of waiting and wanting. Only the hangman had paced by your cell, reptilian eyes cowering behind spectacles like dim mirrors pinning you down. As though you were some misshapen, novel inspect: unsought, but not yet unwelcome; disconcerting, but not yet so bothersome that he'd feel the need to swat at you.
But then the jailer had come, and sent the scurvy fellow skulking off with a single dour look. White kerchief a beacon of hope, poised and penitent in the unremitting dark. He said only "you may see her before her hour," and brought you upstairs. Left you to her tender mercy. Turned back to his business before you could even think to thank him.
A thousand times an hour you thank God your beloved was afforded such liberty.
She clings so tightly to you her frail body, spent with worry, trembles. Or perhaps it is your own hands that falter as you worship her velvet skin, her tightly coiled hair, her gravid belly, with the ripened fruit of your seed kicking strongly from within. Her weight atop your feet roots you to the earth, to the waltz, as the stymied winds of morbid fantasy lash about you in vain. Her scent keeps them at bay, salt sweat and roses sweeter to you than any perfume.
Your lips breathe no word, but your souls hum in harmony, a gentle tune weaving through the cacophony of voices and moulding their strident chords to suit sweet melody. When you dance, the world falls away; two become one in a paradise spun of purgatory. When you dance, time stops to watch, and the chided storms beat their whimpering retreat into disconsolate silence.
When you dance, you dance to forget.
And so you dance.
The prison, the birth. The sentence.
Your forget them all.
You wish only to forget forever.
To break them apart is hateful.
All but her.
Cherish the moment while you can. Will it to last forever.
But you've your duty.
You need more time.
They need more time.
Even fate cannot last forever.
X X X
Hot hands come to rest upon your own. Gentle. Insistent. Invasive. They are not your beloved's hands: too large, too rough, and they pull you away from him with strength neither of you could hope to protest against. They pull you away from him, back into the world that has seen fit to spit on you for love.
Faces swarm in the corners of your conscience. The careworn caretaker, kinder than this place of misery deserves or can bear. The hooded friar, sallow face and cultured voice and benighted eyes, a spectre drowning in the shadow of his misplaced faith. They regard you with pity, but their pity chafes as wool upon a wound, and you blind yourself to it, disgust travailing to mask despair. You reserve sight only for your beloved, who kneels to take the sacrament at the feet of your unborn child.
Her hands card through your newly shorn hair: steady, as though her heart isn't breaking audibly with yours. The child kicks out against your cheek, railing against you for abandoning it even as you caress it.
Your child, who will be left fatherless before it has the chance to draw breath.
Her tears spatter your splayed, roving hands like so many drops of blood, and for one wretched moment you wonder whether it would be better to kill her alongside you, if only so she won't be left forsaken.
The weight of the world that should be theirs presses mercilessly down upon you, until your legs can bear it no longer.
You kiss her one last time, and curse yourself a coward, that you cannot longer hold on.
Unseen, you stagger to a nearby chair. Unseeing, you stare at the blood-stained, straw-strewn floor, neck, back, and heart breaking beneath the strain.
You let her go.
He lets you fall.
You take up your ball and chain once more, rue the hour you allowed yourself to believe you were free of them. Free to live.
He locks himself away.
You ought to sweep today.
You turn and walk away.
X X X
She lets you lead her to the sick bay, a study of strength in silence though she walks doubled over in pain. When he asks, dully, what you've done with her, you tell him the physician will send word when her hour is come.
As if you'll be around to hear it.
The pain, the pain! Splitting you open from your very core, leaching all reason from you, your innards burning as you choke on your own screams.
You sweep, as you meant. Ought. He paces, as he cannot help, a caged animal latching onto, lashing out at, any solicitous hand.
The foreign friar.
That pious hack. That blessed saviour.
Who calls you caretaker, not jailer, even as the youth spurns the very sight of you. Who seems to take full measure of your prostrate soul in a single piercing glance.
Who promises that he cannot know.
Who seems to long for some reprieve for the unfortunate lovers as strongly as you do. You're almost sorry to see him go.
You hope he stays away.
Not so the sister, damnably virtuous she.
Oh sister, sister, hear me!
Is't not natural for a man ill-accustomed to death to fear it as he does?
Is life so hateful to you that you would begrudge me mine?
Is't not enough he fears for himself, but for wife and child with him?
Must I die to countenance your sin with mine own?
Must I die in senseless agony, not knowing where or when or why, but that my beloved is to die? Must I die like this, steeped in my own filth and shame, dragging sacred life into a world that seeks only to silence its cries? Must I die adrift in the storm?
Must I die?
Must he die?
X X X
Midnight will tell, to say he must. He, and her soul with him, and the coming child with her. He must die, and he knows it, heart resigned to that which his eyes cannot accept.
You slam the warrant into the jailer's solid chest, praying the the Devil when God forsook you that it burn his too-mortal flesh as it did yours.
He should have struck you harder. Stopped the foolish heart that still dares beat for him.
His hand traps yours, one helpless soul seeking to comfort another, but the touch only burns, burns, burns.
He wrenches himself away. Walks whistling away, to wait out the moonless night.
Alone, you whistle, that you might not weep.
Alone, you drag yourself to the floor, that you might weep in peace.
It doesn't work.
It doesn't work.
In the lonely dark you sit and wait, that you might not waste a single second of life as the hours left to you wind down, down, down to Hell and never to return.
But who knocks there?
You wonder how she is.
You wonder if she in pain.
You wonder if he lives.
If she cries for you.
If he dares sleep.
If she holds your child and tells it not to dream of you.
If he dreams of you.
You wonder why the Devil in his wretched mercy never saw fit to harden your heart against your duty, why you must be consigned to suffer it as lead crawling through your veins, cannon fire ringing in your ears and pleas like barbs sunk deep into your skull. Why the Friar in his damned persistence comes to rouse you: praises honesty, urges action, plots calamity, promises safety, when you want nothing more than to lay by the yoke of duty and seek asylum in oblivion.
You force yourself to think of everything and nothing, anything to stave off an eternity of oblivion creeping ever closer with each passing second. To die is to forget what it is to feel, what it is to forget. To think. You cannot bear to never think again. And so you think beyond the pale of reason, if only because your life depends on it. On her.
But their lives depend on you.
Your finals hours pass softly with thoughts of her.
X X X
You never thought it would come.
You never thought you'd live to see it.
You pray you'll live to see another.
And now you wait.
For something, anything, to happen.
For the Duke.
Because you must.
As much as it pains you.
And the world waits with you.
X X X
She runs into his arms.
X X X
In his embrace you seek shelter from all storms, for now you know you can never again bear to weather them alone. You collapse into each other, more weary than you've ever been and yet. Overcharged with life. Precious life.
Your son, you tell him, your tears and his a gentle fall of rain to christen their salvation. Your son.
He holds you to his chest and mumbles prayers, praises, as your wrenched hearts learn anew to beat as one. He holds you lovingly, bruisingly tight, as if dreading the moment you'll be dragged apart forever.
But forever never comes.
And so you kiss him.
You kiss her.
Your child clutched in your arms, you mount his feet and shut your eyes, trusting he'll never again let you fall.
As your hands weld themselves to her back, back to where they belong.
As your souls take up their shared melody, now three voices strong.
A note on titles: in Shakespeare's text, the Provost is just called Provost (or occasionally "fellow" or "officer"), again meaning prison-keeper. The closest term we'd have in modern vernacular might be "warden," but there are a ton of similar words in English. Russian has the same problem. The translation used by the Vakhtangov production utilised two words: "тюремщик," which specifically means "prison-keeper" or "jailer," and "смотритель," which translates roughly as "caretaker" or "watcher." Interestingly, the only character to use the connotatively milder "смотритель" was the Duke, who offers multiple deeper analyses of the Provost's character, whereas those who regard him simply in terms of his function, e.g. Angelo and Claudio, used the harsher, more impersonal "тюремщик." Just a little fun with cross-cultural interpretation.