This photograph shows John Gielgud (1904–2000) in the role of Angelo in the 1950 production of Measure for Measure at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. To his right, in the stalls of the theatre, is Peter Brook the 25-year-old producer, and Anthony Quayle the director.

Brook’s production was groundbreaking in displaying the power of both the plot and the subplot – the high and low aspects of the play.

Peter Brook’s Measure for Measure: the Holy and the Rough

Discussing Measure for Measure in his book The Empty Space (London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1968), Brook acknowledged the contradictions between comedy and tragedy which some critics see as a problem. But he argued that these opposites, which he calls the ‘Holy’ and the ‘Rough’, were the key to the play's meaning:

As long as scholars could not decide whether this play was a comedy or not, it never got played. In fact, this ambiguity makes it one of the most revealing of Shakespeare’s works – and one that shows these two elements, Holy and Rough, almost schematically, side by side. They are opposed and they co-exist. In Measure for Measure we have a base world, a very real world in which the action is firmly rooted. This is the disgusting, stinking world of medieval Vienna. The darkness of this world is absolutely necessary to the meaning of the play (p. 88).

In the 1950 production, Brook gave new emphasis to this dark world. He added a crowd of extras – beggars and prostitutes – in the lowlife, outdoor sections, and made the prison scenes more shocking with a torture machine and rack. At the same time, he cut the play to exaggerate the decency of high-status characters like the Duke, who was played by Harry Andrews. For example, he removed the lines in Act 5, Scene 1 where Vincentio continues to dupe Isabella about Claudio.

Isabella’s silence

The production became famous for the lengthy silence in Act 5, when Mariana asks Isabella to join her in pleading for mercy towards Angelo. When Isabella, played by the 19-year-old Barbara Jefford, was asked ‘will you not lend a knee? (5.5.442), Brook directed her to

pause each night until she felt the audience could take it no longer – and this used to lead to a two-minute stopping of the play. The device became a voodoo pole – a silence in which all the invisible elements of the evening came together, a silence in which the abstract notion of mercy became concrete for that moment to those present (The Empty Space, p. 89).