The Promised Profit Post: Measure for Measure

Oh, so long ago, I said I’d be writing about reading Shakespeare for profit, and then life intervened and I went off on a long jag of Elizabeth Taylor reading, and a lot of novel and story writing, and re-writing, and some other stuff, and well, really, it’s time to get back to Measure for Measure, for profit’s sake.

The word “profit” is one I love, just as I love the word “rich.” I have long felt compelled to point out to those who have to listen to me (aka my children) the non-monetary meanings of words like this. Think of it as a little bit of vocabulary subversiveness. “Rich” doesn’t mean rolling in cash; it means replete with something. It’s a good word, describing as it does the quantity of good things we should all have in our lives: we should be rich in laughter, in books, in words, in love. Same with profit. We profit from things not just monetarily, but morally and spiritually, intellectually and entertainment-wise.

Whenever I think of the word “profit” I think of Tennyson’s Ulysses, a poem so old-fashioned that it shows up in Ted Kennedy’s speeches. It begins: “it little profits that an idle king….” And, on the subject of random word association, I noticed this last week, as William was preparing for his First Communion, that when my kids think of profits they think of guys with long white beards who are messengers from an angry old testament god.

Okay, here comes the Shakespeare part. (Aren’t blogs great? They are one big digression. And nobody nails you for it!)

Sometimes, the thing you’re reading perfectly fits your current preoccupations. In the case of Measure for Measure, I found myself thinking that Shakespeare knew there is no better set up for a comedy with a slightly tragic edge than that of the righteous man who is himself doing the thing he so vigorously condemns.  And how that is SO Eliot Spitzer.

Shakespeare’s Spitzer is Angelo, who, moments after he is put in charge of the kingdom, gets right to work handing out death sentences for having sex without being married. And then, just moments later, he is busy trying to figure out how to seduce the play’s number one virgin who also happens to be a nun. You can tell that Angelo is in for a big fat fall.

How does it end up? It’s a C-O-M-E-D-Y, so after the proper amount of chastisement, everybody marries somebody and things are good.

It profits an idle writer like me to read Shakespeare not only because you realize that there are no unique plots, but also because once you are freed from the scariness of making stuff up, you can look around you and see how all you have to do is just steal what you need. And that’s what I did. I STOLE part of Measure for Measure for my new novel, for a subplot set in the Marks & Spencer food hall at Paddington Station. I even have a nun character. She’s Swedish. She looks severe. She’s a traffic expert. She knows a lot about snow. I think that’s very nun-like, to be an expert at things having to do with winter. The Marks & Spencer manager is a righteous guy. And that’s all I needed to get going. Thank you, Will.

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13 thoughts on “The Promised Profit Post: Measure for Measure

  1. There. That is exactly what I mean. Whoever does not publish your writing is crazy. What a great post! Down to earth, comical, wise, witty and with a flourish at the end. How very Shakespearean.

    Old fashioned or not, I do love Tenneyson, “Ulysses,” and that very very famous first line. Bravo!

  2. Why, TJ, that’s very nice of you to say! I’ll tell you, that comment alone will keep me going through the next 100 rejections. As for Tennyson, Jack (my 12 year old) is memorizing that very poem for English class. I think maybe it’s better for an older person, it being about age and all — but it’s good for him to realize that everybody does get old, even greek heroes.

  3. I love this, Bloglily! I have the words ‘rich’ and ‘profit’ wholly rehabilitated now from the vulgar glare of commercialism and will spend the day applying them to the best parts of it. Simply cannot wait to read the scene involving Marks and Spencers, Paddington Station and a nun.

  4. Well, I do qualify as “an older person”—coming out the other end of the shoot, as they say. But Tennyson’s poem (yes I do know how to spell it—my typing fingers gravitate toward vowels for some reason) appealed to me on the earlier end of things as well. Happy to know students are still memorizing poems in English class! By the way, do you know T’s Idylls of the King?

  5. Hey TJ, Being part of the older person crowd myself, I think what I meant to say is that I feel like this poem speaks to me, maybe more than Jack. Still, he’s the one who has to memorize it. And yes, all my sons have to memorize stuff. It’s good for those little brains.

    Litlove, I have to appeal to your knowledge of all things British, you being a citizen and all. What do you call the M&S supermarkets — the ones that don’t sell underwear, but sell frozen chicken tikka and a million kinds of crisps? Food Hall seems a little grand. (And if you can answer this, dear reader who has not yet commented, I’d be so grateful!)

  6. I’m too lazy & pressed-for-time to look it up, but Someone We All Know said, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” It’s a time-honored tradition for which I can only applaud you: Bene!

  7. “sometimes, the thing you’re reading perfectly fits your current preoccupations…”

    that’s what’s so great about the bard. shakespeare always fits with one’s preoccupations. especially when one is preoccupied with virgin nuns (not me!).

    i love the fact you stole from shakespeare — he stole from everybody else.

  8. Tres chere, I have to say that the grandeur persists and I would probably call them Marks and Spencer Food Halls. Smacks of Harrods, I know, but we quite like that. But I will check it out properly for you and see if there is a better term.

  9. I never think of Angelo as the real villain in ‘Measure for Measure’. For me the real ‘baddie’ is the Duke, who has made a real mess up of ruling and then jumps ship and leaves other to sort it all out. Typical politician! Maybe he eventually makes his way back and tries to do something to help, but even at the end he has no more idea than fly of what really makes people tick. Does he really think Isabella is going to marry him? These days most productions leave that very open to question.

  10. M&S also have “Simply Food” stores – just selling food (of course). I agree with Litlove they are just called Food Halls when part of the larger M&S shops. I think the one at Paddington Station is a Simply Food M&S.

  11. I think we call them Marks and Spencers, as if selling underwear next to food is a perfectly rational thing to do. Which it probably is. Didn’t Shakespeare steal everything.

    Oh, and I tagged you for a meme. Well, it involved food.

  12. Why, yes, U-Dad, I believe he did! A meme involving food — how great is that???

    Selling underwear next to food is just as rational as many of the other things you can now buy at the supermarket, some of which are supposed to be food but, in fact, are not.

    Oh, Ms. BooksPlease, thank you for that — Simply Food! I love that. I’m going to google it and see if that’s the case with the one at Paddington. But even if it’s not, it should be, shouldn’t it?

    Dear Ann, That’s such a completely accurate assessment of where responsibility lies in M4M. I didn’t find the Duke/Isabella matchup anything other than appalling. But there might be more there, and I am going to think about it.

    Litlove, I’m all for grandeur!

    Bookfraud, I thought you were ALL ABOUT the virgin nuns. Ah, the things you learn on a blog.

    Marie — An entire blog post exists out there to explore this very question. It’s here:
    ttp://nancyprager.wordpress.com/2007/05/08/good-poets-borrow-great-poets-steal-not/

    And here’s a wonderful thing she quotes from a T.S. Eliot essay:

    One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

    Eliot, T.S., “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood, New York: Bartleby.com, 2000.

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