I just went to see Goodman Theater’s last matinee production of the Shakespeare play “Measure For Measure.” We also read this play for my Renaissance Literature class, a class titled, How (Not) to Be Good in Renaissance England. The class focused on the Seven Deadly Sins and their corollary virtues, and the virtue/vice that week was Lust versus Chastity.

Now Chastity is something I know a fair bit about from personal experience. My friends, who are my friends for this very reason, assure me that “it’s not me, it’s him.” I’m picky enough and virtuous enough that it’s becoming clear to me that even though I’m Catholic, I’m going to have to date a Mormon to find someone who fits my qualifications. The problem is finding a gay Mormon who isn’t emotionally damaged by his religion.

Even in Shakespeare’s day, though, people struggled with what it meant to live a virtuous life. Comedies written in that time period inevitably ended in marriage, and this proved difficult to accomplish when one of the main character’s in “Measure For Measure” is a nun. In class, we learned that this play is one of three by Shakespeare, along with “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Troilus and Cressida,” that critics consider a “problem play.” Part of the reason it’s considered a “problem play” is because it blends incipient tragedy, moral ambiguity, and low, bawdy humor, but it’s also a “problem play” because it deals with social morass and social problems of its time. The bard set the comedy in Vienna, a city he almost surely had never been to, but the story reflects back on Renaissance England, and the city in question, a stand-in for London, faces moral and economic decay. There’s even a character named Mistress Overdone (wink wink), who almost certainly runs a brothel and is responsible for the spread of venereal disease throughout the region.

The Goodman chose to move the location of the play to 1970’s 42nd Street-style New York City. My mother hates when artistic directors “contemporize” a classic work, but in my mind this modernization makes the play relevant to our generation, though I must admit I squirmed a bit in my seat when I looked around the seats at the matinee and noticed a fair number of the grey-haired generation. But the way I look at it, people go to the theater to be challenged, not to embrace only what is comfortable, and Goodman’s “Measure For Measure” certainly challenges its audience.

Still today, a subset of the population lives a lascivious lifestyle, and unlike the play, things don’t always end happily. Not only do people catch venereal diseases, they also despair that things will ever get better. People using drugs have worn out their relatives, and I personally know of one eighteen year old who’s exhausted his family through his drug use and has ended up homeless. Another close friend had a great job, but got caught up in the drug scene, lost his job, lost his partner, lost all hope, and committed suicide.

Just because you live a virtuous life, doesn’t mean you won’t despair–virtue is no guaranteer of personal happiness–but it does tend to decrease the number of moral issues you bump your head against. Who knows? Perhaps your life will end more like a Shakespearean comedy, not a tragedy.