In Measure for Measure, you have a pretty clear bad guy: Angelo. You can argue the level of his badness, the validity of his motivations, and even ultimate responsibility in the situation (a situation the Duke sets into motion because he’s too much of a wimp to enforce his own laws…), but clearly he’s meant to be the heavy of the piece.
In Doubt, well, things just aren’t so clear are they? (Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about some key plot points in the play below though will be trying to be as evasive about them as possible. Still, if you’d rather not even have any clues as to what happens in the play, I’d STRONGLY suggest not reading further.)
First, consider the focus of Doubt: Sister Aloysius. (Still reading? Now’s the time to STOP if you want to remain clueless!) She tries to protect a student but in the process seems to devastate him. And, between what is happening at home and what happens at school, certainly sets him up with a lifetime need for intensive therapy. That’s certainly not good, is it? One could go even further and argue about whether she really is even motivated by such humanistic motives as protection. She seems more interested in rooting out and dispelling the cause of her suspicions; not necessarily bad but certainly a bit spiteful and one could even say obsessive. And in a play full of hints and allegations, she is the only one who actually admits to having lied. And she lies in an attempt to entrap. That’s not only sinful, that’s downright nasty, and if it was done by anyone in law enforcement, would be actionable. Along the way, she riles up the student’s mother, who clearly would rather not be riled, and sets a young teacher on edge, enlisting Sister James as an unwilling accessory in her campaign against Father Flynn. So is the good sister a bad guy? The ending seems to imply that she’s actually a bit of a victim. But is a victim of her own machinations worthy of our pity or our distain?
I actually think that it is possible and entirely valid to argue that Shanley goes too far in portraying Aloysius as going too far. I think it is fairly specific to this historic moment, in the years after all of the church abuse scandals, to have much sympathy for her at all. In a more trusting, less hypersensitive time, she could be dismissed as a bit of a loon with an overactive imagination. Armed with our current cynicism, we know (do we?) that she might very well have a basis for her suspicions.
It’s insinuated that Father Flynn could be a bad guy; Sister Aloysius sure seems to think he is. But in terms of cold hard facts, what do we have? Not much. A few paltry pieces of circumstantial evidence and many plausible explanations for each one. But isn’t that how the most insidious monsters work? Leaving nothing but the faintest of trails and damning their victims to a lifetime of self-incrimination and doubt.
A while back on the Barksdale Blog, Phil Whiteway took on the question of what Doubt is about. One thing that is masterful about the play (Shanley’s occasional dips into flippancy notwithstanding) is that it’s about exactly what it says it is. Doubt. The power of it, the vital importance of it, and in some situations, the insidiousness of it. Thanks to the Barksdale – I haven’t had so much to stew on since “Spinning into Butter.”