Okay, if there was ever going to be a Shakespeare play that was RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES, this one is it, guys. I was reading along, with no sense of what was going to happen, and then I found myself sputtering in total, visceral recognition and outrage. This play is stupendous. Everyone should be putting it on right now, because apparently the same thing has been happening for centuries — as opposed to it being a “cultural shift” — and Shakespeare knew all about #metoo.
Okay, so for those of you who, like me, knew nothing about Measure for Measure, the gist of the plot is this: the Duke of Vienna, who has been something of a lax ruler, decides to go away for a while and leave his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo is an extremely strict person, known for his high moral standards, and he decides to clean house while the Duke is away. The first thing he does is to arrest Claudio and sentence him to death for getting his girlfriend Julietta pregnant, even though the two of them are engaged and just waiting for the dowry to get settled in order to get married. Death? says everyone. Are you serious? Serious as a heart attack, says Angelo.
Well, they go to Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is about to profess her vocation as a nun, and ask her if she would come to Angelo and plead for Claudio’s life — he might listen to someone so pure and good. And here’s where things get interesting. Isabella comes to Angelo and begs him to let Claudio live. Her arguments about mercy and hypocrisy are convincing and to the point, but that’s not what changes Angelo’s mind. He finds that Isabella’s purity and goodness stir something inside him — and it’s not mercy. It’s lust. He proposes to her that if she’ll sleep with him, he’ll pardon her brother. Isabella instantly refuses in the clearest possible terms, even at the cost of Claudio’s life:
Angelo: Then must your brother die.
Isabella: And t’were the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister by redeeming him
Should die for ever.
More: when Angelo presses her and tries to convince her, she says she will tell the world what he’s done. Angelo’s response is chilling — the iambic pentameter of what every Harvey Weinstein the world over must say.
Isabella: Ha! Little honour to be much believed,
And most pernicious purpose. Seeming, seeming.
I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for’t.
Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud
What man thou art.
Angelo: Who’ll believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state,
Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein.
“Who’ll believe thee, Isabel?” I shuddered when I read that line — because of course he’s right. The reason this play turns out with Claudio’s life and Isabel’s honor intact is not that Isabel is brave or that we believe women (in 1604.) It’s because the Duke didn’t really go away, he stayed in Vienna in disguise as a friar and lurked around and heard everything Angelo did, and we can definitely believe a Duke. So this makes a comedy possible after all. Sort of.
The ending of this play is kind of a mess. It’s as if Shakespeare presents himself with a moral dilemma he doesn’t know how to solve, and then solves it with a handful of (to me) very unsatisfying patches on a problem that isn’t going away anytime in the next few hundred years. Angelo thinks he’s sleeping with Isabel, but actually he’s sleeping with Mariana, a woman he dumped years ago and left in dire poverty because her dowry didn’t come through (more evidence that Angelo is a horrible person), so Angelo and Mariana get married. Poor Mariana! Even though this saves her from poverty! And Angelo obviously doesn’t want to marry her. The Duke proposes to Isabella, without making a single reference to her vocation as a nun. Isabella, oddly, doesn’t say yes or no. It’s sort of… assumed they get married? Claudio is saved by a trick they play with someone who was going to be executed anyway. So… happy ending? I guess?
But hanging over the whole play is that horribly chilling scene where Isabel, fierce Isabel, who is there to plead mercy and forgiveness and humility, there to remind Angelo that God forgives and he should too, is told that if she doesn’t have sex with Angelo, her brother will die suddenly and brutally, and she will never be heard. That her words will be outweighed and stifled by a man’s. That no one will believe her, that she’ll be the one to have a bad reputation. And she knows it’s true.
This was a shocking play to read in the wake of the many accusations of sexual assault and harassment we’ve been reading in the news. Of course I knew that this is not a recent phenomenon. But to read the same words we’ve been seeing over and over again in a play from 400 years ago was heart-poundingly relevant. Read it for yourself and see.