I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh. I have no idea if he is guilty or innocent of the charges levied against him. What I do know is that powerful men have been taking advantage of their privileged position over women for centuries. I know this because over 400 years ago William Shakespeare showed us the depths of male depravity in a little-known but powerful play called Measure for Measure.

Given the recent events surrounding Kavanaugh, #metoo, and what seems like an endless stream of men behaving badly, Measure for Measure takes its place as the most modern and relevant of all the works of the canon.

No one in this play is a hero. All the characters Shakespeare breathes to life in his fictional Vienna come replete with faults. There’s the pimp Pompey, who comments about his employer Mistress Overdone that she has had nine husbands, “Overdone by the last.” There’s Lucio, described in the cast list as “a fantastic.” In reality he’s among the most misogynistic of Shakespeare’s creations. His comments about women in Act Five seem to him witty; our modern ears recognize the seeds of our society’s disdain for any woman who doesn’t toe the line – and a good deal of disdain even for those who do.

Then there’s the meddling and ridiculous “old fantastical duke of dark corners,” as he’s called by the afore-mentioned Lucio. Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, abandons his rancid and sex-crazed city to Angelo, a prude who goes about enforcing old and neglected laws calling for the death of anyone engaging in sex outside of marriage. Into Angelo’s trap falls Claudio, who has impregnated his fiance Juliet.

The Duke, whose plan is to disguise himself as a friar so as to keep his eye on Angelo (why? it’s not really clear), reveals his own misogyny when addressing Juliet about Claudio’s impending execution.

  • VincentioLove you the man that wrong’d you?
  • JulietYes, as I love the woman that wrong’d him.
  • VincentioSo then it seems your most offenceful act
    Was mutually committed?
  • VincentioThen was your sin of heavier kind than his.

And there it is. To men the message is, “don’t get caught.” To women, it’s “you should know better.”

The action of the play, though, centers around the novice nun Isabella. I’ll not criticize her here. Her choices are not mine, but – unable to escape my essential maleness – I can’t know how Isabella sees a world as described by the Duke to Juliet in the passage cited above. Perhaps Isabel does know better.

When Lucio is sent to implore Isabella to beg for her brother’s life, at first she is appalled by the earthiness of it all. But she finally comes around, and is so passionate in her defense that she turns the otherwise icy Angelo to thoughts of – well, of something other than ice.

And then comes the moment. Angelo tells Isabel she must surrender her body to his desire, or else her brother will not only die but be tortured. Isabel threatens to reveal Angelo for what he really is:

  • IsabellaHa! 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 outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud
    What man thou art.
  • AngeloWho will believe thee, Isabel?
    My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
    My vouch against you, and my place i’ the 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:
    Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
    Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
    That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
    By yielding up thy body to my will;
    Or else he must not only die the death,
    But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
    To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
    Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
    I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
    Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

[Exit]

  • IsabellaTo whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
    Who would believe me?

Who can’t hear the voices of all the men who’ve been caught abusing their power here? Who can’t feel the hopelessness of all the women who’ve feared not being believed?

And yet Angelo is only the second worst misogynist in this play full of misogynists. The Duke tricks Isabel into believing her brother is dead. When he reveals, voila! Claudio is still alive, he apparently expects Isabel to fall down and kiss his feet. Then, in the play’s final, horrible action, the Duke ever so magnanimously announces that he will accept Isabella (the nun-in-training Isabella) for his own wife. What the what?

It is often said of Hamlet that Shakespeare created a real person and somehow plopped him in the middle of a play. After reading Measure for Measure again, I now believe this is true of Isabella, as well. Her final action, of simply refusing to speak, refusing to acknowledge this ridiculous proposal by the Duke (of course, the Duke being the chief law-giver in the city, it’s more than a proposal, isn’t it?) is the moment when Isabella becomes a real person, a human woman who refuses to answer to Shakespeare, to the Duke, to any of us. She is stunned into silence, unable to imagine that, after the trauma of Angelo’s indecency, after the heartbreak of thinking she’s lost her brother, somehow the Duke could believe that what she really wants is a husband. I picture Isabel alone on the stage, silent, staring out at the audience in astonished disbelief.

Bottom line, everyone needs to read this, Shakespeare’s most modern, immediate, and timely masterpiece.

 

 

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