Shakespeare & Sexual Assault Politics

Lewis Geraint, Riseborough & Dormer in “Measure for Measure”


Vox writer Tara Isabella Burton has a nuanced article applying Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to Harvey Weinstein and those other public figures recently exposed as sexual assaulters. I must confess that the play has always troubled me, but I am rethinking it thanks to Burton’s interpretation.

As she sees it, the very ambiguities that make the play problematic are also at work in a number of our own cases.

The play begins with a cowardly administrative decision. Duke Vincentio, worried that his leniency has led to laxity within his realm, pretends to leave town while appointing the rigid Angelo as temporary executive. Angelo immediately initiates harsh measures, including ordering the execution of one Claudio, who has broken laws against premarital sex by getting his fiancé pregnant. Claudio’s sister, soon-to-be-nun Isabella, pleading for his life, finds herself in Angelo’s lecherous crosshairs. The modern parallels begin here.

Angelo, resembling one of those hypocritical “family values” politicians (say, Roy Moore), promises to free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. When Isabella threatens to go public, she receives the same response that Moore delivered to one of his own victims:

Who 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. 

Or as Moore reportedly said to 16-year-old Beverly Young Nelson after groping her breasts,

‘You’re just a child, and I am the district attorney of Etowah County, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.

Angelo is modern in other ways as well. For instance, when he on the verge of being exposed, he goes step by step through the predator’s playbook. The real duke, watching Angelo from the shadows, has arranged an elaborate deception: Isabella will say yes, thereby winning a reprieve for her brother, but then be replaced in the darkness by Angelo’s former fiancé Marianna, whom he jilted. The plot succeeds, but when first Isabella and then Marianna come forth with their stories, Angelo (1) says they’re lying, (2) claims he dropped Marianna because she was promiscuous and (3) says that political schemers have put the women up to discredit him. Sound familiar?

Burton observes that the play is not just about lecherous old men and innocent victims, however. Above all, Isabella is a mixed bag. Although she is clearly a victim, Burton says she also stands as a warning to those who are too self-righteous in their condemnations. When, for instance, Isabella’s brother begs her to take up Angelo’s offer, she turns on him.  Purity and death are to be preferred over sin and life.

Burton finds herself simultaneously rejoicing in Isabella’s choice and sympathizing with Claudio, whose only fault is impregnating his fiancé:

Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”

This scene — the exact midpoint of the play — is powerful because we are simultaneously proud of and repulsed by Isabella here. On the one hand, she has every right to be furious. Men’s very existence, it seems, is predicated on a system in which women are used and abused. On the other hand, Isabella’s anger punishes Claudio, who might be a bit weak, a bit of a coward, but who hardly deserves to have his sister celebrating the prospect of his death.

In other words, Burton uses the play to both validate female anger and warn against purity politics:

It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place.

By the end of the article, Burton is sympathetic with pretty much everyone, even the sexual assaulter Angelo:

The play invites us to recognize that the world around us is full of Angelos who lie to themselves, and Claudios who are cowards, and Marianas who enable the abusive behavior of the men they love, and Isabellas who are blinded by their righteous rage and let it hurt those they love. It rightly condemns Angelo’s behavior, alongside the hypocritical society that lets him get away with it, even as it contends with the fact that, ultimately, Isabella’s harassment is part of a much wider issue: human beings constantly falling short of the standards they set for themselves, and those in power being able to fall short with impunity. The true sexual immorality of Vienna turns out to be rooted not in sensuality, but in hypocrisy.

Burton may want to temper her sympathies a little, at least with regard to Angelo. If Valentino had not reined him in, Claudio would be dead, Isabella dishonored, and Marianna left bereft.

I would add one more modern parallel: Duke Valentino resembles the GOP Establishment, claiming moderation while counting on Angelo to do his dirty work (in our case, win elections by attacking people of color, immigrants, assertive women and LBGTQ).Valentino thinks that, once Angelo has restored order, he can return and rule as before. He reclaims power in the play but not in 2016 America.

Everyone in this sexual assault drama gets full three-dimensional treatment. That’s why Shakespeare was not of an age but of all time.

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