A play for today

As I read Measure for Measure again in a deeper dive, I’m feeling something I don’t remember feeling about many other plays in the Canon: This is a play that speaks directly to the current world.

[The following entry is going to expose my fairly liberal leanings. If that sort of politics (or any political discussion, for that matter) is not your cup of meat, skip today’s entry and come back tomorrow…]

Not to put too fine a socio-political point on this, but when I look at the world around us, I see some disturbing trends. I’m not talking so much about social injustice (though there’s quite a bit of that in the world). I’m not talking about income inequality (though that’s a real issue). I’m not talking about violence in general or gun violence in specific (though, again, there’s a bit of that as well). What I see is the seemingly increasing ease with which our society accepts rancid sexuality. There’s a growing and disturbing sense of a rape culture, with a casual sexual degradation of women. (NOTE: I just finished watching the Amy Schumer special on HBO. I’m not pointing at her as part of the problem, but her matter-of-fact discussion of real/imagined/accepted sexual acts is just plain disturbing.) And I see some pretty draconian practices being called for by some wannabe Angelo’s, some political and religious “leaders,” and most of these “solutions” seem focused to limit, if not punish, female sexuality.

The narrative crux of this play is the gratuitous sexual proposition of Isabella by Angelo. The act is bad enough, but for it to come from a man in a position of power makes it worse. Worst still, is his response when she threatens to publicly accuse him of this abuse:

 Who will 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.

 As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.
  • II.iv.153-8, 168-9

A man in power is almost always going to win the battle of “he said/she said.” A male false will nearly always overweigh a female true. This is simply a given in a patriarchal society. So much so that in response to Angelo’s speech, Isabella has already accepted her fate, questioning, “To whom should I complain? … Who would believe me?” (II.iv.170, 171).

She’s right, of course. We know it almost instinctively today. And within the play, we’re proved right by the duke’s response to Isabella’s accusation against Angelo outside the city gates:

By heaven, fond wretch, thou know’st not what thou speak’st,
Or else thou art suborned against his honor
In hateful practice. First, his integrity
Stands without blemish; next, it imports no reason
That with such vehemency he should pursue
Faults proper to himself.
  • V.i.106-111

Angelo’s integrity will get the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Plus, why would the man lie? True, these words are spoken by the duke, knowing full-well that his deputy is guilty of that which he has been accused; the key isn’t that he speaks this, but that no one in the scene raises a contrary voice.

True in Shakespeare’s day. True some 400 years later…

Bill Cosby. Accusers felt they would not be believed; and thus, for years, they’ve hid from his power.

Clarence Thomas. Even at the highest levels of our government, there is the pressure for women to bow to sexual demands and threats of slander.

And don’t even get me started on Bill Clinton.

We live in a time of continued sexual harassment. We live in a society fraught with unhealthy sexuality. We live in a time where political leaders seem powerless to take action and religious leaders would love all too well to legislate away sin.

We live in the world of Measure for Measure.

Diatribe done.

See you (less politically) tomorrow. Sorry for the diversion.

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