On a particularly pleasant evening last month, I sat with friends watching Measure for Measure at Shakespeare in the Park. It’s one of my favorites, so I was dejected when the intermission conversation turned to the play’s lack of poetry. It’s true that it only has one memorable monologue, but it’s a doozy. The protagonist, Isabella, goes to the interim ruler of Vienna, Angelo, to plead for her brother who would be executed for impregnating his fiancée. If there’s a time for persuasion, this is it. Luckily, the woman is a master of rhetoric, as her brother explains before we meet her: “She hath prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse, / And well she can persuade.” A lot of good it does her, though, because Angelo listens only enough to know that he desires her and offers to spare her brother’s life if she has sex with him.
I’ve seen this play performed twice, and both times the post-play conversation has been about what modern audiences must think of Isabella’s resistance. Why doesn’t she just sleep with Angelo and get it over with? But I don’t find her motivation that difficult to locate. She believes that both she and her brother will go to hell if she submits. Also, if successful, Angelo will be guilty of rape, which the Public Theater did an excellent job of emphasizing by having him attack Isabella in their second scene together. In my mind, the most pressing modern parallel, of many, is the deviance of bigwig politicos.
“O, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant!”
Angelo explains to Isabella that she has no recourse, that if she tells anyone what happened, they won’t believe her over a high-ranking official:
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 your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in our own report
And smell of calumny.
These lines received an audible response from the audience—nervous laughter and quiet gasps. After all, the performance was a mere four days after the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault. They might not receive the same response at tonight’s performance as the audience, and anyone who’s been keeping up with the scandal, tries to process the increasingly real possibility that the maid engaged in consensual rather than forced sex. Nonetheless, the hypocrisy of Angelo might still hit a little too close for home in our world of political denials.
Fellow Guernica blogger Jake Whitney made a compelling case last month for why the media should stop reporting on the sex lives of politicians, his main point being that their private lives are irrelevant. Moreover, the salacious reporting distracts from important issues. True enough. But if Larry Craig is soliciting gay sex while opposing gay rights and Eliot Spitzer is buying sex while opposing prostitution, their sex lives are relevant. And let’s not feel too sorry for Anthony Weiner who admits that the college girl on the receiving end of his most infamous sext—a photograph of a concealed erection—did not encourage his behavior. That is, he sent this photograph to someone who did not want it, which is harassment anyway you look at it. The other consensual messages might not matter, but this one does. It shows a disregard for women as much as any sidewalk catcall. Even sadder, the young woman thought she was engaging in political discourse, not flirtation. That is, whatever tone she wanted to establish in their interactions was ignored.
The same week that I went to Shakespeare in the Park, I reread Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay for TomDispatch, “Men Explain Things to Me,” in which she recounts instances where men belittle women in social situations. The most memorable anecdote involves a physicist telling a funny story about a naked woman running down the street, saying that her husband attempted to kill her. Solnit asks the obvious question, how did the storyteller know the husband wasn’t trying to kill his wife? “He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand…” It boils down to “he said, she said,” in which the “he” automatically assumes more credit.
To say that Shakespeare remains relevant in modern society is its own cliché, but one that I am willing to risk in defense of a beloved play. We have not come far enough when a man’s word still counts for more than a woman’s and when an elected official can play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. If only Isabella were here to call these men down from their perches: “O, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant!”