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What a lesser-known Shakespeare play can tell us about Harvey Weinstein

Before #MeToo, there was Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015.
Marc Brenner

“It was another time.” “People didn’t care about harassing women until now.” “He’s an old dinosaur learning new tricks.” As more and more publicly influential men continue to fall from grace as a result of sexual harassment accusations, one of the most common excuses for their actions is that it was different back then.

Defenders of Harvey Weinstein, of Roman Polanski, or of Roy Moore often use temporal moral relativism as an excuse. Sure, they admit, nowadays, women are so sensitive about these things. But they treat consciousness of sexual harassment as a uniquely post-feminist phenomenon: the result of politically correct brainwashing.

But all too often, many critics of feminism can be as ahistoric as the “left” they despise, imagining a past blissfully bereft of any potential for sexual misconduct, in which no woman would ever think to “speak up” because nothing was worth speaking up against. But that era did not exist.

I was reminded of this last week at the Public Theater, at Elevator Repair Service’s production of Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s most perplexing — and powerful — plays.

To understand how long #MeToo has been going on, just read Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure was written around 1604. It still may be one of the most relevant plays ever written about sexual harassment and abuse against women, and the stakes for women who speak up about it. It takes place in (an almost totally fictionalized version of) 16th-century Vienna, a city, according to Shakespeare, full of sexual licentiousness.

In Shakespeare’s Vienna, laws against premarital sex were technically on the books, but nobody enforced them. That is, until the duke decides that somebody should crack down. Not wanting to take the heat of being that somebody, he puts his morally upright deputy, Angelo, in charge and announces he’s leaving town (though he actually disguises himself as a friar and watches the goings-on from within the city walls).

Angelo immediately arrests Claudio, a young but dimwitted man who has gotten his fiancée pregnant, making it impossible for him to deny his crime. Angelo sentences Claudio to death in order to make an example of him. Enter Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is about to enter a nunnery. She pleads with Angelo for Claudio’s life. Deeply attracted to her, Angelo counters with a proposition: If she sacrifices her virginity to him, he’ll spare her brother’s life.

Isabella is outraged. She threatens to tell somebody, to reveal Angelo’s corruption. But Angelo counters with a gut punch of a line: "Who will believe thee, Isabel?”

The line is all the more striking because of its simplicity. Angelo has spent the past five minutes obliquely hinting at his desires, seducing her into thinking she has a real chance to save her brother, to imply what he wants her to do without having to face up to the fact that Angelo is basically threatening to kill her brother if she doesn’t sleep with him.

But this, this, he can be crystal clear on.

He reminds her that because of his status, his word means more than hers. It’s a “he said/she said” with an obvious winner: “My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life.”

Angelo knows the sheer act of coming forward will impugn Isabella’s virtue. Even if she doesn’t sleep with him, she’ll have lost her reputation.

Righteousness can go too far — for both Angelo and Isabella

Isabella’s righteous anger — often swallowed by necessity, to be sure, but nonetheless ever-present — drives the rest of the plot. While much of Measure for Measure is complicated, convoluted, and often psychologically difficult to parse, it also reads in part as a meditation on the power, and limits, of women’s justified moral anger.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Isabella’s next big scene, in which she tells her imprisoned brother to prepare for death, informing him she could save him but won’t. It’s a seemingly cruel gesture; one wonders why Isabella feels the need to tell him about Angelo’s offer, since she’s already decided to refuse him.

As with so much of Shakespeare, her motivations are left open to interpretation. Does she feel the need to be totally honest? Does she want his forgiveness?

I choose to believe, instead, that Isabella is angry. “More than our brother,” she says to herself earlier, after hearing Angelo’s offer, “is our chastity.” The our is key here. Isabella is speaking for herself, but also implicitly for all women who are expected to bear the burden of men’s sexual misconduct.

Angelo’s sin is far worse, of course, but now we see Claudio’s in a new light: He can’t keep it in his pants, so Angelo doesn’t want to keep it in his pants, so Isabella must suffer. Is she making Claudio suffer too, getting some unconscious revenge on him that she cannot get on Angelo? Or is she testing Claudio's reaction? Her fury when Claudio asks her to sleep with Angelo to save his life suggests she might have been. "O faithless coward!” she tells Claudio. “O dishonest wretch! Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?”

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.

Watching the scene in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein accusations, I found myself instinctively rejoicing in Isabella’s choice. But I also found myself sympathizing with stupid, cowardly Claudio, who really hasn’t done anything wrong except impregnate the woman he intended to marry.

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.

Measure for Measure shows us how we lie to ourselves about our actions

The story might have ended there — a woman refusing to let any man renege on his responsibilities. But there’s a deus ex machina.

The disguised duke, who has overheard all of this, comes up with a plan with Isabella. Angelo has a jilted fiancée, Mariana, who still loves him. Isabella should agree (says the Duke, who machinates the rest of the plot) to sleep with Angelo under cover of darkness. Mariana will take Isabella’s place, claiming her rightful status as Angelo’s wife. Angelo will release Claudio. Everybody wins.

The plan goes off without a hitch. But Angelo, ashamed by the hypocrisy of his actions but unwilling to risk a potential witness speaking out against him — orders Claudio killed anyway. (The duke conspires to save him without Angelo or Isabella’s knowledge.) Shakespeare gives him a powerful, revealing soliloquy in which he tries to dissociate himself from what he has done: “This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant / And dull to all proceedings. A deflower’d maid! / And by an eminent body that enforced / The law against it!”

The irony is overwhelming. That eminent body is, of course, his own. And even as he is unpregnant — distracted — the woman he believes he raped could yet bear his child. But we feel for him too: In Angelo’s desire to hide from himself (let alone the world) the reality of what he has done, the play never suggests that Angelo is a total hypocrite — he seems to really believe in the principles of sexual morality he tries to enforce. He’s just weak, too weak to realize that he is not the exception to the rules he makes for others. He is, in other words, totally human.

The play’s tensions come to a head in its final scene before the court. Isabella (not realizing her brother is alive) confronts Angelo before everyone: "Most strange, but yet most truly, will I speak / That Angelo's forsworn; is it not strange? That Angelo's a murderer; is 't not strange? / That Angelo is an adulterous thief / An hypocrite, a virgin-violator / Is it not strange and strange?” Strange, of course, it isn’t — indeed, what we and Shakespeare alike know is that his behavior is all too normal. But it takes Isabella’s courage to bring it all to light. At first, nobody believes her. But then Mariana comes forward to corroborate her story — and tell her own.

There’s a great little moment when she does so. Mariana, masked at first, is asked whether she is a “maid” (virgin), a wife, or a widow. She denies all of these. An onlooker is confused. “Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?” Outside the boundaries of these prescribed social roles, Mariana is “nothing” — with no legal or moral status. And Angelo tries to discredit her too, by impugning her reputation: He left her, he says, because he believed she was promiscuous. When that fails, Angelo tries another tactic familiar to women everywhere: He suggests that Isabella and Mariana have been put up to their accusations for political reasons.

And indeed, it’s only once the duke reveals himself and his plan that anyone actually believes both women.

The play’s ending is complicated and bittersweet. Isabella, whose anger has driven so much of the plot, is forced to show mercy to Angelo, reversing her earlier willingness to let Claudio die for his sins. It’s hard to watch — we want Angelo punished and killed. But it also makes sense as a kind of redemption arc for Isabella, who has gone from someone who rejoices in her brother’s impending death to someone more tolerant of human frailty.

Meanwhile, the duke — who has cruelly let Isabella think her brother is dead in order to test the moral purity of her reaction, just as she has done to Claudio earlier — announces to Isabella he would like to make her his wife. Isabella never answers, and different productions interpret her silence differently. But in a play that is all about women’s voices — quieted, disbelieved, and disregarded — her silence speaks volumes.

It’s not a particularly satisfying ending. Isabella doesn’t get revenge. She’s probably going to have to marry a man who let her think her brother was dead in order to test her. Angelo’s only “punishment” is to marry Mariana. The duke returns to power, seemingly insensible to the lives he has almost ruined by his irresponsibility (remember: none of this would have happened had the duke been willing to enforce his crackdown himself). But it’s an ending in which all characters, heroes and villains alike, are humanized and forced to confront the aftermath of their actions, and live on together in the imperfect world they have collectively made.

Measure for Measure is a “problem play” for today

What makes Measure for Measure both timeless and timely is that it engages meaningfully with Isabella’s anger, even as it recognizes its limits. Isabella should be angry (at one point, she threatens to tear out Angelo’s eyes), but at the same time, her anger blinds her to the point of welcoming her brother’s death. As unsatisfying as it is to see Isabella forgive Angelo — albeit for the sake of another woman — it’s also, perhaps, the right thing to do. Isabella is human and a little flawed, and Angelo is human and deeply flawed. Measure for Measure challenges us to recognize both their flaws and their humanity.

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.

This play serves as an important reminder that, despite some people's idealized narrative of the “pre-women’s lib" past, people were still grappling with the injustice of sexual misconduct. Shakespeare knew that sexual harassment is made possible by sexual hypocrisy: that harassed women are rarely believed, that women are only allowed to be wives, widows, or virgins, and this is what makes it so easy to make them victims.

Hell, even Angelo — despite his misdeeds — knows this. He just lies to himself to justify his actions.

So when “dinosaurs” and their defenders act like the abuse of sexual power is a thoroughly modern invention, that feminists “invented” sexual harassment, I would like to invite them all to take a seat — and watch a few hours of Shakespeare.

Sure, we may today have different terminologies to describe what Angelo does to Isabella: We have, as Shakespeare did not, the language of rape culture, of patriarchy, of sexual harassment, of consent.

But, to paraphrase another Shakespeare play, that’s just the human condition by any other name.