“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.” ~ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women; they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.” ~ Charlotte Brontë, Shirley
For quite some time I have had a slow burn on about misogyny. The research I’ve been doing for my second book has fueled some of my anger. My protagonist in the past is a member of the suffrage movement, and the one in the present is caught up in events much like the ones going on today. This project has made me acutely aware of how women have been misunderstood and mistreated over the centuries. If you’ve been reading these posts, you’ll recognize a theme.
When I’m not writing, I’m teaching theatre classes and one of those classes offered by the college each semester is a performance class. I don’t always get students to sign up for it because we have a relatively small population at the local campus, and five other campuses spread around our large county, and beyond. With my focus so much on women’s rights, lately, I’ve been thinking about doing Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Which means I’ll have to begin right now doing a lot of recruiting because doing Shakespeare is quite a challenge.
Measure for Measure is about how a seemingly pious and upright man, Angelo, shows his true nature when given absolute power. In the play, the city of Vienna is ruled by a Duke. The laws are harsh, especially when it comes to relationships between men and women. Sexual offenses are supposed to be strictly, and harshly enforced, but the Duke, for reasons we never discover, has not done this. At the beginning of the play he decides to turn over his duties and authority to his second in command so he can take a trip to Poland, which, of course, he doesn’t do. He pretends to be a friar to observe what happens in his absence. Right away, power goes to Angelo’s head and he imprisons upstanding citizens, except for the fact that they have engaged in sex outside of marriage. The most prominent of these is Claudio, Isabella’s brother, and his betrothed, Juliet. When Isabella, who is about to take her final vows to become a nun, leaves the convent to plead for her brother’s life, Angelo is so taken with her innocence, devotion to her brother, her caring, and devout nature, that he finds himself lusting after her. It’s as if he wants to claim her pure goodness by defiling it.
To modern audiences the central problem of sex outside of marriage which drives the true theme of the play, seems inconsequential and even silly. However, during Shakespeare’s time the laws of the church were taken very seriously. Sex was, and still is, considered original sin and is reserved for married couples alone. You can see why Shakespeare may have used this as a jumping off point for the play. Love and lust are sometimes confused. And there are men who will risk their reputations to take possession of a woman they desire as if by doing so, he can absorb the qualities he admires in her.
When Isabella comes a second time to get Angelo’s answer about her brother, Angelo at first suggests, and then demands that to save her brother’s life, she must sleep with him. It’s the kind of situation women from the beginning of time have found themselves in. From Isabella’s point of view, she would be committing a mortal sin and damning her immortal soul. She’d gladly give her physical life for her brother, but does not want to give up her soul.
In a modern context, Isabella might not lose her soul, but she would lose things just as precious, her sense of self and safety, and her peace of mind. She would carry the degradation of giving into a man like Angelo with her for the rest of her life.
Fortunately the Duke is there to save both Isabella and Claudio, and expose Angelo for the fraud he is. The implication is that this was the Duke’s intention all along.
With the current attacks on women from federal, state, and local governments, as well as the ones from powerful men, this seems like the time to revive this play, or at the very least, adapt it for a modern audience. So, though I’ve been going back and forth about whether or not to direct it, writing this post has pretty much made up my mind to do it. Besides, it’s always a good idea to go back and learn something from Shakespeare.
Thanks for reading. I appreciate your likes and comments.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2017
Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel. It’s available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, and print-on-demand at Amazon and other fine book sellers. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.