Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is an unexpectedly modern play. Though it was written in the 17th century, each time it resurfaces it brings along a modern context. Struggling against the tides of power and how that power can affect humanity, Measure for Measure amplifies the political turmoil within its performance context. ArtsEmerson’s presentation of Measure for Measure is a co-production between U.K. and Russian theatre companies—Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre—and has toured internationally as well as continuously in Moscow for the past five years. As the production travels the world, it leaves each destination with a increased awareness of local issues, power dynamics and political reflection within the audiences’ given community.
It is hard to ignore the current events laden in our Twitter feeds, newspaper articles and consciences. Measure for Measure arrives at the Emerson Cutler Majestic later this month (OCT 24 – 28) and puts a magnifying glass up to the urgency of the present political moment. This is perhaps most apparent in the conflict between Angelo and Isabella. In order to save her brother’s life, Isabella, a young nun, is propositioned by Angelo, the interim leader of Vienna, to give up her virginity to him. If she does so, Angelo allegedly promises to release her brother. It is an obvious exertion of power over Isabella, as Angelo manipulates the world around him for his own gain. The parallels between Angelo’s need for power and dominance is not an unknown feature of American culture and current events, unfortunately. His actions in this fictionalized version of Vienna eerily align with the United States’ own current, unstable moral composition.
My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for it.
He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.
I know your virtue hath a licence in’t,
Which seems a little fouler than it is,
To pluck on others.
Believe me, on mine honour,
My words express my purpose.
Ha! little honour to be much believed,
And most pernicious purpose! Seeming, seeming!
I will proclaim thee, Angelo; look for’t:
Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
Or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud
What man thou art.
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. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.
Isabella, trapped between her own morals and her brother’s life, is left with an impossible choice and no one to confide in. Shakespeare wrote about a society where women’s voices are inherently silenced and muffled, which is sadly a presently familiar topic. With Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing and Dr. Ford’s testimonial, there is a palpable feeling of history repeating itself; while Measure for Measure is fictional work, it echoes throughout Washington D.C. right now. You can trace it through memories of Anita Hill, Brock Turner, and the #MeToo Movement. It echoes through the daily life of so many who find themselves silenced as Isabella is and lost amongst the impossible.
Social attitudes and beliefs reinforce how power and dominance play out in our society. Explicit power is more overt and recognizable, like the top of an iceberg visible above the water. Below the water lurks implicit power which can be covert and less recognizable, yet justifies this explicit power as the deeply entrenched base of the iceberg. Often, our social attitudes and beliefs will recognize and push back against explicit power, such as an outrageously short sentence in the Brock Turner case, while implicit power continues along unchallenged, seen in societal attitudes and beliefs about sexual assault, objectification of human beings, justice, and the prison industrial complex.
“Measure for measure” is a phrase referring to the idea that people “get what they deserve,” as a symbol of justice. This refers to the belief in an inherently “just” world, written and researched extensively by Melvin Lerner and more as the “Just World Hypothesis.” Sometimes this is invoked by people who believe they have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” “working hard to get where they are.” They may not care to notice the iceberg underneath the water, the privileges they have, the policies and structures that benefit them based on their race/gender identity/gender expression/sexual orientation/citizenship status or the groundwork that was paved for them, often on the backs of communities who are marginalized or oppressed. In addition, this message of “you get what you deserve” is often pitted against survivors, blaming them for the harm someone else chose to do to them. Survivors are regularly interrogated by friends, family and responders about what they were wearing, drinking, or doing, as if any of these things would be any excuse for someone else to choose to harm them.
No one ever deserves to be harmed or oppressed, no matter the color of their skin, their abilities, their gender identity or expression, the clothes they are wearing, whether or not they are drinking, nor who they are with or where they are. Only the person who harmed them is responsible for the harm. This double standard plays out to continue to benefit some at the expense of others. If we cue into the ways that white supremacy, misogyny, patriarchy, benevolent sexism, colonialism, capitalism, ableism, heterosexism, xenophobia and transphobia repeatedly play out in our society, we would recognize how “measure for measure” is used to justify power and dominance. Moreover, the belief in an inherently just world allows the rest of the community to condone this behavior and turn away rather than intervene as bystanders. In doing so, they deflect any social responsibility, resist re-examining biases, and reject any disruption of power and dominance, thus allowing it to remain firmly entrenched deep within our society.
The patriarchy of Measure for Measure is fervent and goes far beyond Angelo’s sexual advances. Isabella is constantly told by the male characters around her how to act, what to say, and manipulating her decisions to their benefit. Her own brother, Claudio, pleads with her:
Sweet sister, let me live:
What sin you do to save a brother’s life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.
Claudio’s desire to live outweighs the importance of Isabella’s autonomy, and while the circumstances are incredibly fraught, it further illustrates the disregard for Isabella’s well-being and control over her own body. With few female characters throughout the show, the empathy and/or sympathy Isabella receives is nearly negligent. Her story only becomes believable and viable when endorsed by the Duke at the end of the play. Until she has a male authoritative figure advocating for her, Isabella’s tale remains overshadowed by men grappling over power and dominance.
Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo, shares that the goal of the Me Too Movement is “to reframe and expand the global conversation to speak to the needs of a broader spectrum of survivors. Young people, queer folx, trans folx, people with disabilities, Black women and girls, and all communities of color. We want perpetrators to be held accountable and we want strategies implemented to sustain long-term, systemic change.” To move towards systemic change and transforming a culture of intrusion, intimidation, harassment, and oppression to one of community-building, radical care, and healing justice, each of us can ask ourselves:
- What are messages I receive about power, dominance, and power-based interpersonal violence, including sexual assault and harassment, stalking and threats, child abuse and neglect, human trafficking, and abusive relationships?
- How might I believe some of these messages?
- How are my communities are impacted by power-based interpersonal violence?
- What am I willing to do to transform culture? (e.g. support survivors in my communities, intervene as a bystander, question social misperceptions about power-based violence, disrupt power and dominance)
Though it is not one of Shakespeare’s most widely produced plays, Measure for Measure remains a relevant piece of theatre. Audiences witness the injustices within their own societies reflected back on them as a sort of reckoning. It strips away our passive bystander syndrome and asks us to act, to press against the injustices we see in our own everyday lives and to dismantle the power structures that remain unwieldy and unregulated. However, the ownership of that responsibility is not an individualistic effort; It is a collective process and requires the support of those around us, audience members sitting next to us and the knowledge that we are here to assist each other against various inequities. Measure for Measure, though written several hundred years ago, still persists as a narrative of our contemporary society, and until it is no longer is relevant, the work is not yet done.
If you would like support around something you’ve experienced, know that we’re here for you:
- Healing & Advocacy Collective (Emerson College) 617-824-8857 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (24/7) 800-841-8371
- The Network La Red (helpline for LGBTQ community) 1-800-832-1901
- National Sexual Assault Line (24/7 helpline and live chat) 800-656-4673
- Love is Respect (24/7 helpline and live chat about abusive relationships) 866-331-9474
- Additional resources at: emerson.edu/healing
This post was written in collaboration with the Healing and Advocacy Collective at Emerson College.
Representatives from the Healing and Advocacy Collective will also be present in the lobby during and after the performances of Measure for Measure with resources for those who may need it.