I first read Measure for Measure six years ago (see my post here) - and since that time, it has been my favorite of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” It addresses the themes of mercy and justice without the taint of anti-Semitism and cruelty present in The Merchant of Venice. It has a memorable and complex female heroine. It has a villain who gets a fitting comeuppance - but also receives undeserved mercy. And, like all of the “problem plays,” it is one heartbeat away from being an unspeakable tragedy. Believe me, Measure for Measure is arguably the most bitter of all Shakespeare plays - even more than Othello or Lear.
My previous review contains the plot, and a number of other observations about the play, which I will not repeat here. I recommend reading my previous post first, if you have not already done so. This was my first time to see this live, although my wife saw it at the Utah Shakespeare Festival a few years ago.
Six years seems like an eternity ago for me, honestly. A great many things have changed in my life, in my beliefs, and in our world at large. Just to name a few things: The leader of the cult that I spent part of my teens and 20s in was unmasked as a sexual predator. The religious tradition I was brought up in threw in its lot wholeheartedly with White Nationalism. On a related note, our family has left that tradition, and no longer participates in organized religion. I have lost a number of friends as a result of standing against the racism, misogyny, and social darwinism which are the core beliefs of the Right in this country right now.
But perhaps most obviously connected to this play, women have started to come forward and out the powerful men who have raped, sexually assaulted, and sexually harassed them. The #metoo movement changed the discourse substantially. On the one hand, some men have felt some heat. On the other, there has been a significant backlash - and as one could easily predict, it has come mostly from white men. And the women who benefit from white supremacy in our nation. One would like to hope that the tide is turning. But it will only turn of those of us who are determined to smash the patriarchal and racist systems that plague our country keep the pressure on, vote, and push back against those who are committed to returning to the injustices of the past. This isn’t a new issue, and, although things have changed for the better over the past few decades, we have a long way to go.
As it is with some many issues, though, Shakespeare was there first.
When I read this the first time, I hadn’t really appreciated the dynamics of sexual predation in the play. I mean, I noticed it, of course. And I already had deep suspicions about Bill Gothard from talking to women who, like me, had left the cult. But the #metoo movement really clarified it. Director Cody Ganger from Bakersfield College chose to do this play, this year, because of this theme - and it felt incredibly timely. What Shakespeare gets about human nature is this: rape isn’t primarily about sex, it is about power - and therefore, sexual assault (and false claims of sexual assault) are primarily wielded as power plays. In fact, if Measure for Measure can be said to be about anything, it is about the relationship of sex and power - both economic and political.
Just a quick summary: Duke Vincentio leaves his domain in the charge of Lord Angelo, his subordinate, so he can spy on how his kingdom is being governed. Angelo is a humorless prude, with as much self-righteousness as any fictional character, and a determination to enforce the most draconian laws without mercy. One of these laws punishes men for fornication with the death penalty. (Yes, Shakespeare turns this societal double standard absolutely on its head.) Caught up in this is Claudio, who is all but married to Juliet - they just need her dowry to make it legal. He gets her pregnant, and...off with his head. Claudio’s sister Isabella - preparing to become a nun - is reluctantly dragged into the case. Her halfhearted plea for the life of her brother (who she really thinks is a flake) is ineffective. But she does inspire Angelo’s lust. He assaults her, then tries to get her to trade her virginity for Claudio’s life. Angelo, of course, has no intent to keep his promise. He intends to violate Isabella, then kill her brother so he can’t revenge her innocence.
And he knows he can get away with it, because he has power and a reputation for prudery.
Here is the pertinent part of the conversation. (The whole scene is powerful, though.)
I have no tongue but one: gentle my lord,
Let me entreat you speak the former language.
Plainly conceive, I love you
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.
To see this essentially played out before our very eyes in my lifetime is pretty disturbing. Again, the reason that Shakespeare has remained popular and relevant for the past 400 years is that he understands human nature and human society so very well. On a related note, the reason that the bible has remained relevant is exactly the same. There is a strikingly similar story in Genesis, which has been much abused by Christians lately, alas. (See below for more.)
What Shakespeare gets so right here is that the dynamics of power determine who is believed in cases like this. After all, it isn’t really reputation. Angelo does indeed have a good reputation. But so does Isabella. She is a prude herself, actually, is a nun in training, and is above reproach. She pleads for her brother reluctantly, and pays the price for being a vulnerable woman.
Again, we have seen this play out in real life. And it isn’t just a single Isabella - but multiple women - and some male witnesses as well. But power still ultimately seems to win.
Shakespeare doesn’t just leave it at that either. The disguised Duke orchestrates a “bed trick,” then watches Angelo attempt to kill Claudio anyway (a convenient death provides an alternative), then returns as his true self. But he does what you might expect: he “believes” Angelo and throws serious shade at Isabella and Marianna (Angelo’s jilted fiancee.) In essence, this goes exactly how certain hearings went recently. The woman is not believed, pays the price, and the man skates without consequences. In this case, the Duke saves his ire for the final scene, and all is made right in the end. But both the Duke and Shakespeare play along to make the point that, while this story may have a happy ending, in most cases, this doesn’t happen. The Angelos of the world tend to win. They can rape and assault and destroy the reputation of women with impunity - because they have a penis and power. The Isabellas of the world pay the price. And the Claudios too - the lower status men are the ones punished for sex in our society.
Let me give some major props to Bakersfield College for their interpretation of this play. While junior college productions have their limitations - lower budgets, amateur actors, the need to include students relatively new to the stage - they really do work hard to bring the drama to life. This isn’t an easy play to put on, and they did a thoroughly credible job. No, don’t expect every part to be professional quality. Give the kids a little slack when they don’t project enough to fill the outdoor space, or miss the rhythm of a line here or there. There were some great moments, and they deserve credit.
Let me start with the best of them all. The scene I quoted above was fantastic. As it unfolded, Angelo went from wrestling with his lust and loss of self control to actively grabbing and fondling Isabella. It was creepy beyond belief, and well acted by the leads.
I don’t think I have seen John Spitzer in anything before. He is tall, lanky, and fairly handsome. While I am not sure he looks the prude in the way that, say, Alan Rickman could - he’s young and innocent looking - he wasn’t bad at the self-righteousness thing. But when he turned, boy did he turn. He went from pretty boy to gross lech in a few minutes. Paired with this was the excellent work by Mariah (Jordan) Bathe. I saw her at The Empty Space earlier this year as the middle sister in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, and she switched from the passionate lust for the married officer she loves to utter disgust. Her face showed horror, fear, contempt, panic, and more, as she was groped and caressed against her will. If you want to call this “anti-chemistry,” I think that would capture it. The two of them portrayed the loathing in a highly believable way.
A few of the other actors merit some mention. Carlos Vera has become a real fixture of local theater, and has been in nearly every Shakespeare play (among others) that I have seen in the last few years. He has taken on progressively larger parts as he has gained experience. In the role of Vincentio, he brought his usual simmering aggression to the part. Justin Thompson, hilarious as Mercutio last year, was likewise amusing as the libertine Pompey in this play. One of the few ringers, the always delightful Paul Sosa was hilariously chipper as the dimwitted constable Elbow. Lucy Brown played the executioner Abhorson in full goth makeup and a menacing silence. Cody’s husband Kevin Ganger made a good scene as Barnardine, the crazy murderer. As part of the play’s classic punk aesthetic, he had a mohawk, a union jack shirt, and as good of a punk swagger as I have seen. Honestly, I hardly recognized him, despite the fact that he has been in productions (including a great turn opposite his wife in The Taming of the Shrew) around town for years.
Shakespeare needn’t be set in period costume, of course, and BC has a longstanding tradition of using creative settings for dramatic effect. Sometimes these are more effective than others, but I do think it serves to make students think of Shakespeare as timeless, rather than time bound. (My wife took a few Shakespeare classes while she was in nursing school at BC - and got to propose a few settings of her own.)
In this case, the classic punk era was used for the lower-class characters. The aristocratic characters wore suits - except for the clergy, who wore black and clerical collars, and the police, who wore uniforms. The music too fit the vibe, with a heavy dose of the B-52s.
Overall, a thoughtful production of a play that really should be seen more often. It may be 400 years old, but it still challenges our ideas of power, morality, mercy, and justice.
Speaking of the B-52s, this one was essentially the theme song:
Ah, the old Joseph and Potiphar's Wife story. It has now been dragged out to ostensibly show the dangers of false rape accusations and create fear that any man could have his life ruined by one of those scary, awful women. The misuse of this story is nothing new - it’s endemic to the patriarchal Evangelical tradition, which feels a need to portray female sexuality as terrifyingly dangerous.
Even more offensively, the tragedy and injustice of the Emmett Till lynching has been repurposed for the same use.
What both of these either miss - or ignore - is that both stories are, like Measure for Measure, about the abuse of power.
Potiphar’s wife is like Lord Angelo. She has power, and decides to ruin a lowly slave when he refuses to give his body to her on demand. In both cases, it is the entitlement of power that treats those below as chattel to be abused at will.
Likewise, Carolyn Bryant, who later admitted that she lied about what Emmett Till - a 14 year old boy - did to her, has never paid a price for her role in the murder of an innocent. And she is just one instance of cases where white women and their precious “purity” has been used as an excuse to murder, abuse, enslave, and segregate black men.
This is the pattern, actually. You can see it with Bill Gothard, with Donald Trump, with Harvey Weinstein, with so many rich, privileged, powerful (usually white) men. To quote Trump, “Grab ‘em by the pussy. When you are a star, you can get away with anything.” It’s all about power. Shakespeare got that all too right.
Let me once again whine about BC’s criminal lack of publicity photos. Come on, guys! Promote your art! Make it a bit easier for those of us who enjoy your productions and would like to give you some online love. We. Need. Pictures.