“Measure for Measure” with Romola Garai

Does Shakespeare Tell a #MeToo Story in Measure for Measure?

Ian Merrill Peakes (Angelo), Karen Peakes (Isabella), Measure for Measure, Folger Theatre, 2006. Directed by Aaron Posner. Copyright Carol Pratt. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

By Esther Ferington

Coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke, the phrase “Me too” exploded into use in October 2017 after news reports broke about film producer Harvey Weinstein and his alleged sexual misconduct toward women. The five-letter hashtag #MeToo was so powerful—and so conveniently short—that it was a perfect fit for news headlines and social media. Since that time, news organizations have widely used it to signal a particular kind of devastating story—one that has now been told again and again, differing only in detail and extent.

Women, and some men, use the phrase “me too” as they explain that they, too, were survivors of sexual harassment or misconduct, whether as students, colleagues, athletes, patients, protegés, actors, musicians, or in other roles. In general, the stories are not about family life, but take place outside the home. Often, the perpetrator who is named is a well-known, admired figure, thought to be beyond reproach.

Similar incidents had been shared for years and were part of the growing awareness of sexual harassment decades earlier. The truth, of course, could be difficult to establish years or decades after the events, and, as was often noted, a person could also be falsely accused. Yet the sheer scale, breadth, and powerful details discussed through the #MeToo movement seem like a watershed, a moment that holds out the possibility of cultural change.

But what does #MeToo have to do with William Shakespeare, a male playwright better known for extraordinary characters like the brooding Danish prince Hamlet, the exiled magician Prospero, or Macbeth’s wife and murderous accomplice, Lady Macbeth?

Well, when it comes to Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, the answer may be: quite a lot.

Returning measure for measure

Written soon after King James succeeded Queen Elizabeth in Protestant England, Measure for Measure was set far away in the Catholic city of Vienna, where there were nuns and friars for Shakespeare to use in his play. Part of the tale it tells seems very similar to a #MeToo story to modern eyes—a story that is thwarted, in part, by luck and Shakespearean plot twists. And in telling it, Shakespeare makes a novice nun, Isabella, a major focus of the play.

It all begins with a decision by the Duke of Vienna to temporarily leave his post and place his ultra-virtuous deputy, Angelo, in charge, with the task of enforcing the city’s neglected laws on sexual behavior. When Angelo sentences Isabella’s brother Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancée, Isabella is asked to argue for mercy from Angelo instead. Articulate and thoughtful, accompanied by Claudio’s free-wheeling friend Lucio, she is sure that she can safely meet with Angelo to appeal with logic and eloquence for her brother’s life. But once she does so, the plot takes a turn.

“Who will believe thee?”

Despite his record of virtue, Angelo finds himself lusting after Isabella. He subsequently decides to force her to have sex, which would also mean giving up her virginity, using a brutal tactic: if she does not, he will let Claudio die. In a second meeting, this time with no chaperone, the unsuspecting Isabella takes a long time just to understand Angelo’s appalling threat. When she does, she cries out that she will make it known: “Sign me a present pardon for my brother / Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud / What man thou art.”

And then comes the second blow, with Angelo’s reply, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” With this famous line, Shakespeare perfectly captures the imbalance of power, the difference in authority and reputation that makes such incidents possible. Later in the scene, Angelo points out that whatever he says will, conversely, be immediately believed. “Say what you can,” he tells her. “My false o’erweighs your true.” In the final act, the Duke—who knows of Angelo’s behavior, but is temporarily feigning ignorance—adds more fuel to the fire. He says to Isabella, “Someone hath set you on. / Confess the truth, and say by whose advice / Thou cam’st here to complain.”

Although the play can sometimes seems like a reflection of today’s news, it is, of course, grounded in its own time. For example, Isabella speaks of having sex, or giving up her chastity, in religious terms, rather than focusing on her autonomy or independence. Similarly, society at large—including the law—saw the roles of men and women differently than it does today, which helps to create a puzzle at the end. With Angelo defeated, the Duke offers marriage to Isabella, but he never receives a reply—even though it seems she must yield to such a powerful figure. His proposal balances his authority against her vision of a religious life.

A modern-day story

In many ways, Measure for Measure seems strikingly modern, but it is not one of Shakespeare’s sunnier comedies, and for many years, it was rarely performed. By the first part of the 20th century, however, it began to come into its own, perhaps reflecting the expanding role of women.

The play has been of particular interest, of course, when allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment are in the news. Productions of Measure for Measure in the years after the 1991 Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearing were often discussed in terms of that event. Several years later, the play was studied and staged partly in light of the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. In her 2004 guide to the plays, Shakespeare After All, for example, Harvard Professor Marjorie Garber notes that Angelo is an authoritative “high government officer,” while “Isabella is a novice (we could call her an intern).”

In mid-November 2017, just weeks after the #MeToo movement rapidly expanded, the comparison arose again. Author Tara Isabella Burton responded to the news of the day with a lengthy essay on Vox.com, “What a lesser-known Shakespeare play can tell us about Harvey Weinstein,” adding the subtitle, “Before #MeToo, there was Measure for Measure.”

Does Measure for Measure tell a #MeToo story, although one in which the perpetrator is defeated? As we read and see it today, it certainly seems so, especially when it comes to Isabella’s confrontations with Angelo. Whether the play includes a second such tale is another question. The proposal from the Duke is far more pleasing and appropriate—particularly in that era—than Angelo’s vicious threat. And yet, it seems likely to doom Isabella’s aspirations of life as a nun, sweeping her into matrimony. Is the Duke, too, compelling Isabella? And what do we make of that? The answer is left for us to decide.

Esther Ferington is a writer and editor in Northern Virginia, whose clients include museums, cultural institutions, and publishers. Learn more about her work at: www.ferington.com