‘Measure for Measure’: When Shakespeare is More 21st Century Than You Realise

Written in 1603 or 1604, ‘Measure for Measure’ is a play with enormous relevance to the 21st century. 

As I listened to the play on the BBC’s ‘The Shakespeare Sessions’ podcast yesterday, it struck me just how timely and relevant it is. 

The play features a man named Angelo who, having been left in charge by the Duke, totally abuses his power in the interests of sexual gratification. He tells Isabella he will pardon her brother Claudio, who has been sentenced to death, if she has sex with him. When Isabella refuses and threatens to tell everyone what he has suggested, he simply asks, “Who will believe you?” 

from ‘Measure for Measure’, Act 2, Scene 4

Angelo is clearly relying on his powerful position, and his ability to hold something over her, to get away with sexual abuse and bribery. And he dares to call it “love”, when it is anything but that. He is attempting to romanticise his proposed rape and abuse of power, as abusers so often do. 

This is exactly the kind of behaviour we’ve seen exposed by the #metoo movement. Men abusing their positions of power and pressuring women to give in to them because they have the power to grant what the women need – a job, justice, whatever… and relying on their position to give them more credibility than a woman in a weaker position in society. It really does foreshadow those now infamous words spoken in 2017 by yet another reprehensible character: “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Not easily intimidated, Isabella points out that what he is suggesting is exactly the crime for which he has sentenced her brother to death.  His hypocrisy is abundantly obvious to not only Isabella, but also to the audience.   That she calls him out on it demonstrates her integrity and intelligence. Bravo to Isabella for not taking his crap or falling prey to his greasy manipulation. 

Caught in between wanting to save her brother’s life and not wanting to have sex with Angelo, Isabella verbalises the impossibility of her situation in that very poignant and thought-provoking line: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?”

Still, even though she understands that what he says is probably true, she neither yields to him or gives up on her brother. Instead, she finds another way to solve her problems and expose the bad behaviour of Angelo.

As suggested in the title, justice is received at the end of the play in the same measure with which it is meted out at the beginning. 

In this, we see a woman standing up for what is right, defending herself, refusing to give in to a man’s manipulation and sexual pressure, and winning. Angelo is punished for his corruption, and Isabella saves both herself and her brother. 

This is a powerful contrast to most of the women in Shakespeare’s other plays, and indeed in the early modern times in which he lived and wrote, few of whom had any real agency or ability to stand up for themselves against the will of men. 

‘Measure for Measure’ is a thought-provoking and entertaining play which demonstrates that while times have changed, the effect of power and position on human nature has not. Even so, it does remind us that evil people can, and should, be resisted, and we should never stop pursuing justice just because it’s difficult to do so. 

That is truly a message pertinent to life in the 21st century. 

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