‘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. 

Courting Justice.

Today was hard. 

It was spent in the presence of someone I’d rather never set eyes on again. It was spent in pursuit of justice. It was spent blinking back tears and swallowing my revulsion. 

There is still anger burning within me that I cannot quench. My heart is heavy with the reopening of old wounds. 

And I am powerless, unable to do anything but look on and observe.  

I suppose it’s a good thing that I don’t have the psychic power to set someone on fire from across the room. I could do so, quite willingly, if I were able.

It’s fair to say that if a certain person did happen to spontaneously combust, I would make good use of my bottle of water by drinking it.  

I do not, as a rule, harbour such feelings toward other people. I am fully aware of my own sins and imperfections. But when people commit to the unconscionable and then defend it, any concept of “benefit of the doubt” or “we all make mistakes” is well and truly cast aside. 

I can feel another horror story coming on, but it’s not ready to be written yet. The ideas need to percolate more. And so, I must bide my time.

It will come… and, I trust, so will justice.

Letting go.

Today a dear friend of mine passed away.
I wrote about her on Friday. She was young and vibrant and had the most beautiful heart for other people that I’ve ever experienced.
She leaves behind her two young daughters, a husband, a mother and a father (who also has Alzheimers), an extended family and a wide network of friends. All who met Rebecca were touched by her spirit and her joy.

We knew she was dying. We knew that her battle with the cancers that attacked her colon, liver and abdomen was drawing to a close.  As soon as the news that Bec had passed away was delivered, the Facebook pages of her mother and sister were flooded with messages of love, support, sympathy, and grief.

It’s so hard for us to let go of someone we love. Nobody wants a member of their family or a friend to die.  It’s so hard to grieve and to let go.  It hurts. We cry. We hold each other, we promise ourselves that we will stop taking our loved ones for granted.  We take comfort in the belief that our loved one is in a better place, where there is no more sorrow or pain.

How blessed we are that the death of a friend or relative can still come as a shock.  How blessed we are that we often know it’s coming, and have a chance to say goodbye. How blessed we are if we live in a nation where the death of a child or a teen due to unforeseen circumstances is still unusual.

People from war-torn nations live with this on a daily basis.  They don’t know when their time will come. It may come in the form of a bombing, a military raid, arrest and subsequent imprisonment or disappearance, or genocide.

It’s no wonder some of them make the decision to flee the danger. Sometimes, an entire family or village will pool their very limited resources to spirit one young member of their family away in the hopes of them finding safety and building a life in a different place – a place where there is peace, and hope, and a future.

These are the people who get on the boats that belong to the people smugglers who bring them to Australia. They take the risks that they do because whatever danger lies ahead, it’s nowhere near as bad as the danger they leave behind.
All they want is a chance at a new life… to live somewhere where life is valued, where people are protected, and where the army and police are not the enemy.

I cannot imagine how a mother feels when her child flees a war zone and starts on a journey into the unknown.  She, too, will most likely comfort herself with thoughts of them going to a place where there is no sorrow, no war, no oppression, and where one really can enjoy peace.  Friends, too, would be sorry to see them go but hopeful that their new life will be much better than the one they leave behind.

Who do our political leaders think they are to say, “No, you can’t come in! We want to keep our country to ourselves!”? What on earth must the rest of the world think of the Australian Government’s latest decision – to rule out the possibility of any asylum seeker who tries to get to Australia ever being allowed to live here?

I could probably have a pretty good guess at what the asylum seekers think.

That’s what I think too.

Please don’t think that I’m saying that my friend Rebecca’s life means less than one of these asylum seekers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
However, each of those asylum seekers is someone’s brother or father, mother or daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, uncle… and their lives are just as valuable as those of the people who already live in this very wealthy, productive and vast land.  Knowing Rebecca as I do, I can confidently say that she would absolutely agree.

There has to be a better way – a more humane and compassionate way – to solve the problem of people smugglers endangering their lives.

I don’t know what that way forward it. But I know this – it must not involve denying the opportunities our nation offers for anyone who wants to live here and become an Australian.