Both Timeless and Timely, Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ in the #MeToo Era

Campus Scenes outside classroom in the courtyard

Students in Davidson College’s class on “Shakespeare and His Contemporaries” this semester are watching the same, awful elements of sexual harassment in their class material written four centuries ago play out in today’s headlines.

Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” parallels some of the allegations against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: abuse of power, patriarchal protections and a victim uncertain who will believe her.

“The myriad ways that a 400-year-old play eerily reflects our culture back to us should tell us something,” Cynthia Lewis, the class’s professor, wrote in in an essay exploring what Shakespeare shows us about sexual misconduct, published by the British nonfiction magazine Hinterland last year.

The play, though written as quirky comedy, portrays a would-be nun, Isabella, who begs for her brother’s life from Angelo, a deputy left in charge of the city of Vienna while the ruling Duke is away. Isabella’s brother is charged with impregnating his fiancée before they marry.

Instead of offering leniency, Angelo attempts to extort Isabella into having sex with him in exchange for setting her brother free. 

Emily Schmitt, a second year student from Atlanta, read the play prior to any class discussion and was struck both that she and Isabella were a similar age and that Angelo’s predatory act was so obvious. When Lewis raised the topic in class this week, Schmitt thought: “Okay, good. I’m not making this up in my head.”

Schmitt mentioned a “comparison” between Cuomo’s and other recent cases and Shakespeare’s play but, then, said the similarities are even stronger than that word suggests.

“It’s the same thing,” she said. “We keep seeing it over and over. It keeps happening.”

The #MeToo movement was launched and fueled during the time many of the class’s students have been in college, from accusations against then-candidate Joe Biden last year to Supreme Court Justice Bret Kavanaugh’s confirmation to Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s conviction. Those cases and the fictional drama from 1603 offer a variety of mirror images:

  • In “Measure for Measure,” Isabella threatens to report Angelo’s scheme, and he scoffs that anyone will find her more credible. “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” he asks. She later asks herself, echoing him: “Who would believe me?,” a doubt frequently expressed by contemporary victims.
  • The allegations against Kavanaugh were met with accusations of lies and conspiracy, which is how Angelo responded to Isabella.
  • The play and many of the contemporary cases depict a man given near limitless power that he wields over a young woman with little power and an aspiration he can help fulfill.

“Although terms like ‘turning point,’ ‘watershed,’ and ‘breakthrough’ have been repeatedly invoked to describe the remarkable revelations about sexual abuses in recent months,” Lewis wrote, “and although they are truly remarkable relative to recent years—what may seem like a new era is but an inching forward in a nation that [four] years ago elected a President who boasts of grabbing women’s bodies.”

Shakespeare, though, provides as much hope as prologue of an enduring, polluted climate, Lewis said this week. She emphasized how Isabella’s brother, who ultimately is set free, was jailed for getting his fiancée pregnant. He has every intent of marrying her and caring for the child.

“At the end of the play, the characters who emerge as the healthy ones, in contrast with the Angelos of the world, are two people who have agreed to have sex and whose intimacy has produced a child,” she said. “That’s healthy sexuality—mutual love that cultivates life.”