The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 30.045 Thursday, 7 February 2019
Date: February 6, 2019 at 3:45:06 PM EST
Subject: What if Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Told Their Love Story? What if It Were a Ballet?
The Very Modern Anger of Shakespeare’s Women
What “Measure for Measure” means to us in 2019
By Laura Kolb
Why, This Is Hell
In early December 2017, Saturday Night Live aired a song titled “Welcome to Hell.” As it opens, four women, clad in bubblegum pink and lavender, perch on a pink stage; they are surrounded by oversized ice cream cones and lollipops. “Hey there, boys,” one of them purrs, “We know the last couple of months have been friggin’ insane.” A second picks it up: “All these big, cool powerful guys are turning out to be — what’s the word? — habitual predators.” “Cat’s out of the bag!” says the third. “Women get harassed ALL THE TIME.” The fourth ventriloquizes an imagined listener, asking, “It’s like… is this the world now?” The answer comes swiftly: “This BEEN the damn world.”
“Welcome to Hell” aired two months after The New York Times ran an explosive story on Harvey Weinstein’s history of abusing actresses, assistants, and others, and six weeks after Alyssa Milano invited survivors of harassment and assault to share their stories on Twitter with the hashtag #metoo — a movement first started by Tarana Burke in 2006, which in late 2017 gathered new energy as a call to action, a means of claiming ownership over individual and shared experience, and a snowballing reminder that behaviors like Weinstein’s are both extremely common and commonly unacknowledged.
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Shakespeare’s Angry Women
When Shakespeare stages a snap, the world he lights up may look at first a bit different from ours. On the Shakespearean stage women’s anger articulates a tension inherent in the patriarchal structure of English society — a society in which the transfer of land, wealth, and titles; the formation of alliances among households; and the perpetuation of family lines all depended on the exchange of women. Within this structure, women were both persons and tokens of exchange. Within families, daughters could be simultaneously loved for their own traits, qualities, histories, and esteemed for their exchange value on the marriage market. Shakespeare repeatedly returns to this double nature of daughters: in play after play, otherwise loving fathers like Egeus, Brabantio, Capulet, and Leonato explode into rage when their female children make or seem to make (or even seem to maybe want to make) independent marital or sexual choices. Female-driven ruptures within the marriage market produce angry men.
And at least some angry women. The fact that plays contain speaking female characters means that playwrights offered their audiences imagined, ventriloquized accounts of what it feels like to be both a person, and a thing.
In Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, for example, Katherine Minola’s first line crackles with anger. After Baptista declares that he is resolved not to let his younger daughter, Bianca, marry before Katherine and invites the gathered company to “court” her — an invitation that immediately invites a cruel joke at Katherine’s expense — she asks her father “I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?” A “stale” is a prostitute; “mates” means variously low fellows, or marriage partners, or sexual partners. “Are you selling me?” would be a reasonable paraphrase; “Are you selling me for sex?” a fuller one. Katherine collapses the elite marriage market into the market relations of prostitution, stripping away the symbolic distinctions between these economies and laying bare what’s at stake in both: men profiting — financially and socially, directly and indirectly — from the exchange of women’s bodies. As Lisa Jardine puts it: “The Taming of the Shrew is centrally concerned with the marketing of daughters for cash.”
This marketing is everywhere, from Petruchio’s intention “to wive and thrive in Padua” to the contest Baptista sets up between Bianca’s suitors: “[H]e… That can assure my daughter greatest dower/ Shall have my Bianca’s love” (2.1.362–4). Baptista does acknowledge his daughters’ capacity for emotion and desire — he tells Petruchio he must obtain Katherine’s love — but this turns out to be mere lip service. He never asks Katherine what she thinks of Petruchio, and the decision about Bianca is made while she’s offstage.
Katherine’s first lines do not change anything in the world of the play — neither her anger nor her words are taken seriously — yet her shrewish protest is feminist, by Ahmed’s definition, because it describes reality as it is lived in by women (a reality both perpetuated and denied by her father and the gathered suitors). Her last lines, though, famously advocate patriarchal norms of wifely submission. Shakespeare stages the fading (or the strategic suppression) of Katherine’s anger, but not its origins, not her snap. In Measure for Measure, by contrast, he gives us a clear breaking point. We see Isabella lose it first at Angelo and then, more fully, at her brother, Claudio, who has been absurdly sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. When Angelo, Vienna’s acting Duke, proposes that she sleep with him to save her brother’s life, Isabella rounds on him with the threat: “Sign me a present pardon for my brother / Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud / What man thou art.” The powerful cultural logic that underpins Angelo’s calm response — “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” — prevents her from translating anger into action. But when her brother later reiterates Angelo’s request — “Sweet sister, let me live,” he begs — she explodes: “O, you beast! / O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch… Die, perish.” “Might but my bending down / Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed,” she tells him.
Katherine is angry at her father and, through him, the logic of the marriage market. Isabella is angry at her brother and, through him, something even more fundamental to patriarchal social relations: the fact that women’s status as people is always more or less under threat, because of their status (to quote from Luce Irigaray) as both “utilitarian objects and bearers of value” with respect to men. Sibling relations complicated the tensions and contradictions of patriarchy. In his Dutiful Defense of the Lawful Regiment of Women, for instance, Henry Howard writes that wives must obey husbands and daughters must obey fathers, but that they are not subordinate to other men — including brothers. Brother-sister bonds were highly variable and individualized, and it is their individualization that makes them a rich site for onstage explorations of the double status of women in patriarchy (as persons and as tokens of exchange) and within families (as people male relatives loved and held particular intimate bonds with, and as means by which those same relatives purchased connection, prestige, wealth, or, in Claudio’s case, survival).
What makes Isabella angry at Claudio is not, I think, simply his plea, but rather the structures behind it, whose constant pressures makes his request into a breaking point. Angelo reminds Isabella that power and credibility are unequally distributed among men and women: his word, the word of a well-placed, well-reputed man, will outweigh hers. Claudio then reminds her that a woman may become, at any moment, a thing, a token, an instrument — that her personhood can and in this moment does matter less than her usefulness to men: for sexual pleasure, or to buy safety. Many critics (and theater practitioners) have expressed unease at Isabella’s vehement response to her brother. Unlike her righteous desire to expose Angelo’s “seeming,” her furious declaration that she would not so much as bend down if that would save Claudio’s life, seems excessive, vindictive, even villainous. Yet I think her anger at Claudio is in a very real sense the same as her anger at Angelo. The two cannot be separated. It is the anger of a woman who recognizes that men evaluate her in ways that have little or no reference to her intrinsic qualities, and who understands that their evaluations — Angelo’s sexual desire, Claudio’s desperate instrumentalizing — potentially have more weight, more reality, than her own sense of self.
Like the marriage market that Katherine compares to prostitution, the more short-term transaction facing Isabella is monumentally indifferent to her personhood, on which she might reasonably assume her brother’s love for her is staked. The question, then, isn’t really whether she’s morally right or wrong to say what she says to Claudio, but why she snaps, and what knowledge — what recalibrated perception of reality — her snap brings into view.
“Women’s anger,” feminist writer Kate Harding wrote after the Kavanaugh hearings, “is having a moment.” Not coincidentally, Measure for Measure is also having a moment. High-profile productions have appeared in London and New York; a collaboration between London’s Cheek-by-Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theater, in Russian with English subtitles, has been touring Europe and the US to critical acclaim; it appeared in Boston, D.C., and Brooklyn in the second half of 2018. Reviews have called these productions “timely,” “unexpectedly modern,” “tailor-made for the #MeToo era.” In the media, op-eds not pegged to any particular production have noted the play’s relevance. On vox.com Tara Isabella Burton writes that it is “one of the most relevant plays ever written about sexual harassment and abuse against women”; in the Times of San Diego, Peter Herman notes that Measure for Measure, “not only predicts contemporary events, but helps us understand them.”
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