By Peter C. Herman
Most of the analogies between Shakespeare’s works and Donald Trump focus on Trump’s tyranny, or near-tyranny. The latest book, for example, by the distinguished Shakespearean Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, implicitly ties Trump to the murderous Richard III. And I wrote a piece on how Macbeth serves as a guide to understanding the moral cost of supporting Trump. But now we have another example of how something written in the seventeenth century somehow not only predicts contemporary events, but helps us understand them.
Measure for Measure (published in the 1623 Folio; probably performed 1603 or so) is all about sexual hypocrisy. Vienna is overflowing with prostitutes and illicit sex, so its leader Duke Vincentio decides that he will leave and places Angelo—a sexual prude, “a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth” — in charge to put things right. Then the duke secretly returns in disguise.
Angelo’s first case concerns Claudio, a nobleman charged with impregnating his fiance and, for this lapse, condemned to death. But Claudio’s sister, Isabella, about to take her vows as a nun, is prevailed upon to beg for her brother’s life, and when Angelo meets Isabella, ice plus ice equals fire, and Angelo proposes the Platonic embodiment of sexual blackmail: have sex with him, and her brother lives; refuse, and her brother dies. Isabella is of course horrified, and here’s where the past meets the present.
Isabella tells Angelo, “Sign me a present pardon for my brother / Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud / What man thou art.” To which Angelo responds:
Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place I’the state
Will so your accusation outweigh
That shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny.
“Who will believe you?” It’s my word against yours, and “my unsoiled name,” plus my austere life, plus my position, that your accusation will go nowhere. It’s impossible not to see the parallels between Judge Brett Kavanaugh, conservative icon, devoted family man, and inquisitor of Bill Clinton, and Prof. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh came close to raping her at a party many years ago. Like Angelo, Kavanaugh relies on the “austereness” of his life and his place — “the reputation for character and integrity I have spent a lifetime building” — as a defense strategy, and like so many women before her, including Isabella, Ford finds her character besmirched (by Donald Trump, no less) rather than having the charges taken seriously and properly investigated.
Ultimately, Isabella is vindicated, and Angelo exposed and punished (not by death; he has to marry a woman he jilted because she lost her dowry, not exactly a recipe for a happy marriage). But not before Shakespeare reveals the fundamental unfairness of this society toward women. When the Duke meets Juliet, Claudio’s intended, she confirms that the “offenseful act” was “mutually committed;” she wanted to sleep with him as much as he wanted to sleep with her. But the Duke then says, “Then was your sin of heavier kind than his.”
Nor, when the Duke finally reveals himself in the final act, does he immediately and forcefully take her side and bring down Angelo. Instead, he toys with her. First he says, “Someone hath set you on.” In other words, you are part of a vast conspiracy, confess! Then when she denies it, he sends her to prison. Then, in the famous conclusion, the Duke tries to make everything okay by offering to marry her — she says nothing, leaving generations of readers and audiences wondering about her response.
The analogy between Kavanaugh and Ford is not exact. For one thing, there is now another accusation leveled against the Supreme Court nominee. But Shakespeare’s play invites us to remember that the dynamic between a powerful man accused of sexual impropriety and a much less powerful woman is not new. Then as today, women are disbelieved, subject to all sorts of conspiracy theories when they have the nerve to reveal how they have been abused, and patriarchy (in this case, in the form of a marriage proposal) does its best to paper over its crimes. As William Faulkner put it, “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. He is the editor of the recent book Critical Concepts: Terrorism and Literature.