For Diana Bentley, Kristin Booth, Patricia Fagan and Hannah Miller
The night an older man took me to a fancy restaurant when I wasn't ... yet twenty. The owner joined our table, and so did a famous filmmaker. The men fell into a heated discussion ... "'Eat your vegetables,' the filmmaker suddenly snapped at me. 'You're a growing girl.' The filmmaker wanted me to know what I already knew: I had no power. He saw my need and used it against me.” — Emma Cline, The Girls
In the second act of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Isabella goes to the house of Angelo, the deputy for the absent Duke of Vienna, to plead for the life of her brother, Claudio, whom Angelo has sentenced to death for immoral activity. The result is not what she expects. Inflamed by her beauty and the audacity of her plea, Angelo makes her a stark and coercive proposal: if she will have sex with him, he will pardon Claudio; if she refuses, Claudio will die. As he puts it, “either / You must lay down the treasures of your body / ... or else ... let him suffer — / What would you do?”
Isabella immediately replies that, unless Angelo grants the “pardon” she requests, she will “with an outstretched throat ... tell the world aloud” that he has attempted to use his power to achieve his “most pernicious purpose.” If this sounds familiar in the aftermath of recent allegations about men abusing their power for sexual ends, it only becomes more so as the scene continues.
“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” Angelo asks scornfully. The reasons for his confidence are chillingly familiar:
“My unsoiled name, the austereness of my life,
“My vouch [assertion] against you, and my place i’ the state,
“Will so your accusation overweigh
“That you shall stifle in you report,
“And smell of calumny [slander].”
With a further demand that she “Fit [her] consent to [his] sharp appetite” and “yield ... [her] body to [his] will,” Angelo leaves Isabella alone to ponder her situation, which she does in a searching and searing soliloquy:
“To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
“Who would believe me? O perilous mouths,
“That would bear in them one and the selfsame tongue,
“Either of condemnation or approof [approval]
“Bidding the law make curtsy to their will,
“Hooking both right and wrong to th’appetite,
“To follow as it draws.”
Such is the power and prestige of men like Angelo that they can disregard law, morality and decency in pursuit of their desires — they can blackmail, ridicule and seek to discredit the needy, the vulnerable and the relatively — but not always — powerless.
Measure for Measure was first performed on Sept. 26, 1604, but Angelo’s despicable demands and Isabella’s fears and questions and insights remain as relevant today as they were over four centuries ago.
David Bentley is a Distinguished University Professor at Western University. He is the Carl F. Klinck Professor in Canadian Literature, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Bentley is the founding and continuing editor of Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews and the Canadian Poetry Press and the Director of the Canadian Poetry Project. He was the winner of the 2015 Killam Prize, an award that recognizes exceptional career achievements.