Measure for Measure and Rape Culture

With all the press around prominent men abusing their power lately, it’s perhaps natural that people have been reminded of Shakespeare and Middleton’s “problem play” Measure for Measure. One scene in particular is seeing renewed attention: having been told that she must have sex with the Duke’s deputy in order to save her brother’s life, Isabella tells the deputy (Angelo) that she will tell everyone, “with an outstretched throat,” what a hypocrite he is.

And he says, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”

What’s more chilling is her echoing of this language several lines later, after Angelo has left the room: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?” In the space of about a dozen lines, she’s internalized the message that Angelo’s word is worth more than her own.

It was this scene that stood out to me two and a half years ago, while watching a live stream of Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language production of the play, with English surtitles. Like a good millennial, I was watching on my laptop with other browser windows open. In this configuration, I stumbled upon an article about Emma Sulkowicz, who carried her mattress at Columbia University to protest the handling of her sexual assault.

It struck me, with an almost physical force, how similar Isabella’s and Emma’s language about their assaults was, despite a 400-year gap between their stories. I started to wonder what would happen if these women could speak to each other, and the thought stuck with me for days.

We always say that Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant today, but is that necessarily a good thing?

Eventually, I decided to actually do something about what I was thinking and feeling. And Measure (still) for Measure was born.

I’ve been working on this project on and off for the past two years, in both private and public ways, but now seems like an opportune time to bring it out into the open more meaningfully.

Measure (Still) for Measure is about bringing intersectional feminism, physical theatre, and Shakespeare together. It’s about facilitating conversations and instigating policy change. It’s about helping students think and talk and work through these issues through performance. And it’s about speaking back to Shakespeare, taking back the canon, and asserting that, had this been Isabella’s story to tell, she probably would have told it differently.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll check out the project website, and share your feedback. It’s an evolving and growing project, with the next phase of workshops scheduled for February 2018. I’ll be keeping that site up to date with all the news.

I wish such a project wasn’t necessary, but that’s why I’m doing it: to educate the next generation so that the headlines we’ve been seeing lately will become extinct sooner rather than later.


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