Podcasts: Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains

Sylvia Rosenblum, of Eastside Radio’s Arts Wednesday, and I usually manage a podcast series about once a year. This time it’s on Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains.

Six episodes, each around ten to twelve minutes. Somehow on the first one by the time I’d got through Prince Hal and Joan of Arc we’d already run out of time, so you never quite know how these things are going to work out. Somewhere along the way we also manage to cover Falstaff, Edmund, Richard III, Paulina, Viola, Beatrice, Troilus and the difference between Petrarchan and Euphuistic lovers.

You can listen here.


Much Ado About Nothing for players

It is a thrill beyond description that my edition of Much Ado About Nothing for Arden Performance Editions is now available. The concept behind the Performance Editions is to produce a script that is rehearsal-room friendly. The notes are kept as succinct as possible, and on the facing page to the text, so that an actor holding it in hand can glance across and not miss a beat. There are guidelines to the scansion throughout, and some reflections on the dramaturgical structure in the Introduction.

Getting to know such a play this intimately is a privilege. I thought I knew it well, but kept finding new revelations in the text, over the the course of roughly a year I was working on the notes. I only became more and more convinced of this play’s value as part of the conversation about how men and women can work through the harm of their socialisation to mistrust each other, in order to earn a genuine love.

Book cover showing an Italian landscape seen through a casement window.

You can order a copy here. You don’t want the e-book, by the way, you want the paperback. It’s designed for you to scribble notes all over it. Underline the dirty jokes, or read it aloud with friends and drink every time someone makes a reference to cuckolds. There are so many possibilities. Let me know what you think of it, or the other Arden Performance Editions in the comments below.

Fearing a Witch Hunt

Because there never has been a violent social action specifically targeting white men, whenever such men (collectively) get a little anxious at seeing some of their kind experiencing consequences for illegal or immoral behaviour they routinely invoke two historic forms of attack on groups that were very much not white men. They say they fear a lynch mob, or a witch hunt. Which sound like perfectly reasonable things to want to avoid, because we all accept those things were bad, though any cursory glance at history will show that white men have the least of all groups to worry about when it comes to the potential for collective punishment. While it conforms to the expected that wrongs done to marginalised groups are co-opted as soon as a dominant group feels cornered, something more specific is definitely going on in the clutching at ‘witch hunt’ we are seeing in response to revelations about men having used their positions of power to sexually abuse women.

You see, most men know very little about the witch hunts. Feminists know about them, historians with an interest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries do, and scholars of women’s history more generally. But average, non-historian men? Does any randomly chosen man know that thousands of women were murdered throughout Europe, using witchcraft as the pretext? Do they know anything about the process of obtaining confessions by torture? About what the accused were supposed to have done, or the procedures enacted at trial? Do they even know that while men could be charged with this crime, and would also be called witches (not warlocks or wizards, pace J.K. Rowling), and were at times convicted and executed, the vast majority of victims of the witch hunts were women? Why choose as your metaphor a historic event distinctive for its brutal and openly misogynist persecution of women, in order to complain about women complaining about systems of brutal and openly misogynist persecution that they have been enduring for years? If the men who employ this phrase lack scholarship, they clearly also lack tact.

I suspect it is because, instead of the actual witch hunts, most people who hear the term these days think of The Crucible. Arthur Miller’s mid-century play commenting on his country’s political situation is the beginning and end of most men’s understanding of what a witch hunt was. And Miller made his protagonist a white man. More particularly, he set on stage a group of girls led by a lying slut accusing a good man, out of vindictiveness and vengeance. Instead of a scene of a woman in the dock, I think this is much closer to the image most men have of what a witch trial was like:

C19th etching of a courtroom full of fainting women.

The Trial of George Jacobs by Thomkins H. Matteson (public domain)

When most men steeped in Anglophone culture hear the phrase ‘witch hunt’, the thousands upon thousands of women arrested, tortured and killed do not for a moment enter their minds. Instead, they immediately see a group of girls pointing fingers at a man, accusing him of what we all know to be outrageous nonsense, and succeeding in destroying him.

The idea of a witch hunt conjures (ahem) the impression of a trial based wholly on accusation, in place of tangible evidence which bears the virtue of apparent impartiality. The pattern of a single woman speaking up, then others backing her, and then suddenly the town has gone mad, and all the young girls are crying out as one against a hapless defendant, with no recourse to a defence. The very phrase #meetoo suggests a building of numbers, voices joined. One accusation unleashes a torrent. This is then offered as proof that justice will be perverted if forensic evidence is discarded in favour of believing witnesses. However, such capricious judicial procedure has historically been used against women, not on their behalf.

By making a man his protagonist, and girls the conduit for society’s villainy, Miller gave men the opportunity to imagine themselves into the position of wronged hero. In having his hero face a group of crazed, bloodthirsty women, he allowed them to point to this story as a terrible warning. He gave them his blessing to imagine that terrifying power lies in women’s voices, and that listening to the accusations of women will result in carnage. Miller didn’t consider how he was playing into a history of women being refused authority as witnesses. He ignored the long, bitter history of women’s voices being portrayed as dangerous, of the power of the female voice being marked as perversion. He chose to show an anomalous historic example of young women being believed in court, when the opposite has consistently been the case in judicial history around the world.

Miller was primarily interested in the parallels between the procedural aspects of the McCarthy trials and the Salem witch trials, as a cycle of accusation, confession, and the naming of more accused. As a byproduct, he invented a scene where, in order to conceal a consensual affair, a woman accuses a man of monstrous acts, other women follow her lead, they are believed, and he loses everything. Though he must have known how rife politics and show business were with sexual coercion, Miller could not have predicted that a day would come where so many accounts of it would be made public. He couldn’t have guessed that the structure he gave his play would allow it to be co-opted to frighten people not with the threat of political totalitarianism, but with losing their status on the word of a woman. But his playwright’s instinct, born of his position as an American white man, was that he could create an emotionally impactful scene by showing his audience what it would be like to be at the mercy of women. The men of the present moment have perverted Miller’s warning, but he made it so, so easy for them.

When the term ‘witch hunt’ is used by men fearful of being brought to account, it replaces the suffering of real women with the prospect of the suffering of men. The hundreds of thousands of women who were killed during the actual witch hunts are disappeared in favour of a moral message about the danger to the very fabric of justice if women’s accusations are believed. And a play that was supposed to be a daring challenge to a sick government is being used to authorise that most status quo of political actions: doubting women’s testimony.

Gentlemen, we know who is exploiting their unearned right to be believed here. We’ve seen it all before. We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.

Related reading: Abigail’s Age Has Been Raised

The Age of Measure for Measure

To whom should I complain?

Should I tell of this, who would believe me?

The number of women, throughout history, who have said some approximation of this to themselves is incalculable.

Sport for Jove has just opened Measure for Measure in two very short seasons at Bella Vista Farm (December) and Leura Everglades (January). They could not have programmed this particular play at a more searingly apt time. We are about to see a slew of Measure for Measure productions all across the world, trust me.

Two young white women in long gowns hold hands.

Isabella and Mariana in the final scene.
Photo credit: Roslyn Oades

Never one of Shakespeare’s better known plays, but increasingly popular over the last few decades, Measure for Measure is about a woman who wants to save her brother from execution, but cannot bring herself to do it at the price of allowing a corrupt judge to demand sex as payment. How fitting this story is to our present moment, when so many real-world attempts at this kind of bargain are being revealed, and at last acknowledged.

For perhaps the first time in history the world is starting to pay attention to the wretched underbelly of masculine power. But, as many have pointed out, people have always been open about saying that this happens. The difference is that enough people now seem to think it matters. A tipping point has been reached. This makes it a good time to examine how long, and how deeply, society has known that men in power will pressure their female subordinates for sexual favours, and how completely it was understood that women knew their protest would not be heard.

To whom should I complain?

Should I tell of this, who would believe me?

In these lines, Isabella anticipates events unfolding exactly as they have for countless people who have been sexually abused by important men, and spoken out about it. The repayment for making an accusation of sexual misconduct against a man of public profile is inevitably disbelief, persecution, slander and abuse. It didn’t happen, or if it did, she wanted it to, or if she didn’t she did something that provoked him, and what could you expect when she looked/acted like that? What would you expect for a man of his stature? Why is she trying to ruin his life over it? Wherever violations of someone’s personal boundaries occur, someone else will step forward to explain why it both wasn’t a violation, and the victim deserved it.

I have been publishing on Measure for Measure and rape culture since 2005. At the time I wrote my Master’s thesis the typical commentary on the play failed to acknowledge Angelo’s proposition to Isabella as an act of sexual violence at all. The standard mode of discourse was still to discuss the scene as if he was asking her for a date, not a bribe. Most of the argument was about whether Isabella’s rejection of his offer was a sign of selfishness coupled with sexual repression. We are far from being clear of these victim-blaming clichés. The mechanisms to ensure a backlash against the accusers of powerful men still function, and more broadly, the first round of articles mourning the fact that we will now see the end of love and sex and social congress is being published, by men who claim, disturbingly, that to be pro-consent is to be anti-sex. Just as Isabella was always accused of being anti sex, even though there is no textual support for that at all. Just as she has at the same time been accused of hypocrisy because she is so openly sexual in how she uses language, as if we have no right to say no to corruption if we say yes to our bodies. We will need to fight the deliberate mis-hearing of what we say.

The fear of not being heard, really heard, is endemic to being female. The fear of speaking and that speech being deflected, mocked, ignored, passed over. Not being heard denies our humanity, which is inextricably linked to speech, to the ability to express our thoughts. The difference now is that enough women are making that demand to be heard, and enough people with enough power are beginning to listen. The brave have always spoken out anyway, and Isabella is one of our best models for this. Instead of being stuck on the awful truth of, “Should I tell of this, who would believe me?”, let us make our monument this moment from later in the play; Isabella, in the final act, says:

…dishonour not your eye

By throwing it on any other object

Till you have heard me in my true complaint

And given me justice, justice, justice, justice!” (5.1.22-25)

Expecting nothing, hoping for everything, Isabella kneels in the public street in front of those who would disbelieve and shame her, and speaks what she knows to be the truth. Her heirs are Tarana Burke, Rose McGowan, Dylan Farrow, and the many other names we are hearing now, and those many more that will continue to join theirs.

For further reading:

“Writing About Motive: Isabella, the Duke and Moral Authority”, Shakespeare Survey 58 (2005): 48-59

“Shrews Post-Comedy” in Shakespeare and the Shrew (2012): 152-171

“Putting on the Destined Livery: Isabella, Cressida and our Virgin/Whore Obsession”, in The Feminist Companion to Shakespeare (2016): 395-410