Lust, Murder, and Deception from Shakespeare to Today

I know this blog isn’t really about literature and reading, but I just finished two Shakespeare plays that I can’t resist writing about. I hope some of you will find this an interesting digression from our usual topics of Christianity, Myers-Briggs, and personal growth. And if not, don’t worry — I’ll get back to my more usual type of posts this weekend.

Four and a half years ago, I committed to reading 50 Classics in 5 years. You’d think someone who read 74 books just last year wouldn’t have any trouble doing that, but I let other books distract me too much and I have some catching-up to do before August 18 arrives. Today’s article is about two of the four Shakespeare plays on my classics club list (click here to read my thoughts on the other two).

These last two plays are The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice and Measure for Measure. On the surface they’re very different stories, but I was surprised to find they touch on the same core themes. Lust, murder, and deception lie at the center of both plays, and these topics are handled in a way that puts me in mind of things happening today in our modern society.

Measure For Measure

One of my favorite English professors gave me a lovely Arden-edition copy of Measure for Measure while I was in college, and I’m somewhat chagrined to confess I hadn’t read it until just now. He thought I would enjoy it, and after reading it all in one setting last night I’m not surprised to discover that he was right.

It was quite intriguing reading this and Othello back-to-back. The one is a tragedy and the other a “comedy,” but it’s only a comedy only in the sense that no one dies and everyone gets married in the end. It is not at all a lighthearted storyline. In fact, Measure For Measure is as much about lust and murder as Othello is.

The plot is as follows: the duke of Vienna places his deputy Angelo in charge, then pretends to leave the city. He stays behind in disguise to see how Angelo will enforce the law of the land and dispense justice. Angelo immediately condemns a young man named Claudio to death for the crime of fornication with a woman named Juliet. When Claudio’s sister Isabella begs Angelo for her brother’s life, Angelo vows to spare him if Isabella will commit with him the same sin for which her brother is about to die. When she threatens to expose him, Angelo tells her that no one will believe her and she’ll only destroy her reputation if she comes forward.

Isabella confesses the whole sad tale to a friar, who is in reality the disguised duke. The duke tells her to agree to Angelo’s demand, but to send in another woman as a substitute. Mariana, who was betrothed to Angelo five years ago and still loves him, sleeps with Angelo in Isabella’s place. Though Angelo thinks Isabella agreed to his demand he still orders her brother’s death. The duke puts a stop to Claudio’s execution behind the scenes, but lets Isabella think her brother is dead until the final scene of the play when he sets everything right by making Angelo marry Mariana, Claudio marry Juliet, and Isabelle marry himself.

Lust, Murder, and Deception from Shakespeare to Today |
James Knight (Angelo) and Stephanie Fieger (Isabella) in The Old Globe’s 2007 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure.

Problematic Plays

There’s a compelling argument to classify Measure for Measure as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays rather than as one of his comedies because of its dark, complex, ambiguous tone. It definitely strays closer to the realm of tragedy than something like Much Ado About Nothing (my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies), which I think is why it’s easy to draw parallels between this play and Othello.

For those unfamiliar with Othello‘s plot, the play opens with the villain Iago complaining about being passed over for a promotion. The general of the Venetian army is a Moor named Othello, who recently promoted Cassio to a position that Iago believed he deserved. He plans to get back at Othello for this by destroying Othello’s relationship with Desdemona, who recently eloped with Othello against her father’s wishes.

News of a Turkish invasion calls Othello to Cyprus, where he journeys along with Desdemona, Cassio, Iago, and Iago’s wife Emilia. Once there, Iago sets his plan in motion to convince Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. He enlists the help of Roderigo, who fancies himself in love with Desdemona, and also the unwitting aid of his wife. His plot is carried out so well that Othello murders Desdemona in their bed while Iago and Roderigo are attempting to kill Cassio. Cassio escapes, and Iago kills Roderigo. Emilia figures out what’s going on and denounces her husband’s treachery, whereupon Iago kills her. Realizing that he’s been deceived, Othello kills himself. Cassio arrives to clean up the mess by condemning Iago to torture.

Lust, Murder, and Deception from Shakespeare to Today |
Heather Lind (Desdemona) and Chukwudi Iwuji (Othello) in the Public Theater’s 2018 production of Othello. Photo courtesy of the Public Theater

Stories With No Heroes

I’m not really sure there are any good men in either of these plays. Even the Duke (a character portrayed as heroic) shares similarities with Iago (one of Shakespeare’s most villainous villains). Shakespeare wrote plenty of principled male heroes (see Henry V if you need convincing), so it’s not as if he didn’t write nuanced, sympathetic, and admirable men. It’s just that in these two plays, he chose to work with male characters who are dangerous to the women around them.

The duke in Measure for Measure, for example, takes it upon himself to decide the fate of everyone else in the play no matter what the people around him say. He schemes and plots just as much as Iago, though he does it under the guise of pursuing justice. Still, he lies to Isabella repeatedly and in the final scene he seems to order her to marry him. Twice. She has no response for this but silence.

Do we take that silence for consent? Or is this woman who’d planned to join an order of nuns with strict policies against even speaking with men upset about the idea of marriage, but unsure how to refuse such a powerful man? The duke’s actions leave us in a conundrum. Is he someone we should root for or is he just as bad as Iago, only in a less monologuing-villain-with-an-evil-cackle way?

Lust, Murder, and Deception from Shakespeare to Today |
Laurence Fishburne (Othello) and Kenneth Branagh (Iago) in Othello (1995).

Shakespeare’s #MeToo Heroines

In both Measure for Measure and Othello, the plot is driven by sex. Claudio is condemned to death for having (consensual) sex outside of marriage, and his judge falls into an even worse trap of lust when he attempts to coerce Isabella. Othello and Desdomona marry because they’re mutually attracted to each other, and he kills her because he can’t bear the thought that another man might have had her.

With so much emphasis on who’s having sex with whom in plays populated with male characters who coerce, threaten, and even kill the women they’re with, it’s no wonder that modern interpretations of these plays throw a spotlight on events of today. One has only to read articles like “A Desdemona for the #MeToo Movement: Heather Lind in Shakespeare in the Park” and “What a lesser-known Shakespeare play can tell us about Harvey Weinstein” to see how relevant Shakespeare’s stories are for us today.

Normally, I see Shakespeare’s relevance today as a testament to his deep grasp of the human condition. It’s incredible that his stories still resonate with audiences more than four centuries after he wrote them. But in this case, it’s also rather depressing. 415 years have passed since Othello and Measure for Measure both appeared in 1604 and we’re still living in a society that identifies with stories about men murdering women in a jealous rage or where women are told they won’t be believed if they accuse a powerful man of raping them.

Lust, Murder, and Deception from Shakespeare to Today |
Karen Peakes (Isabella) and Mark Zeisler (Duke) in the Folger Theatre’s 2006 production of Measure for Measure. Photo by Carol Pratt.

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