Sometimes computer actions become applicable to my life… “force quit! … FORCE QUIT!” I state at my laptop computer while an article on my website browser decides not to allow me to shut… IT… off.
My behavior is probably tied to a control issue on some small scale – probably linked to aspects of my world that I feel like I can’t shut off – informing my behavior. Be like subway train cars that have no air conditioning in July; be like sleepy eyelids closing when all I want to do is stay up and work – or watch YouTube interviews; be like my miniscule budget when there are so many good shows right now waiting to be watched on Broadway and even beyond the Big Apple.
Well, so be it. I love having that “Force Quit…” option though. It hides there waiting to be clicked behind the bitten apple icon on the top left of my 13” screen. I guess that’s how we might illustrate freedom on some scale nowadays. So many options – one happens to be “Force Quit…” thanks to some computer engineer answering necessity somewhere in the universe.
Perhaps on some scale that’s the seed of Isabella’s issues in Measure For Measure. Control. A non-virtual, perhaps emotional, ‘Force Quit’ of IT – whatever it happened to be to Isabella. Control over… her own body and free will to choose whether to use her body as a trade to save her brother’s life – or whether to allow herself an ability to remain ‘chaste’. In the sense of this Shakespeare play, a definition of chastity extends to Isabella’s ability to maintain her preparation to become ‘married to God’ as a nun. This would require her to keep all hands off her body and refrain from expressions and receptions of sexual desire – including those of a judge named Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) who offers pardon of her brother’s life up in return.
Well… now… what a dilemma for a woman like Shakespeare’s Isabella (Cara Ricketts) – or really any person living in that time or ours. To come to the awareness that what is right in her mind, heart and body are in connection to a higher power and faith that she strongly connects to; and that this internal connection is weighed outside of her body very differently by various people – even people she loves and respects deeply. A favorite monologue of mine happens to be an Isabella monologue that I learned in school – it gets right at the crux of the plot issue when Isabella is forced to choose between her chastity or giving it up in order to save her brother’s life (good ol’Bill with those high stakes). Isabella speaks through the problem out loud and alone by reflecting on Angelo’s proposition (good ol’Bill with ability to create irony – I was on the sidelines urging her to be feministic about it all at the end of Act II scene 4…):
To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Who would believe me? O, perilous mouths,
That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,
Either of condemnation or approof;
Bidding the law make court’sy to their will;
Hooking both right and wrong to the appetite,
to follow as it draws!
Whenever I hear those words I have a strong inclination towards ‘ouch!’ right in my heart center. It would definitely make the character Isabella want to shut off her other energy centers (head & hips). The poetic words of the play speak to me and make Carrie Robinson want to kick, push and curse on Isabella’s behalf. I remember in my classroom setting at school watching my friends/ classmates start to cry when I spoke those words for Isabella. And as an audience member on Wednesday night in the professional theatre setting, I watched Ricketts tap all of those same inclinations into her still body and decide to reason through the injustice she has discovered before moving to…
… I’ll to my brother:
Though he hath fall’n by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour,
That, had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he’ld yield them up,
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorred pollution.
I heard Isabella consider the effect of her decisions on her brother’s behalf – and wonder what he would have done for her. What if he had his free will and fair use of his body and mind, and was not fall’n by prompture of the blood? She believes that he would have fought for her or used his body to prevent a sister from having to give hers up. And so her dilemma widens and deepens in her love and belief attached to her brother’s ideas around ‘honour’.
If they had a shiny coin – would Isabella be heads or tails? If she chose ‘heads’ and began to represent the coin’s minted face as landed up towards the sky – would she let her twirling tail on the other side of her coin, having fallen down, dictate the future? So Isabella reasons further by daring to spin into the dark abyss of her dilemma toward a solution:
Then, Isabel, live chaste and brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.
I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.
So it’s hard enough to be a judge and decide whether to let a person who has been convicted of a crime face a sentence of death or to go free (I would imagine from my measly time as a mock Chief Justice in law school). But this play begs the question of how it would feel across the chessboard if the judge turned a responsibility granted by Shakespeare’s god-fearing Italian government into a trade for his own use; effectively hooking his power and responsibility granted by law to pull a female body closer to his own plate for sexual purposes. Of course, he attempts to keep his arching line invisible as it contravenes the very laws he’s meant to keepsake. The play then begins to tick around the Duke (Jonathan Cake) discovering his role in preventing injustice within a realm and system that requires him, due to birth status, to rule and oversee the governance of.
Jonathan Cake delivers a fine and compelling illustration of the Duke’s character arc in discovering and being compelled by Isabella’s experience to use his knowledge, intelligence, power and privilege towards allowing a woman to have control over her own body. What a concept to be written into a play when a society, like Shakespeare’s, still prescribed that women were not considered people; let alone people capable of making decisions on their own bodies (be virgin or not!) without a male kin’s stamp of approval. At this point in the world’s history women weren’t even deemed capable of having the right to ask for control over their own bodies!
I watched Cake/Duke pick apart the problem with rebellion, with language, with observance and reflection, with dialogue, with a Friar’s disguise, with tears and laughter, with love and with reasoned control and I fell a little in love with the Duke from the audience. He took a variety of action on stage that compelled me to see the whole problem and to want to resolve it – just as he found himself wanting to resolve it. Having worked the Isabella monologue in school, I’d never put myself in the Duke’s position before. Isn’t that funny – what a bit of gender neutrality occurs nowadays as a female watching the play – many women are now in a position to relate to the Duke as a person in control over people, governance and even homes; as well as to Isabella as a woman with threats to the control of her body.
It’s easier said than done nowadays even with progressions to women’s rights – the system Isabella found herself in indicates the root of some systemic ways of thinking about women’s rights that we still struggle with today across the globe. It occurred to me that Shakespeare’s text only compels my emotions nowadays because it is still relevant. So the emotion can be translated into a metaphoric “Force Quit…” button on my laptop – but on some scale, depending on where a person lives in this world, the dilemmas and threats in this play still ring true. Isabella matters and her brother Claudio matters (Leland Fowler) – people facing problems that be like Isabella and Claudio’s matter – life isn’t as simple as flipping a coin to let heads and tails dictate an outcome. Just as the Duke discovers this – I was able to reflect on this in the audience – and I thought – well maybe that was the intention of the playwright then:
For, though his line of life went soon about,
The life yet of his lines shall never out. – Hugh Holland on William Shakespeare.
Measure for Measure.
Its very rhythm, within a title granted by Shakespeare, teeter-totters to our ears and forces us to place and balance similar consonants with similar vowels. The carrying out of the play forces us to place and balance right from wrong in our consciences and our understanding of humanity. It is both black and white; both cruel and kind; both male and female; both true and false; both high and low; and it matters. What a unique and balanced title from the Bard collection:
Measure for Measure.
Consonant for Vowel.
Ding for Dong.
Tick for Tock.
Teeter for Totter.
Enthroned Virgin (by Goro di Gregorio (active ca. 1300-1334) – statue on display at The Cloisters, New York City.