Shakespeare made me question myself

This year Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre is doing Shakespeare for the first time in, well, almost ever. Not that it hasn’t been in the works for some time — Measure for Measure is a play artistic director Ron Reed has wanted to produce before Pacific Theatre even existed.

To be honest, I generally find Shakespeare kind of dull. I think he’s a brilliant poet who wrote plays that were great — for his time. The whole cult of Shakespeare that most theatre artists subscribe to gets my hackles up a little bit, because I feel like the development of modern theatre is being held back while everyone melts down their jewelry to make golden Shakespeare busts.

That said, as I’ve worked on Measure for Measure, I have been forced to reconsider some of my frustrations with the Bard, as this play has required me to do the very thing I think theatre was made for: see myself in a new light. A light that is not necessarily very flattering.

Consider the situation. Isabella, a novice nun, finds out her brother is sentenced to death.  When she pleads for mercy on his behalf she is offered the opportunity to save him. The price? That she sleep with Angelo, a corrupt ruler. She refuses on the grounds that she won’t endanger her own soul, even to save her brother’s life. Ultimately, she is rewarded for her decision as the Duke steps in to help her protect her chastity, save her brother, and offer her marriage.

Well, I have a brother, too. If he was going to be killed and all I had to do to save his life was sleep with someone, honestly, I am pretty sure I would do it.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a decision I would take lightly, but I also don’t feel like I would need to think about it for very long. It’s my brother. It’s his life. How can I put my own welfare and wishes above the life of another person, let alone someone I care for so deeply?

Honestly, when I look at the situation, Isabella’s belief that she would endanger her soul if she gave in to Angelo’s demands seems naive, and her decision to put herself above her brother’s life seems selfish.

And let’s not mince words here — Angelo’s bargain is not a bargain. It’s rape. He is holding a knife to her brother’s throat and demanding sex. Her giving in is not consent, it is a man abusing his power to force a woman with no power to do his bidding. So if you ask me, the soul-endangering is all on Angelo’s haughty shoulders.

When I boil down the issue, I have to face the fact that I am, essentially, judging Isabella for refusing to give in to a rapist. She is standing up for her beliefs and protecting herself from a terrible crime, and here I am, calling her naive and selfish.

So what does that say about me?

Maybe I would look at the situation differently if I agreed with her that having sex outside of marriage bound her soul to hell, but I don’t.  Especially in a circumstance like this, I am confident that God’s love, healing, and grace could reach her.

Maybe I would look at it differently if I didn’t see self-sacrifice as one of the defining characteristics of the Christian story, but I do. While I recognize that both scenarios would lead me to live with a lot of shame, guilt, and deep self-doubt, I do think I would have a harder time living with myself feeling like I had killed my brother.

At the end of the day, however, I can’t ignore my ultimate judgment of Isabella and her choice.

Then the questions begin: is there a sacrifice that is too big?  That no one, not even God, would want you to make? Jesus sacrificed his life, but only his human life. Did he risk his soul? Would he? Would he give in to the demands of a corrupt leader? Probably not, but he also was God. Which is certainly not the case for a poor nun in 17th century Vienna.  Does that change how a poor nun in 17th century Vienna should act? What about a young middle class woman working in the arts in Vancouver?

The beautiful thing is that I still don’t know. Shakespeare doesn’t give us an answer, and like all good playwrights, he offers an impossible situation and lets his audience wrestle with the result.

I know I’m still wrestling with it.


Photo courtesy of Ben Sutherland (Flickr CC)