Stories about women summoned as supplicants to the portals of men with the power to grant their wishes, for a price, are common across professions, across countries, across millennia. Shakespeare dramatized the dilemmas some of these women faced in more than one of his plays.
In both Henry VI Part 3 and Measure for Measure, for example, Shakespeare created male and female characters that, in these trials of sexual extortion, mirror each other in key qualities that fuel their conflicts. The men, Edward in Henry VI and Angelo in Measure for Measure, differ in that Edward is a cunning, licentious womanizer, and Angelo is a rigid, self-righteous moralizer. What they have in common, however, is that both are intoxicated by cocktails composed of two parts power, one part lust and a garnish of opportunity. But the women in these scenes provide the dramatic interest and moral complexity that Shakespeare brilliantly plumbs.
The widow Lady Grey mirrors Edward’s cunning by demonstrating her capacity to charm him and her intelligence to extract from him the deal she wants, thereby preserving, even elevating her stature and securing her sons’ futures. For these two politicians, morality is transactional. The young novitiate Isabella mirrors Angelo’s moral rigidity coupled with his crippled values through her determination to preserve her own chastity by sacrificing her brother’s life. For these two devout Catholics, moral and legal dogmas inhabit a different household from Christian values.
Shakespeare shows no interest in writing polemics about the evils of sexual harassment. Easy questions with obvious answers find little engagement in his dramas. Instead, the complexities of his characters and the craft of his language continue to engage our minds and our emotions after 400 years. For more on Shakespeare’s craft in creating these scenes, read the notes on: