Shakespeare’s Women Then and Now

By Neena Arndt

Measure for Measure may have been written in 1604, but its female characters struggle with the same societal obstacles when dropped into the 20th century. Want to learn more about Measure for Measure? Read this piece by Goodman Resident Dramaturg Neena Arndt.

“I know I have the body but of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king,” stated Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 as she prepared troops to combat the Spanish Armada. Although many 16th century Britons considered the “virgin queen” an adroit monarch, most likely agreed with her description of her female body as “weak” and “feeble.” Indeed, she reigned over a profoundly patriarchal society in which women could not enter most trades, purchase property or exercise control over their marriage choices. William Shakespeare, who came of age while Elizabeth ruled, lived in a society that debated the queen’s abilities. Theologian John Knox opined that female rulers, in comparison to men, were “foolishe, madde, and phrenetike.” It is no wonder, then, that many of Shakespeare’s female characters—including those in Measure for Measure—had little agency or power.

Isabella has chosen the nunnery over marriage, but nonetheless is asked to perform sexual acts. Mariana’s fiancé cast her aside after her dowry sank in a shipwreck. Having engaged in extramarital sex, Juliet is labelled a “fornicatress” and sent to prison. And Mistress Overdone, a madam who profits from one of the few lines of work open to women, goes to prison as well when she persists in plying her trade after brothels are declared illegal.

In the Goodman’s 2013 production of Measure for Measure, these characters inhabited a different time and place: New York in the 1970s. Four centuries after Elizabeth’s reign, women were still fighting for equality, particularly in the arenas of employment, sexual harassment and reproductive rights. After the publication of Betty Friedan’s provocative book The Feminine Mystique in 1963, second-wave feminism had exploded in America. By the late 1970s most states had criminalized marital rape, established legal protections for pregnant women, and established Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs and activities. Women could access birth control and abortions, and could apply for credit without a male co-signer. But they still lagged men in educational attainment and salary, and often felt their careers limited by the strains of childcare and mothering.

Like their Elizabethan counterparts, they lived in a society that doubted women’s ability to lead. In Measure for Measure, male leaders, lawmakers and bureaucrats control the female characters’ lives, leaving them pleading for justice or simply making do with their given situation. Though the women of the late 20th century held many more rights than women in previous eras, the gender dynamics in Measure for Measure, which Shakespeare penned in 1604, don’t seem entirely out of place in the 1970s—or, for that matter, in 2021.