All's Well That Ends Well: Patriarchy and the rape trial in Shakespeare

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

I saw a brilliant production of All's Well That Ends Well at the National Theatre last week, which reminded me of how pissed off I am that our society tells our men to pressure women into sex and then returns to those women a repulsively low rape conviction rate.

For those unfamiliar with the play, BardWeb has a summary that hits the high points, and the full text is at MIT Shakespeare.

Endemic sexism is strong in the play, although Shakespeare doesn't necessarily condone it. It most affects the two young women protagonists.

Helena de Narbonnes: dream girl of the patriarchy
Everybody but Bertram the Douche spends the first half of the play talking about how great Helena is. She is pretty great, but not for the reasons everyone else says. Helena, who studied medicine with her father and is now the world's greatest physician, is smart and tells people so! She takes shit and turns it into diamonds! She never gives up and decides to cut her losses; she says, "Fine, you want to play it like that?", cures the mystery disease and has the king up and out for dancing the next day. She gives radiant speeches about self-determinism and not letting life push you around.

But rather than actually talk about her as a real woman who has real qualities, the other characters -- the good stepmother, the fairy godfather, the ailing king -- buff her pedestal with statements like the following:

I have those hopes of her good that her education promises; her dispositions she inherits, which makes fair gifts fairer. For where an unclean mind carries virtuous qualities, there commendations go with pity; they are virtues, and traitors too. In her they are the better for their simpleness, she derives her honesty and achieves her goodness.

Translation: "Helena's great and might even pass for upper-class! She is so much better than pretty much every other woman! Helena, man, she is so nice and good and good and honest and good."

The characters never describe any specific qualities that Helena actually possesses. (They call her honest, which she isn't. She's clever, but she lies all over the place. It is, in fact, pretty awesome, but nobody notices this.) They just blandly "good" her. The king even justifies his vagueness, arguing that "Good alone is good without a name." Describing women as individuals with real qualities detracts from their goodness.

But what is good? How did Helena get good? How does she stay good? What will it mean for her if she loses her goodness? No one knows, and no one cares. They're happy to throw "good" at her feet and, as part of their adulation, turn around and slam anyone who falls short of their mysterious, invisible standards.

Women in today's society are held to the same impossible vague judgment. Impossible because no one can be judged good that isn't a fictional paragon. There is no woman so bland, so vague, so lacking in the flaws that make up a personality to be called "good", because the invisible line that marks the path is the path, and it is impossible to stand completely within a line. One foot or the other must be over it, somewhere.

So happens when you step out? When you cross one of the invisible lines? What moves a woman from nebulously Good to nebulously Bad?

Diana Capilet: barefoot on a high-wire
The second young woman in All's Well shows us what can push a woman over: Anything! Everything! Having sex! Not having sex! Having the wrong kind of sex (which still may be any sex at all)! Being foreign! Being a civilian in an occupied country!

Diana, an Italian innkeeper's daughter, is pressed into the plot when Bertram (remember, a soldier in the army occupying Italy), puts his boots up on her table and starts sexually harassing her. I'm sure Shakespeare intended it to be creepy. But I suspect that he meant it because Bertram is a fickle doof, not because he is an occupying soldier harassing a woman in an invaded country: a woman disadvantaged by gender, race and class, who has to put up with his shit or lose her livelihood.

Shakespeare is sickeningly accurate, and writes for Bertram nearly every argument that dudes today are still using to coax, push, pester and coerce women into unwanted sex.

"You're beautiful; I want you."
"But I love sex, it feels great."
"It's only natural, it's what humans are supposed to do."
"Loosen up! You're not dead, live a little!"
"I love you more than I've ever loved anyone else -- even my wife."
"I'm not like those other guys. I'm nice. You can trust me. I respect you."
And, finally, the grand classic "Why are you being such a bitch about everything?" Because, guys, there's no way to win a lady's heart like using a gendered slur when she finally tells you to fuck off because you won't stop fucking harassing her.

If you can spot the common missing aspect of all these arguments, by the way, it's the woman's pleasure. This shouldn't need saying, but dudes, "Me me me I want I want I want!" is neither a valid argument nor acceptable behavior for anyone above the age of four.

The rape trial: when the patriarchy hauls back for a punch in the face
When everyone, including Diana, travels back to France to sort the plot out, there is a rape trial. It's not explicitly one, but in form, function, and forehead-bashing sexism from nearly every party involved, it is.

And when Diana stands in front of the court and says, Bertram, you harassed me for a week and promised you would marry me before I slept with you, Bertram's defense is, "well, you're a slut, and therefore you don't count as a person."
She's impudent, my lord,
And was a common gamester to the camp.

Certain it is I liked her,
And boarded her i' the wanton way of youth:
She knew her distance and did angle for me,
Madding my eagerness with her restraint.

She slept with everybody and liked it; she was asking for it; boys will be boys. Therefore, anything she has to say about herself, myself, her own agency or what actually happened doesn't count.

And nobody has a problem with this. Not the king, not the fairy godfather, not the good stepmother. The king, in fact, tries to imprison and execute her for lying. The fairy godfather uses more contemptuous, sexist slurs against her ("This woman's an easy glove, my lord; she goes off and on at pleasure") than he ever did against Bertram the Douche. The good stepmother just doesn't say anything.

Why is this infuriating? It's a play that's been around for four hundred years, you think, of course it's going to be sexist and fucked-up. No, it's infuriating -- and I am, literally, furious -- because these attitudes are still around today, and they continue to affect women.

This production at the National makes it clear just how wrong those attitudes are, a welcome necessity for a modern production. It also emphasizes Diana's disadvantaged position, a side effect of casting Hasina Haque, a British actor of Bengali origin. A blond Anglo soldier sexually harassing a civilian southwest Asian woman in her occupied nation: this image has even more uncomfortable contemporary reverberations than the broader problem of sexism in the criminal justice system, but both are still incredibly relevant.

Women whom someone has raped are still arrested and jailed for 'false report'. Rape conviction rates in the UK are still shockingly, unbelievably low -- 6.5%, with an estimated 95% never being reported at all.

Less than half of one percent -- .325% -- of all UK rapes ever result in conviction.

Fuck that. Seriously, fuck that. We can do better than that. We will do better than that.

I just hope changing the attitudes behind those numbers doesn't take another 400 years.

*When I read this play, I have to picture Bertram as some sort of unholy love blend of Taye Diggs, Daniel Day-Lewis and Naveen Andrews, because otherwise there is just no way to justify Helena's continuing to put up with his shit.


Elly said...

This is such a good post, on such a wonderful blog.

And you are damned right.

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