What Fools These Mortals Be

In strangely stunning detail, Shakespeare described the toxic men of 2017. It only took the world 394 years to listen.

photo credit: Joe Campbell photo of poster, via Creative Commons

I memorized the words long ago, but never really heard them until now.

My son’s ninth-grade English class, busy studying “Romeo and Juliet,” was assigned to ask a parent what they thought of Shakespeare. When he queried me, I mentioned a monologue I used at auditions as an actress — a few powerful lines from “Measure for Measure,” chosen for me by an insightful woman who was once my acting teacher.

Just before bed that night, I sat down at my desk to read that passage for the first time in years.

I stared at the words on the screen, shaken by what I’d found. This honest, angry paragraph, written by that incredibly rare person — a commoner just brilliant enough to earn himself a seat among royalty and with it an up-close view of their actions—echoed across the centuries like a direct response to the deeds we’ve seen committed and those that have been uncovered during this strange and complicated year.

It’s as if he knew Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore and Matt Lauer and James Levine and Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby and Charlie Rose and Russell Simmons and Andrew Kreisberg and Brett Ratner and James Toback and John Besh and Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier and all the rest.

Literally, it’s like he saw Donald Trump coming from nearly 400 years away. Listen:

Oh, it is excellent
to have a giant’s strength. But it is tyrannous 
to use it like a giant.
Could great men thunder
as Jove himself thunders, Jove would ne’er be quiet.
For every pelting, petty officer
would use his heaven for thunder.
Nothing but thunder. Merciful heaven,
thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak,
than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
dressed in a little brief authority,
 — most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
his glassy essence — like an angry ape
plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
as make angels weep.

If there are angels, I have no doubt they’ve been weeping lately.

Want to know what happens after Isabella, the character speaking above, finishes pleading that her unjustly imprisoned brother be spared from execution? The man in charge, the self-important officer she describes, decides that the only way he’ll spare her brother’s life is if she has sex with him.

Obviously, William Shakespeare didn’t know the particular pelting, petty officers we’ve watched thundering about this year. Nor did he meet the growing number we’re suddenly seeing brought low by their own lifetime of choices. But, keen observer of human behavior that he was, he wrote — in the voice, mind you, of a female character wiser than the men around her —a clear condemnation of the kind of men who have held court and ruled Western society for far too many centuries.

He knew they didn’t deserve their oft-abused power. And he knew how they were most likely to wield it.

Like an Elizabethan Seth MacFarlane calmly putting the culture’s long-unspeakable truths on the public stage as tragicomedy, Shakespeare described the problem in unflinching specifics. Too bad so many generations of people simply applauded the performance, anointed the play an eventual classic and did nothing about its message as the centuries rolled along.

A childhood friend of mine, who happens to be male, posted a question recently on Facebook. I remembered his words as I read Shakespeare’s. During the Charlie-Rose-Matt-Lauer-Garrison-Keillor cascade of accusations, he wrote using a thin veneer of humor to coat visible frustration and doubt underneath: Could there really be this many men guilty of sexual harassment and assault, he wanted to know.

Do these crimes really stretch back so many decades?

Yes. Yes. Yes. They’ve been going on for half a millennia and more.

Yes, a shocking number men abuse their often unfairly achieved bits of power. And yes, this has been happening throughout your lifetime and your parents’ lifetimes and the lifetimes of humans stretching back to the days when people weren’t drinking mead simply for the sake of being trendy.

I felt real vertigo revisiting this speech I gave in front of a dozen theater directors over the years in hopes of winning some part in some play. But I also felt the anger I’d channeled into those performances now coupled with a powerful sense of mission and progress.

Voices like the fearless one Shakespeare created for Isabella have swelled into a chorus so loud and undeniable that they are being heard in unprecedented ways.

If he were here in 2017, he’d witness women refusing to be silenced as they call out the actions of powerful and threatening men. He’d find dedicated journalists meticulously uncovering and chronicling the disturbing facts. And he’d discover an enormous tide of us standing together, saying, yes, “me, too,” and demanding accountability from all those entrusted with the precious luxury and responsibility of their little, brief authority.

And he’d see that we’re not finished yet.


More on Medium:

  • Giving My Mother-in-Law Back to Herself. “I’ve lived quite a fascinating life,” she says. It’s the first time she’s spoken since this lunch began.
  • Where There’s Smoke. When we divorced, my ex-husband took a match to my childhood photos. Now I’m learning to follow the breadcrumbs that lead me back to my own history.
  • You Go First. If a working mother waits until it’s a good time to take a trip purely for herself, she will never go. Go anyway.
  • Welcome to the Pool Party. Tween life on Instagram is getting weirder and weirder.

Melissa Rayworth is a writer and editor exploring pieces of daily life — the homes we live in, the ways we pursue our relationships and raise our children, the ways we attempt to balance work and home, and the impact of pop culture and marketing on our daily experience — in hopes of helping readers understand their world more fully. She currently does her storytelling from Pittsburgh and New York after three inspiring years in Bangkok. Find a collection of her stories here. She tweets at @mrayworth.

©2017, Melissa Rayworth