We need to rethink how we approach so-called "problem plays."
In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a woman is threatened with the death of her brother if she doesn't submit to sexual assault. The guilty party gets discovered and punished, but the innocent victim is victimized yet again by an allegedly just duke coercing her into a loveless marriage.
In The Taming of the Shrew, a character we've been asked to find adorable, Petruchio, embarks on a campaign of systematic spousal abuse. He promises his male buddies he can force his wife Katherina to accede to his every wish without so much as a sniff of complaint.
In The Merchant of Venice, we're asked to identify with a Jewish moneylender who conducts business in a rabidly antisemitic culture. Fair enough. Then the moneylender, Shylock, demands actual bloodshed in recompense, an indiscriminate response to cultural bigotry.
In Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, a woman who, not that it matters, has behaved unimpeachably gets assaulted by a centurion turned on by her chastity. Before justice can be served, poor Lucretia commits suicide.
For centuries we've referred to such stories as "problem plays." We're reluctant to stage them now, perhaps even read them, as they leave us feeling wronged. But why is that?
I think most of us have an intrinsic belief life is fair. It should be, we reckon, so it is. We think that so deeply, in fact, that most of us don't even think about the fact that we're thinking it. That's a charming quirk of human nature, I guess. Except no, it really isn't, because it leads to real-world consequences that are deeply destructive.
We think life is fair, so if a guy is behind bars, he must belong there. Surely The Innocence Project can't be right when it claims at least one percent of the U.S. prison population has been wrongfully convicted. That's about 20,000 people. That number couldn't be right — could it? We're talking about the American justice system here, the greatest, we claim, in the world. Life is fair, so how could American justice be unjust for so many?
We think life is fair, so when a woman gets sexually assaulted, we're immediately asked what she did to deserve it. How was she dressed? Did she scream or just say no? Has she ever taken a naked picture of herself? Is she pretty?
We think life is fair, so if an unmarried woman gets pregnant, many ask why she should be allowed to make that "mistake" free from decades of consequences. (The man's "mistake," bizarrely, seems a matter of little concern.)
We think life is fair, so if people are hungry or homeless or emotionally ill, we assume they must've brought it on themselves.
We think life is fair, so we believe billionaires must be special. Surely they deserve to keep all that money, even in a wealthy nation where one in eight people live below the (too-low) poverty line and 16 million kids reside in food-insecure households.
We think life is fair, so when African-Americans are treated unkindly we suggest perhaps they should do a better job of maintaining and policing their own communities.
We think life is fair, so when LGBTQ Americans suffer from bigotry, we shrug off recent findings that almost half of gay teens have contemplated suicide. After all, we're told, they could've just decided to be straight. It wouldn't be fair if homophobia persists in a world where homosexuality isn't a choice, so let's continue to allow schools where it definitely isn't.
Life isn't fair. I'm going to say that again: Life ... is not ... fair. It's unfair that a guy who's been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women has been punished with a seat on the highest court in the land. It's unfair that a guy who routinely masturbated in front of women he barely knew, women who looked to him for professional guidance and support, has been punished with zero jail time. Should he be allowed to resume his career, even as he embraces full-on mockery of massacre survivors? Geez, who can say? It's impossible to know for sure. After all, he's rich and famous and creative, so maybe in a fair world he deserves to stay on top. His victims are women who could've objected more forcefully, so perhaps that's on them.
I say again, life is not inherently fair. The only way it'll ever be fairer is if we demand that it be. We must be fairer ourselves. We must insist on that, from ourselves and our culture and our authority figures and ostensible justice system.
Back to stories. Perhaps it's time we accept that the problem with these plays isn't their scripts or their writers; it's the world. It's the world in which they're set. More to the point, it's a problem with our world. Because yes, our world obviously has problems. Our world is, in fact, a major problem. It's the problem we've all allowed it to be because we couldn't face obvious signs it was flawed. We waited for a superhuman, all-seeing Judge to make things fair when clearly, the only improvements in justice have come at the hands of progressive humans.
I submit to you it's time we reconsider these plays without trying to make them any fairer. My presentation of Measure for Measure at Tacoma Little Theatre (Jan. 31) will land hard on the absolute injustice of its conclusion. Perhaps Elizabethans did believe its outcome was fair; I don't know. I certainly do know it wasn't. So why can't we just acknowledge that? Why do we insist our plays end fairly? It's because we want so deeply to pretend life is fair that we insist on it from even our fictional fantasies.
I want to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew in which Petruchio is simply a spousal abuser. Don't make poor Katherina a harridan who deserves what she gets. She isn't and she doesn't. Call the play Petruchio the Abuser and stage it as written. Don't ask audiences to identify with and therefore excuse its least lovable ogre. He's the play's central character, yes, but he shouldn't be allowed to be its hero.
I want to see a King Lear who may or may not be developing senility, but is certainly an unrepentant a$$hole. Clearly he's surrounded by people who feel sorry for him in his old age; but if the past two years have taught us anything, we should know by now people make excuses for amoral authority figures. They also obfuscate mistakes and rewrite history to obliterate advantaged folks' misdeeds entirely. It's how monarchy persists to this day. We think life is fair, so if a person lives in a castle on a mountain of wealth simply because he or she had the good fortune to be born first in a royal family, we assume that must be part of God's plan. The royals deserve what they have, including governmental power over millions, we tell ourselves, because the ramifications of thinking otherwise are too immense to accept.
(I note in passing that even virulently anti-monarchist Americans still have no problem thinking of Christ as "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." After all, Jesus' Dad was a pretty big deal, so even after the Messiah does a vanishing act for two thousand years we're still fervently inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
I want to see a world of storytelling in which writers are able to illustrate an unfair world without directors sweatily sanding it clean.