“Who will believe thee Isabel?” The words rang in my ear from the moment they were uttered by Angelo in Measure for Measure. I didn’t need to ask myself why. I knew why. I still know why. Those words are the exact words every woman dreads to hear. In that moment, I became Isabella. My heart sank and dread crept in because Angelo was right. No one would believe her and that’s why he was able to force himself upon her.
I am fortunate enough to have never heard those words, but countless women before me have heard them in some form or another and many will after me. And those words were often devastatingly true. Many in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement seemed surprised at the number of high powered men who were able to get away with being serial sexual assaulters for years. They were able to get away with it for the exact reason Angelo stated. Because no one would believe the accusers.
I think in that moment I felt the true weight of those words. A text written in the 1600’s contains the exact reason women today say they never came forward about sexual assaults. It makes me think of all the women that were taken advantage of by men who could use their social standing as a shield against accusations. The fact that they are well respected allows them to get away with horrible behaviors that seem contrary to their character.
We see this play out with exceptional clarity in Measure for Measure. Angelo is known as being almost militantly moral. He is running around Venice putting people to death for sleeping with people outside of wedlock. This fact alone makes it impossible to believe that he would take advantage of Isabel in this way.
But, he did because he could. He held all of the power and he made sure to remind her of that. It doesn’t matter that she was so virtuous she was about to become a nun. It doesn’t matter that there is no reason people shouldn’t believe her. She’s no one. He’s the Duke’s deputy who has built a reputation as a man of strong moral standing. Even people who don’t really know him know that he has an excellent character. Friar Peter, who has been sent to defend the women, seems surprised at the accusations and hesitant to believe them.
Isabella gets her justice in the end though, but only because the Duke himself was witness to the crimes. What would have happened if that wasn’t the case? Isabella had witnesses. It didn’t matter. If it had not been for the disguised Duke, she would not have gotten justice. I firmly believe this because I have seen it happen again and again to countless women. Isabella can stand as symbol for the fight women have been fighting for hundreds of years.