Academic journal article PSYART

Is This Her Fault or Mine?

Academic journal article PSYART

Is This Her Fault or Mine?

Article excerpt

Male bewilderment and consternation about female desire is timeless. Men often conclude that female sexuality provokes male lust, and that vice among men can be controlled by diminishing provocation from women. This belief has led, and continues to lead to mischief at all levels of social organization.

Shakespeare's plays include themes about the relationships between sexual behavior, character, and the organization and expression of social and political behavior. Shakespeare understood the diversity of female sexual desire and its relationship to personality characteristics. We will explore the strong contrasts in the psychosexual profiles of two of his heroines, Isabella and Cleopatra, and examine the relationship between their sexuality and the social/ political organization of their societies. We propose that these heroines present striking differences in the intersubjective nature of their relationships with men, and that these two plays considered together raise the possibility that the assumption of sexual subjectivity in women may diminish the impact of misogyny, even in Shakespeare's patriarchal world.[1]

We recognize in Isabella, the young would-be nun in Measure to Measure, an early prototype of Freud's hysterics. Indeed, Isabella's "hysteria" dramatically portrayed almost three centuries before the classical syndrome was described by Freud and Breuer accounts for some of the dark-comic dimensions of this play. They postulated that many psychological symptoms and syndromes arose from the ways in which Oedipal conflicts were experienced and expressed. Features that these "hysterical" women had in common included repressed sexual desire for forbidden "objects," unconscious shame and guilt in response to forbidden erotic longings and subsequent need for atonement and punishment because of these desires and urges, and tendencies to behave seductively while simultaneously denying sexual desire. Hysterics demonstrated a tendency to experience affects with great intensity as well as with shallowness, where intense feelings motivated behavior and were replaced by other equally intense feelings which appeared to motivate entirely different behavior. Dramatic displays of emotion and enactments of desires and conflicts coexist with a denial of awareness of intention to appear dramatic. These patients were prone to sensory and motor disturbances in which psychological conflicts were "converted" into physical symptoms.

Isabella anticipates a number of features of hysteria: Oedipal dynamics, striking sexual shame and guilt, erotic masochism, and repression and denial of sexual impulses coexistent with unconscious seductiveness. In an interaction with Claudio, her brother, she demonstrates rapid shifts in intense feelings as well.

In Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio perceives that Vienna, under his rule, has declined into a state mired in moral laxity and sexual licentiousness. He appoints Angelo, his harsh and puritanical deputy, to rule in his stead and clean up the mess; the Duke and Angelo agree that there is an excess of appetite in the population. The Duke then disguises himself as a friar so that he can observe the behavior of his subjects. Angelo immediately decides to close the brothels, and to revive a dormant law punishing fornication outside of marriage by execution. Claudio faces imminent execution for having impregnated his fiancé, Juliet. (Juliet's life will be spared because she is carrying a child.) At Claudio's request, his friend Lucio retrieves Isabella from the convent she has just entered as a novitiate. Isabella agrees to meet with Angelo and implore him to spare her brother's life.

The chaste, young, and attractive Isabella, engaged in a passionate and well-matched debate with Angelo evokes sudden desire in Angelo. Aware of his unwelcome arousal, he exclaims, "What's this? What's this? Is this her fault or mine?"

The three major characters in Measure for Measure present different strategies for containing sexual impulses. …

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