‘Measure for Measure,’ ‘The Little Hours,’ ‘The Decameron,’ and the Erotics of Chastity

Neither Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours nor a recently-ended production of Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience (directed by Simon Godwin) is an all around great work of art; The Little Hours isn’t nearly as funny or sharp as it could be given its hilarious premise, and this Measure undercuts its attempts at contemporaneity (which itself is questionable given the elaborate, specific archaism of the second half of Shakespeare’s play, despite the timelessness of the first act) by seeing a final moment as comic and lighthearted rather than somewhat troubling or at least ambiguous. Both, however, are interesting examples of approaching similar subjects — how for women characters, chastity becomes not so much the lack of sexuality but rather the embodiment of it — from opposite temporal angles. In Shakespearean productions, it’s not uncommon to use the past to comment on the present by setting performances either in today’s world or a vague and portentous future: beyond this modern (or even slightly future-y) Measure, another recent example was the hyper-#relevant/thereby controversial Trump-imitating Julius Caesar. The Little Hours, meanwhile, imposes the present on the past. The latter is a far less explored temporal means of adaptation (the preposterous yet kind of amazing mashup of contemporary zombie obsession and of traditionally played Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is another recent example). It’s a type of adaptation that, partially because it interlaces the past with present trends rather than catapulting an entire past narrative into the present, feels like it has a bit more potential for dynamism in its exploration of a theme — even regardless of its execution.

The Little Hours is an adaptation of “The Third Day – Story I” passage of Giovanni Boccaccio’s massive, often hypersexual collection of 14th century stories, The Decameron (a story that was also selected as a chapter in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1971 Decameron film). And Measure is another modernized production that tries to wrap an aesthetic concerned with the complexities of modernity around Shakespeare’s also-complex, unruly, and often Elizabethan-perception-specific text. But both of these contemporary visions look back towards sources that drew on the sexuality of desexualization; Measure looks back then brings the narrative forward to a contemporary dystopic bureaucracy, while The Little Hours is itself set in the era on which it’s based. But it applies contemporary speech to its deliberately comic approximation of Medieval visuals and sounds (Dan Romer’s score is priceless). It’s like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but where, with the exception of the extemporaneous ultra-current speech, the past mostly gets to make a farce of itself — and thereby, when it wants, of the present.

The Little Hours, fundamentally, is a film in which foul-mouthed Medieval nuns treat James Franco’s brother like a human dildo upon his entry into their Italian countryside parish. That chapter in The Decameron, though different in its verbiage, is … not really dissimilar to this film. Yet the plot of the deadpan comedy film is replete with stuff that feels like it’d befit any contemporary college campus: sexual experimentation, drug usage, and alt-spirituality. Amusingly, barring the language and the emphasized contemporary youngish-person inflections of the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Micucci, the adaptation, which seems like a hijacking of weird Medieval devoutness to tell a contemporary sex comedy, isn’t actually hijacking much of anything — it’s mirroring it, as the Decameron also drew on the oh-so-old legacy of the simultaneous fear and obsession with female sexuality. The original (and here translated, of course) text follows a man named Masetto who’s tipped off about a job at a convent with eight young nuns. Thinking “jackpot,” he seeks employment, but pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to convince the higher-ups that he’s no threat to women’s purity. Boccaccio’s narrator character opens the story:

Fairest ladies, not a few there are both of men and of women, who are so foolish as blindly to believe that, so soon as a young woman has been veiled in white and cowled in black, she ceases to be a woman, and is no more subject to the cravings proper to her sex, than if, in assuming the garb and profession of a nun, she had put on the nature of a stone.

A sort of alt-comedy application to the storytelling style of The Witch, all The Little Hours really has to do is reiterate the ideas of an old text to earn a feminist bent as perceived by a contemporary audience. (The Witch was actually taken from a composite of folkloric accounts of witchcraft — aka collectivized paranoia about young female sexuality.) Nuns discovering their sexuality by female gazing, and then fucking, the shit out of a willingly objectified dude? Check. Nuns secretly practicing witchcraft and exploring bisexuality? Check. (Okay, these last parts aren’t mentioned in the original, but the former fear, as mentioned via The Witch, isn’t temporally out of place.) The tale in the Decameron sees Masetto eventually becoming so exhausted by all the fucking that he comes clean about not being a deaf-mute, interrupting an interminable sex marathon, telling the Abbess, “Madam, I have heard say that one cock sufficeth unto half a score hens, but that half a score men can ill or hardly satisfy one woman; whereas needs must I serve nine, and to this I can no wise endure; nay, for that which I have done up to now, I am come to such a pass that I can do neither little nor much; wherefore do ye either let me go in God’s name or find a remedy for the matter.” He’s ultimately kept in the nunnery forever, fathering many of the nuns’ children, so that the nuns’ penchant for fleshy pleasures never gets revealed.

The, er, “message” of the narrative is thus the very obvious notion that repressive tendencies only breed greater urges, that when it comes to sexuality, forced desexualization itself is a fallacy. The uniform-denoted virginity of nuns, for the male characters, further arouses desire, and for the women characters, absence is filled by an overflowing of desire until everyone becomes pure id. Baena explained some of the 14th century Italian social contexts to The Stranger:

Primarily it’s sort of the subjugation of women and how they were forced to live in a structure that they didn’t want to be in. And our misunderstanding of history, where we think of nuns and priests and clergy as being these hyper-religious people who were just dedicating their lives to Christianity. The reality is: It was more of a social structure. Women, when they were little girls, would go into convents, basically treating them as schools, and then by the time they were of age, let’s say 14 or older, they would get married off.

And working class women really had the choice, if not married, between becoming nuns or prostitutes — a real world example (and probable catalyst) of the virgin/whore lens through which women have been rendered both in narrative and in the minds of men for centuries. As Slate’s essay on The Little Hours and a nun-specific pop cultural trend noted, “In 2017, with the Madonna-whore dichotomy firmly entrenched in political discourse—with Mike Pence refusing to dine with women other than his wife (whom he allegedly calls “mother”) while Trump brags about grabbing women by the pussy—it’s not surprising that we would see a renewed interest in the nun as an allegorical figure.” Indeed, as in The Little Hours, the suppression of female sexuality is part of an institutional structure — while most of the people advocating that control fail to play by their own rules. The poster alone for Paul Verhoeven’s next film, about a 17th century nun, speaks loads to the false virgin/whore dichotomy, and how the notion of that fallacy itself becomes a male mashup fantasy that actually keeps it in place:

This is also apparent in Measure for Measure. The just-closed production of Shakespeare’s “problem play” (sort of comedy… sort of… lots of other stuff) decides to hit you over the head with the play’s polarities of devoutness and chastity, as embodied by a nun, and ribaldry, as embodied by a gaggle of brothel-dwelling side characters. With nods to often obnoxious immersive theater trends, in order to get to the theater, the audience is led through a hallway decorated in gaudy colors denoting salaciousness, jam-packed with buttplugs and dildos (no mere denoting there.) Though the play itself is actually comparatively traditional in its (still modernized) staging, it manages to parade some of the aforementioned props, as well as an amusing little magic trick involving an endless rope of condoms.

Measure for Measure largely centers around a just-became-a-nun nun named Isabella (played by an excellent, staunch Cara Ricketts) whose brother, under a strict new, temporary leader (Angelo, played here by Thomas Jay Ryan), has been sentenced to death for impregnating a woman who isn’t his wife. Isabella goes to Angelo to contest the harsh sentence, and Angelo, an older man who purports to be quite ascetic, immediately falls for the young nun’s anti-seduction — he’s aroused, essentially, by her purity and conviction. “Never could the strumpet/With all her double vigor, art and nature,/Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid/Subdues me quite. Ever till now,/When men were fond, I smiled and wondered how,” recites Ryan with a brilliant, mousy and earnest sweetness that makes it all the more creepy. But Isabella’s here unflinching conviction is itself questionable: particularly as played by Ricketts, she’s refreshingly not some simple embodiment of benevolence. Her virtue and potential lack of inner conflict over her brother’s death can seem callous: she goes to her brother and almost casually tells him that his death is fated, because it makes way more sense for him to die than for her to lose her virginity. He’s left pleading, and she parts with him in anger.

When she ultimately denies Angelo, it’s not expressly written into the play, but directors often choose to show him assaulting her: here, Angelo violently grabs and holds her breast. The real Duke, who’s gone into hiding and has been watching as Angelo’s reign becomes more tyrannical, has devised an elaborate plan to work everything out, including saving the life of Isabella’s brother; however, it also involves manipulating Isabella. And then, at the play’s conclusion, it turns out that the helpful Duke, too, has basically been hitting on Isabella the whole time, as he too now asks her to renounce her devotion to God and marry him. In a contemporary reading, this should seem somewhat unsettling, an assertion of everything we’ve been talking about: the subjugation of women’s sexuality to make them all the more desirable to men, as Isabella, and her purity — set against the backdrop of a city overrun by brothels and what’s consider to be depravity — becomes the locus of these men’s desires. However, this production takes a slightly different, lighter feminist approach to the ending. Instead of making Isabella look unsettled by the final marriage proposal revelation, this production tries to make it look like a choice she’s making in total autonomy: she considers, then runs up to him and kisses him. Ending on this note of self-possession for her, though, kind of undercuts the gravity of the patterns of control at play in the play.

And here’s where the setting of adaptations is key to their sexual politics. Though Measure for Measure is, on its own (as, y’know, Shakespeare), a far better work of art than The Little Hours, the film has steadier handle on its relationship to time and sexual politics than this particular production of Measure. If, say, you keep the setting of something written in the past in the past, or even render it somehow outside of time, it’ll still be read in connection to the present by virtue of being made and performed (or screened) in the present. However, when you reset a play blatantly within modernity (or near-futurism), you run the risk of having every single aspect of it then read as a direct link to/comment on modernity. (It can work brilliantly, of course — but it has to be weighed against the elements of the work that are wholly time-specific.) In a play like Measure, that in its final act becomes quite rooted in governmental specifics of the time, those comparisons start to falter. For Isabella to gladly accept the Duke’s proposal in a production set in the past may have made sense given the very fact that, as Baena mentioned, becoming a nun was often more a matter of necessity than belief; but if you’re a nun in contemporary American or British (or, for that matter Austrian) society, you’re probably pretty damn serious about it — particularly if you, say, staunchly value your virginity over your brother’s life.

Because certain fundamental tropes of gender and sexuality take centuries to change, some elements of Measure are deeply, chillingly relevant: when, for example, Isabella threatens to tell the world about Angelo’s sexual manipulation and hypocrisy, he retorts, “Say what you can, my false outweighs your true,” and its resonance to the failings of contemporary prosecution of sexual assault is astonishing. (It’s even more potent in its depiction of who has power over people’s beliefs with Angelo — smug in his notion that he’ll always be believed — played by a white man and Isabella played by a black woman.) But does it need to be played in modern dress, with a modern set, with a ton of dildos, for those elements to resonate? This is not at all to say Shakespeare, or any old work, shouldn’t be fucked with; quite the contrary, it’s almost always better if in some way they are: playing with or changing up gender, race, sexuality of characters, or the original text, even, prevents theater from being repetitive and socially regressive. But when you totally “modernize,” or futurize, a play particularly about the government and sexuality — pushing an entire story into a totally different period — each moment, each action, then, for the audience, feels like an exercise of asking, “how was that relevant to today’s government?” “What’s the contemporary implication of that choice?” It works amazingly in moments that actually remain relevant — but when it diverges from direct relevancy, as Shakespeare’s odd not-drama-not-comedy often does, the bifurcation of setting and text starts to seem less deliberate.

In The Little Hours, however, a crude vision of the past is still what’s being displayed. It’s just injected with the cadences of the present that make it all seem intentionally absurd and anachronistic — until you realize it isn’t.