In the shocking light of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse revelations, it’s now very difficult to watch Shakespeare in Love. But there’s more: “This is a scandal that reaches many corners of our Shakespearean world, writes Brooke Thomas.

IMG_1861
What’s your favourite Shakespeare inspired film? For many of us, the 1998 classic Shakespeare in Love is the one we return to again and again. It’s a feel-good movie that we can share with anyone, not just our fellow bardophiles. It’s a warm, charming film that introduced a lot of people to Shakespeare and showed a fun side of Bill to some of those who’d been put off by dry school sermons. It’s got a great script, an amazing cast, and it won loads of Oscars.

It was also produced by serial sex abuser Harvey Weinstein.

The film’s female lead, Gwyneth Paltrow, has made a detailed and harrowing accusation against Weinstein. Her co-stars Judi Dench and Colin Firth have made statements condemning the producer. So has the film’s director, John Madden. Another co-star, Ben Affleck, is now enmeshed in a scandal of his own.

Harvey Weinstein, along with his brother Bob, was founder of the Miramax Company, and later the Weinstein Company. As well as giving us numerous classics of modern cinema, they were linked, via production, co-production or distribution, to several other Shakespeare films, including Prospero’s Books (1991), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1996), a version of Hamlet (2000) with Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh’s Love’ Labour’s Lost (2000), “O” (2001), a modern-day reworking of Othello, and, later, Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010), Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2012) and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015).
Another actress, Romola Garai, well known for her Shakespearean stage roles (including Cordelia to Ian McKellen’s King Lear), has come forward to share her own account of abuse by Weinstein.

The victim accounts paint Weinstein as a vulgar, cowardly man. Luring his victims into solo encounters, turning up to meetings in various states of undress, screaming at Paltrow after she’d dared tell her then boyfriend about his come-ons. Gross and leering in his dressing gown, the very embodiment of that well-known character – the casting couch pervert, the professor who would boost your grade, the boyfriend who paid for all those expensive dates. Nothing comes for free in this town, Sweetheart.

This is a scandal that reaches many corners of our Shakespearean world. How are we to feel? How are we to respond now we know these women who we admire so much, who gave performances we adore, were targeted behind the scenes by this predatory man?

Although it’s 401 years after his death, Shakespeare is still tainted by this, in a sense. We in the audience applauded Harvey Weinstein for giving us these films. We didn’t know the truth – that, to him, Shakespeare was just another thing to be abused and exploited. But Shakespeare tells us something very clear about such men of power – their reigns always end. They always fall.

When I started writing this piece I typed this inane opening line: “The entertainment industry has been shocked in recent weeks by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein.” It’s incorrect as well as dull. We’ve been furious, sickened, brimming over with outrage and solidarity for the victims, but shocked? How can we be?

As Meryl Streep commented in her statement about the allegations “The behavior is inexcusable, but the abuse of power familiar.”

I’m not saying we knew about these specific offences with this specific man – although some did allegedly enable Weinstein and they’ll have their own questions to answer in time. I’m saying that we’ve heard this story before. We know how this works.
One in five women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16 (Crime Survey of England and Wales, 2013). This isn’t a rare and startling occurrence. This is something that we’re used to negotiating, in the workplace and beyond.

We live in a world where the 45th president of the United States was elected to office after we heard him confess to sexual assault on tape. Where an anonymous Hollywood agent’s quoted response to the evolving allegations against Weinstein was both dismissive and Shakespeare-defiling: “To me, it’s much ado about nothing… Welcome to Hollywood!”
Sexual assault is commonplace. An open secret. Usually dutifully derided in public and yet quietly accepted in some private spheres.

Some of the statements from Weinstein’s victims and others supporting them cite fear about their future career as a reason not to step forward before. They were intimidated, vulnerable, scared. They stopped working with Weinstein. Quietly advised others not to. The ones who were brave enough to kick up a stink were silenced. Paid off. Allegedly booted from future roles.

Women are still asked why they don’t always speak up about men like Weinstein. The simple answer is that usually we watch them – that professor, that producer, that executive, that rich or powerful lover, relative, or friend – walk away unscathed from our accusations. Have you ever had that nightmare where you’re trying to run but your limbs collapse under you like they’re made of paper? That’s how speaking up against these men feels. In the entertainment industry. In any industry. In this society.

If you do speak up, chances are you’ll get swept away in a wave of “But he’s such a nice guy!”, “That’s just how he is” and, of course, “Don’t make such a fuss.” That’s before you get to the inevitable victim-blaming questions. “Why did you meet in a private room?”, “Did you really tell him to stop?”, “But she carried on working for him afterwards?”

The reason I’m rehashing all this hideously familiar territory is that I cannot understate how brave Weinstein’s victims are for speaking out, how admirable and important their actions are. Did you know that only an estimated 15% of victims of sexual violence report it to the police? Speaking up about this is still subversive. Lavinia’s removed tongue and hands in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus are a grim, but apt, parallel for modern-day women. We are not supposed to tell. “I was expected to keep the secret,” Paltrow said.

Several excellent articles and threads have been circulating on social media about this situation. One by Helen Rosner includes the line: “The burden of defending a workplace from sexual predation cannot be carried alone by women and our whisper network.” The term “whisper network” resonated with me. We tell who we can. We try to protect each other from falling victim to these abusers. Because that’s all we’ve been able to do for so long. I think most women will recognise this culture – the necessary silence cut with urgent whispers. “Don’t be alone with him.” “Don’t pick up anything he drops.” You know this story. At least one in five of us didn’t hear the whispers. We know this story.

Through all the righteous anger, weariness and, frankly, bitterness that this is how things are, one emotion emerges strongest for me: hope.

If this powerful man can be publicly denounced for his abusive behaviour, why not the others? Finally, frustratingly slowly, things are changing. People are starting to believe women when they speak out. We’re lending courage to silent victims every time we applaud the people who have come forward. And supporting victims is finally being normalised by influential people across all industries. Justice is starting to catch up with the Weinsteins, the Saviles, the predatory monsters of this world.

I hope they’re watching. The others. The abusers hiding behind their power, their money, our fading fear. I hope they see Harvey Weinstein fall and know a sea change is coming. The whisper networks are watching too, and we’ll no longer hold our tongues.

Hark! Now I hear them.

Official website for Rape Crisis England & Wales