Why We Stand By Our Bad Boys ... Even in Shakespeare

How the Bard's "problem plays" portray women willing to take back womanizers and jerks.

single girl alone in apartment
(Image credit: Charlie Schuck)

Of all of summer's traditions — watermelon-eating, picnics, Fourth of July fireworks — one of my favorites is watching free and excellent performances of Shakespeare in Central Park. (And we New Yorkers aren't the only ones privy to such high-brow no-cost entertainment. Theater companies across the country perform outdoor productions of the Bard's work, and many of them don't charge an admission fee either.)

The plays being performed in Manhattan this summer are All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. They are two of Shakespeare's "problem plays" — ones with characters whose motivations can be hard to understand, with plots that don't resolve quite as satisfyingly as his others. More to the point of this blog, they're two plays in which good women love bad men — and accept and forgive them, even after they've proven themselves to be lousy womanizers.

In All's Well, the humble daughter of a physician falls in love with a wealthy man from an elite family — and she is so besotted with him that she overlooks all his failings, even his cruel rejection of her. Part of the reason this play is a "problem" is because the typical audience member asks herself constantly what's wrong with the girl. Can't she see the dude is a good-for-nothing schmuck? Who cares if he's rich and hot and he has fancy friends — he's also a huge jackass who treats her terribly!

Measure for Measure depicts a man who might seem familiar to anyone who's been keeping up with the headlines of recent months — a government figure so drunk with power that he sexually assaults a woman and thinks he can get away with it. Watching the play on Tuesday night, it was hard for me not to think about politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger. And yet after the bad guy, Angelo, is publicly disgraced by the woman, who happens to be a nun, a loving woman is willing to take him back.

In neither play does Shakespeare give us much psychological insight into either of the female characters I describe.

So, I wonder if you have any thoughts about why they continue to love men who are so abhorrent — or about why women like Silda Spitzer and Catherine Greig stand by their fallen men. It's one thing to stick with a guy who is going through a hard time, or who has been unfairly fired or otherwise maligned by society, but it's quite another to support someone who has, say, hired a prostitute to cheat on you, or has been accused of murder. Some people are saints, sure, but not that many of us are. Do women like these have a domestic form of Stockholm Syndrome? Does starting over simply seem too hard for them?