Shakespeare’s Words Repurposed In An Inspiring Short Film About Rape Culture

“Was It Rape, Then?” looks beyond strict conceptions of sexual abuse.

A woman jolts awake, and for a moment she’s disoriented. She gathers up her clothes, and hears a shower running, presumably the morning sounds of a partner she’s not happy to see.

“Let me be severe to myself, but not unjust,” she says, words borrowed from a play called “Double Falsehood,” which is attributed to William Shakespeare by some scholars. “Was it a rape, then?”

It’s the opening scene to a short and potent film produced by Thaddeus Shafer, Kari Lee Cartwright and Charissa J. Adams. Called “Was It Rape, Then?”, the story borrows lines from Shakespeare’s plays to recreate the multitude of dire experiences that can arise from rape culture.

The short film ― adapted from an onstage performance by Charissa J. Adams for a burlesque show called “Cabaret Consensual” ― follows several women as they navigate social situations and private thoughts about non-consensual sex. Over the course of the film, a chorus of women questions the injustices done against them, but go on to turn their pain into personal triumph.

Early lines lament “what men daily do,” but as the film progresses, its heroines find it in them to “fight,” “with hearts more proof than shields.”

“Shakespeare played with context all the time ― double meaning, double thoughts, double lives. When we hear it live, we’re always halfway firmly rooted to the present moment onstage, and halfway floating in an imagined reality,” Shafer told HuffPost in an interview. “Flipping genders is not unusual in Shakespeare [...] It’s an especially powerful device when you can pull women into leading the rousing, militant speeches against a mortal enemy. We wanted to portray the fight of sexual assault survivors as, yes, an internal one, but also an external real battle for survival and autonomy, for truth and dignity.”

Shafer went on to explain that the aim of the short film is to explore the nuanced range of experiences that can fall under the descriptor of “rape.”

“We are so locked into our strict definitions in this culture, so much so that it can be very difficult to be expressive with words without painting yourself into a corner. ‘Rape’ is one of those words, and we wanted to find a way to let rape, and the question of rape, permeate without boundaries and without needing to divide our protagonists legalistically,” Shafer said. “They are all a part of one fight.”

Cartwright echoed that idea, and elaborated on it. She hopes that project will make viewers feel “connected, empowered, emboldened and energized.” She also hopes the film will generate empathy for assault survivors, and to look beyond the “harsh line between rape/not rape.”

“This has been happening for millennia, not just in the situations portrayed in our 3.5 minutes,” Cartwright said. “We also stand in solidarity with the countless forms of sexual violence all over the world, crossing all class and cultural boundaries, overt and subtle, whether in schools, or the military or minority communities.”

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website

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