IsabellaIsabella, like the Duke, may be viewed in different ways. She can be seen as a victim, especially a female victim of male lust and manipulation. But she can also be seen as cold and lacking in human feeling – to whom the descriptions applied to Angelo may also be pertinent: ‘a man whose blood is very snow-broth'; ‘scarce confesses that his blood flows'.

Isabella as a parallel to Angelo

From the start of the play there are indeed some similarities between Isabella and Angelo:

  • He has the reputation of a life of self-denial, hardly accepting ‘that his appetite /Is more to bread than stone.' (Act I sc iii)
  • A few lines later, in an interesting example of juxtaposition (see also Structure > Juxtaposition of scenes) we first meet Isabella as she is about to enter a nunnery; she is ‘wishing a more strict restraint' upon the lives of the sisters, the ‘votarists of Saint Clare'
  • When she first meets Angelo (in Act II sc ii), she cannot bring herself to name the sin of fornication for which Claudio is condemned, saying instead, ‘There is a vice that most I do abhor …'
  • Angelo, too, we understand from his own later comments at the end of the same scene, has never been tempted by overt sexual behaviour such as prostitution
  • As Claudio has told Lucio in Act I sc ii, Isabella is also a match for Angelo in theological and philosophical debate:
‘She hath prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse
And well she can persuade.'
  • Both of them have to learn more about themselves and their humanity by the end of the play.

Isabella and her sexuality

The desire for purity

It is difficult to know what to make of Isabella's attitude to sex. On the surface, she seems to be seeking other worldly purity, rather than having any interest in sexual pleasure:

  • She is entering a nunnery where she may never again be alone with a man
  • She states that promiscuity is a ‘vice' which fully deserves ‘the blow of justice' (Act II sc ii)
  • She is outraged by Angelo's physical demands, which she terms ‘abhorr'd pollution' (Act II sc iv)
  • She tells Claudio that she would ‘throw down' her life for his deliverance ‘as frankly as a pin,' (Act III sc i) but that her virginity is far more precious.

In reacting like this, is she simply echoing the social conditioning of the day, which elevated the significance of female purity / virginity, or does she have a dislike of the idea of physical sex so strong that it may even be seen as unnatural?

  • She ‘abhor(s) to name' what Angelo has asked of her
  • When Claudio pleads, ‘Sweet sister, let me live,' she turns on him in fury
  • Isabella's willingness for Mariana to go in her stead to Angelo (very readily accepting the Duke's assurances that it is perfectly permissible for Mariana to do what Isabella herself finds repellent and sinful) suggests that for Isabella any course of action is preferable to submitting to sexual intercourse
  • Isabella's failure to reply to the Duke's proposal of marriage at the end of the play may also be interpreted in this way, as a silence of rejection.

However, it is equally possible to see her silence as acceptance, or as reflection about the matter; theatrical producers have, over the years, chosen to suggest varied responses by her body-language.

Does Isabella's apparent rejection of her sexuality mask underlying sexual desires?

Perhaps, like Angelo, Isabella has hidden desires – hidden even from herself?

  • Even at the moment of most vehement rejection of the sexual act, Isabella uses highly charged sexual metaphor:
Were I under the terms of death,
Th'impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame. (Act II sc iv)
  • Her words here suggest that she has a full understanding of ‘longing' for a lover
  • One of her motives for asking mercy for Angelo is her recognition of her own attractiveness to him. She comments in Act V sc i:
‘I partly think
A due sincerity govern'd his deeds
Till he did look on me'

even though she knows that he had shown little ‘due sincerity' in his dealings with Mariana who is kneeling alongside her.

Isabella and the other female characters

There are only five female characters in Measure for Measure, and they seem to be carefully chosen by Shakespeare to reflect a spectrum of sexual attitudes and behaviour:

  • At one extreme is the bawd, Mistress Overdone
  • At the other is Sister Francisca, the nun
  • In what may be called the middle ground, are Juliet and Mariana:
    • Juliet has enjoyed physical love outside marriage and is paying the penalty; she also bears a child, and by the end of the play, she is married
    • Mariana, like Juliet, knows what it is to suffer for love, and by the end of the play she too experiences both sex and marriage.

It is against these other women that the audience is asked to weigh Isabella.

A distinctive female voice

Isabella is the only one who operates within a male world (unlike Francisca) and yet, unlike the others, consistently rejects the idea of:

  • sex and marriage
  • a relationship based upon money as well as love (see also Imagery and symbolism > Money and materialism). This gives a new significance to her silence when the Duke proposes marriage: she is perhaps showing that she will not accept the status which would be conferred by male dominance.

She is prepared to admit to Angelo in Act II sc iv that women are frail, and that ‘men their creation mar / In profiting by them'; but she will not accept his view that she must behave as he demands when he asserts:

Be that you are,
That is, a woman; if you be more, you're none.
If you be one – as you are well express'd
By all external warrants – show it now
By putting on the destin'd livery.

Isabella will not accept that ‘the destin'd livery' of a woman is to submit to male sexual desire.

One way of interpreting Isabella, is to see her as a woman who is well able to stand up for herself verbally, but who is looked upon as someone who can be used, by several of the men with whom she comes into contact (e.g., Claudio, Angelo and the Duke).

Isabella and mercy

Throughout most of the play Isabella maintains the strictest of moral codes; but she also expects others to do the same:

  • When pleading for Claudio in Act II sc ii, she is unwilling to promote the cause of one who has committed fornication, and has to be urged on by Lucio: ‘You are too cold.'
  • She places far greater emphasis on the soul than on the body, and, while this may show a spiritual maturity and an awareness of eternal life which is commendable, she seems incapable of understanding Claudio's desire for life on earth. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity.)
  • Her cry, ‘More than her brother is our chastity' (Act II sc iv) is felt by some readers and audiences to be outrageous.

However, through the course of the play, and led by the disguised Duke, Isabella learns to show more humanity – and to show the grace and mercy which, as she has herself said (in Act II sc ii) all humans need to be shown by God:

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once,
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be
If He, which is the top of judgement, should
But judge you as you are?
  • In Act V she has the chance to condemn the man who has so bitterly wronged her – and who has, she believes, treacherously had her brother executed – but she too can now ‘find out the remedy'. Having begun the scene calling for ‘Justice! Justice! Justice!', she ends it by pleading, on her knees, ‘Let him not die.'

Isabella's eloquence

Isabella is not only a young woman of strong views and feelings, but she is also a woman of great intelligence. Her two scenes of debate with Angelo (Act II sc ii and Act II sc iv) show her well able to engage in a battle of wits and words:

  • When Angelo dismisses her plea with, ‘I will not do it,' she responds with ‘But can you if you would?'
  • When he tells her it is ‘Too late', she refuses to accept this: ‘Too late? Why no,'
  • Each time he puts a new argument she counters it until he is forced to admit to himself: ‘She speaks, and ‘tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it.'
  • When she returns, and he makes his terrible proposal, she does not weep and beg for mercy, but instead confronts him with counter-arguments
  • Finally Isabella threatens of using her eloquence to expose him:
I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for't.
Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
Or with an outstretch'd throat I'll tell the world aloud
What man thou art.

Isabella and Christianity

When we first meet her, Isabella is about to become a nun, and Shakespeare integrates her Christian beliefs into her character; she often uses reference to her religion in her speech, especially when debating with Angelo.

For example, in Act II sc ii she refers to:

  • the divine nature of mercy, which endows rulers with ‘grace'
  • the redemption of the world by God in the form of His son, Christ, who ‘found out the remedy' when ‘all the souls that were, were forfeit once.'
  • the way that ‘the angels weep' at the wretched actions of humans
  • and she offers to reward Angelo with ‘prayers from preserved souls'.

In her second interview with Angelo in Act II sc iv, she:

  • asserts that there is a difference between God's law and man's: ‘ ‘Tis set down so in heaven but not in earth'
  • accepts that she must take responsibility for her sins:
you granting of my suit,
If that be sin, I'll make it my morn prayer
To have it added to the faults of mine,
And nothing of your answer.

Throughout much of the play Isabella is motivated by an awareness of judgement for sin and the importance of her immortal soul, but finally she is led to experience on earth the significance of the divine grace and mercy which she had stressed to Angelo in Act II sc ii.

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