Shakespeare presents Isabella as a key character in Measure for Measure. Isabella is the sister of Claudio who has been condemned to die under the power of Lord Angelo, so she is vital to the plot as she attempts to persuade Angelo to pardon her brother. Interestingly, at the beginning Isabella is joining a convent as a trainee nun. This makes her somewhat different from the other characters presented in Measure for Measure as religion primarily controls her life.
At a time when Vienna is corrupt Isabella seems the one of the few characters who has genuine moral values, making her a likeable character. Isabella is the focus of male interest in the play and both of the two males in control; the Duke and Lord Angelo are entranced by her. Angelo finds himself overwhelmed with desire for the Isabella and in the dying moments of the play, the Duke proposes marriage to her. Her dramatic impact on these two, powerful men reflects Isabella’s incorruptible charm, portraying how she can attract men with her innocence.
There are often times when Isabella’s religion is tested such as when Lord Angelo propositions her. However, his tyrannous use of power does not intimidate her and she maintains her principles. Although a modern audience, respect her moral values they cannot always understand how religion can control her to the extreme that she would rather let her brother die than for her to lose her virginity.
Isabella first appears in Act 1 scene 4 when Lucio visits her at the nunnery to tell her that her brother has been arrested for fornication. Isabella’s decision to enter a convent is never explained in the play and many could argue that she is running away from pressures of ‘real life’. Shakespeare does this to make us ask why we personally think she is religious and whether it is a cover she uses to hide her own insecurities. When Isabella asks Francisca, the nun for ‘Strict restraint’ the reader could also assumes that Isabella may be joining the convent to protect herself from men, especially at a time when Vienna is debauched and immoral. However, to the audience she also comes across as a devout and pious Christian who is spiritually and mentally focused on her religion.
Isabella’s response to the news of Claudio is far from judgemental; she seems unsurprised by the information although she does seem shocked by Angelo’s strict punishment:
“Doth he so seek his life?”
Isabella questions Lucio’s words, as she does not quite believe what he is saying. Although she does offer her practicality to the situation:
“O, let him marry her”
Unknowingly, Isabella shows a decisive response that would have resolved the problem had the Duke been in charge. However, since Lord Angelo has been promoted as ruler of Vienna he has enforced a stricter and less forgiving approach as leader.
Isabella’s speeches are short and concise to reflect human emotion in a situation such as this:
“My power? Alas, I doubt”
Shakespeare does this to show the tension and disbelief that Isabella’s character is going through. Even though Isabella doubts her power against Angelo’s she still does not abandon the idea and defends her brother, even though he has committed the crime of fornication. This is interesting, as the audience would imagine that as Isabella is a nun she would be against any forms of impiety.
After Lucio’s encouragement to defend Claudio, Isabella appears before Lord Angelo. At first, she seems rather hesitant in explaining the purpose of her appearance:
“There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;”
She soon realises that Angelo will not show her brother leniency when she begs him for her forgiveness. He replies simply, “Maiden no remedy”.
It is here that Isabella seems to give up:
“O just but severe law!
I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour”
Isabella turns to leave, this shows a weakness to her character; just because she feels as though she is losing the argument, she soon gives up. However, Lucio has a stern word, urging her to fight for her brother’s life, he explains that she is, “too cold”. These words make Isabella realise that she is the only person that can reverse her brother’s awful fate. After this, the audience start to see a new confident passionate side to Isabella’s temperament especially in the way she argues with Angelo. Isabella uses a role reversal to cleverly try to portray to Angelo the idea of judgement and the fact that her brother is being judged over a crime that “many have committed” she tries to ask him how he would feel if he was in the same predicament:
“I would tell what ’twere to be a judge,
And what a prisoner”
Angelo seems inflexible and cruel as he stays adamant that Claudio has to die:
” Your brother is forfeit of the law
And you but waste your words”
Shakespeare explores the theme of mercy and benevolence. He uses the character Isabella to test Angelo. Significantly, she is the only character other than the Duke to face up to Angelo. However, even with the seemingly most religious and moral character he still does not show compassion. Isabella argues that if Angelo had “slipped, like him ” then “he would have not been so stern”. She deliberately says this to put into perspective Angelo’s despotic lenience and that if Claudio was in the same position he would show mercy.
Whereas before Isabella felt she was losing the argument she instantly wanted to discontinue here, we see that Isabella prepares to fight for her brother’s life. Shakespeare cleverly relates back to religion, this seems convenient considering Isabella is a nun. Isabella asks Angelo what he will do when he is judged by God:
” How would you be
If He, which is the top of judgement, should
But judge you as you are”
Considering the play was written in the 17th century when people were God fearing this would have seemed extremely significant to Angelo and made him think about his power in comparison to the ultimate ruler, God. Even though Isabella uses religion to dissuade him form killing her brother Angelo will not budge:
” He must die tomorrow”
Isabella then desperately tries to persuade him to let her brother have more time for him to “prepare for death”. Her concern is ultimately based on a religious point of view, as Claudio wont have time to confess if he is condemned to die the next day. Constantly the audience sees how Isabella attempts to find reasons for her brother not to be killed. She asks Angelo,
” Who it that hath died for this offence
There’s many have committed it”
We realise that Isabella is becoming desperate and having been accused of being “too cold” earlier, we now genuinely believe that she will do anything for her brother Claudio. Angelo argues that he needs to withhold laws for the sake of Vienna. He believes that he is showing pity by his strong control of justice. This provokes Isabella and the audience see her break out into a powerful and emotional rage:
” O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength. But it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.”
Here Isabella’s language is powerfully emotive as, rhetorically, she displays how Angelo exploits his power oppressively. Shakespeare uses imagery to dramatically enhance the sheer abhorrence Isabella has for Angelo. The dramatic use of, “O” emphasises Isabella’s disobedience towards her leader. She argues that even though Angelo has power it is no good to him as great leaders show mercy. Constantly, throughout this scene Isabella refers to religious references from the bible. To the audience this makes her appear more loyal to the church and a more moral and unimpeachable person then any other character that we have come across so far. Soon the audience begins to notice that Isabella is having an effect on Lord Angelo, however, it is not necessarily one of mercy and forgiveness for her brother:
“She speaks, and ’tis such sense. That my sense breeds with it- Fare you well”
Here Angelo speaks aside and we begin to notice how he is really feeling towards Isabella’s visit. We even see that he has come to the realisation that he does not have the right to condemn her brother. This strongly illustrates how Isabella’s innocence and sheer determination can have affect on other characters. The word “sense” suggests Isabella’s influential argument as well as implying a sexual urge that Angelo feels for her. In her last attempt to save, her brother from execution is bribery. Instantly Angelo sees this as a sexual offer:
“Ay with such gifts that heaven should hare with you”
Although we do not suspect that Isabella deliberately indicates that she will bribe him with sex, the audience may speculate that here she shows her illicit sexuality in where she purposely hints at sex. However, we must not put past the idea that Angelo is clearly already sexually aroused and may have misunderstood her because of this. In his final soliloquy, the audience are confirmed on their speculation towards Angelo’s lust for Isabella. Interestingly he feels that he is tempted by a “cunning enemy”, meaning the devil. This is unusual considering Isabella is a nun and therefore is closer to God. This makes us consider whether there is more to Isabella than first imagined and if she has the ability to tempt some one who is primarily focused on power and leadership. We wonder if Isabella is innocently tempting Angelo or whether in fact she knows the effect she has on men and she cunningly tries to use it to get her own way. Although most likely is the former reason it is still something to bear in mind as it is an idea Shakespeare enforces by the staged affect she has on Angelo:
“What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again?”
Here we notice Angelo’s sheer confusion and it is outlandish for a character that is seen to be controlling and resolute to be completely overcome with emotion and uncertainty. This again outlines Isabella’s affect on men and how she can play with the emotions of the most powerful male role in the play, as yet.
Isabella’s next appearance in the play is when she visits Angelo. At the beginning of Act 2 scene 4, we notice Angelo agonising over his desire for Isabella. Here we see his struggle between physical yearning and self-restraint, as he is trying to pray. When Isabella is announced by the servant Angelo goes into a state of panic as he tries to deal with his feelings:
Why does my blood thus muster to my heart”
Isabella asks Angelo what he wants from her. He says aside how he wants her to “please” him by knowing that he wants her sexually. He tells Isabella that Claudio “cannot live” but in the sense that all people must die. He does imply that Isabella can extend his life although he will eventually die under Angelo’s sentence. Angelo gives her a choice for her brother’s future, either for him to die under “the most just law” or instead Isabella can give up her body to “such sweet uncleanness”, meaning that she could have sex with him to reverse his sentence. However, Isabella does not seem to understand Angelo as she continues to beg for Claudio’s life. Angelo realises that Isabella has misunderstood him. This portrays Isabella’s virtuousness, as she does not understand Angelo’s proposal. She engages an argument over whether it is a sin or charity to commit a sin to save her brother:
” That I do beg his life, if it be sin”
This makes the scene incredibly dramatic for the audience, as they know exactly what sin Angelo wants Isabella to commit. Angelo eventually realises that Isabella does not understand his proposition he tells her that he will “speak more gross” so that she can understand. Angelo explains to her that she can save her brother by offering her body to him. Isabella’s response is turbulent and obstinate as she argues that her brother’s death is a small price to pay instead of eternal damnation. The imagery to show her sheer contempt towards the situation suggests sex and is incredibly ironic considering that she is arguing to keep her virginity:
” And strip myself to death as to a bed”
Even though she tries to act honourably, the audience still recognises her sexual urges and some critics even say that she shows a subconscious eroticism by her sexual implication. Sardonically Angelo tempts Isabella to commit the same crime as her brother. However, Isabella’s blunt refusal displays her purity, although it could also show that she is frightened of sex. To a modern audience many would find this unrealistic, as she is more concerned with her virtue than her brother’s life. Many critics would feel that she is heartless and selfish. Conversely, in the period that Measure for Measure was set people were ultimately concerned for their soles as they lived in fear of God. As Isabella is becoming a nun she is devoted to her religion and feels that is better that her “brother died at once” than it is for her to “die forever”. Although a modern audience may not agree with what she is doing, they still respect her for her integrity and sincerity.
At the point when Angelo declares that he “loves” Juliet she immediately seems outraged and replies,
“My brother did love Juliet”
Here she realises that Angelo is attempting the same crime as Claudio, her tone of voice suggests her fury and hatred for Angelo as she shows his hypocrisy:
” And you tell me that he shall die for’t”
Isabella threatens to “tell the world” of his malicious offence. Here we see Isabella takes control as she for one moment thinks that she has the upper hand on her opposition. Sadly, for her he replies calmly,
” Who will believe thee, Isabel?”
Here she is brought back to reality as she realises that she has no chance of proving what Angelo has done and she admits her weakness. Isabella’s only soliloquy in the play reflects the predicament she is in. She knows that fornication is a mortal sin and will affect her life completely as it has everlasting consequences. We as the reader can see her distress by Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical “O”. We can interpret from her language that she is in an emotional dilemma:
“Twenty heads…on twenty bloody blocks”
Her hyperbolic speech conveys her emotion and distress she is going through. However, she shows clearly her decision,
“Isabel live chaste, and brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity”
Here she undoubtedly confirms that she loves her brother dearly, but loves God more. She is completely confident that her brother will understand the situation she is in. In the last two lines, Shakespeare deliberately uses assonance to create a more memorable ending to Isabella’s soliloquy:
” I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.”
This emphasises her dramatic decision and almost selfishly shows how Isabella now needs to go and prepare her brother for death.
Shakespeare presents Isabella as a complex and intricate character who, although seems incredibly resolute towards religion at times she noticeably often hints at sex. This enforces ambiguity to her character and the audience immediately considers whether she uses religion as a mask to hide her sexual desires because she is afraid of men and relationships. She is clearly devoted morally and will not be tempted by Angelo even to save her brother’s life. The audience are often divided over their conclusions of whether she is a devout Christian who is sincerely devoted to what she believes in, or a frightened young woman who is scared of sexual relationships.
Although we never find out which of these is Isabella’s true character we do know that Isabella also goes on to tempt the Duke. Again, this could be through her innocence; however it seems rather coincidental that two men of great power fall for her entirely because of this and we are led to believe that she subconsciously flirts to get her own way. Isabella’s character is rarely on her own and Shakespeare uses her to interact with other characters to allow for comparison. This is because she is so different due to her religious morals and high standards.
Her character is used as a device to provide drama to the plot, as she is incredibly passionate over issues that she believes in. Shakespeare cleverly uses Isabella in the first half to set up the audience for the emotional roller coaster in the second half of the play. She has a prevailing affect on the play as a whole as she, like the Duke are able to manipulate people. It may be said that she is the focus of the play as she is the major female character that is central to the leading male characters, the Duke, Angelo and Claudio.
At times, she controls all of them. This not only shows her influence on the male characters but also shows that in fact it is she who has real control over the play, not the Duke as Isabella manages to manipulate him emotionally. At the end of the play, the audience believes that the Duke has conclusively tested all the characters, and he does to a certain extent. However, it is Isabella who the reader presumes, unknowingly is the major puppeteer for the plot. Shakespeare uses the seemingly most innocent character to have the most control.