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Shakespeare’s Presentation of Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure’

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Isabella, a nun and sister of Claudio, plays a key role in Measure for Measure. All of the major events that occur in the plot are in some way linked to her. For example she is instrumental in saving Claudio’s life when he is found to have made Juliet pregnant, this leads to her involvement with the other major characters. I chose to write my essay on her as in preliminary work I found her a very interesting and influential character. She seems to bring a lot to the play in the sense that she is really the only female lead character, and she seems to be the most morally upright and genuine individual in the play.

The first time Shakespeare introduces her is in the convent in Act 1 Scene 4, that she is about to enter, probably for the rest of her life. This initially shows us that her faith is very strong, as she has pledged her life to God and the church. She also displays how devout she is when talking to the head nun; she asks, “have you nuns’ no further privileges? ” this is Isabella asking for the rules to be stricter. You can see right from the outset that Shakespeare presents her a very strong and single-minded character. Her character is shown to be very loyal to her brother, Claudio.

She initially doubts her power to change Angelo’s mind about the execution, but Lucio skilfully persuades her by saying “our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt”. She agrees, and makes preparations to speak with Angelo. This first impression of Isabella in Act 1 Scene 4 is representative of how we see her throughout the play; a strong-willed and loyal character. It is because of this that I believe the audience would promptly warm to her, her character is such that she is instantly likeable; denoting that you can easily forgive her for any shortcomings.

Three themes that go together when looking at the character of Isabella are: blackmail, power of persuasion and her obstinacy. These can be analysed very well in the scenes where she is speaking to Angelo, namely, Act 2 Scenes 2 and 4. Isabella’s ‘mission’ is to persuade Angelo to stop Claudio’s execution; she uses her natural skills of reasoning and persuasion to attempt this. This is a quality that Shakespeare has given her to make the audience sympathise with her and perhaps be more aware of her position; because she tries so hard and does so well but it eventually gets her nowhere.

Her first argument is to condemn Claudio for his fornication and simply to ask Angelo to be lenient and pardon him. “There is a vice that most I do abhor… ” it seems that this is not strong enough, so her next ploy is try and surreptitiously bribe Angelo, she says that “I do think that you might pardon him, and neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy. ” Meaning no one will think badly of him for it. All through this scene she is using different means to make him amend his decision. She tries to make Angelo empathise with Claudio by making him imagine what it would be like if the situation were reversed. How would you be if he, which is the top of judgement, should be judge you as you are? ” Angelo continues to refuse her requests and even tries to pass the blame, “it is the law, not I, condemn your brother. ” This is a good example of how Isabella’s raw passion and emotion about the subject compares to Angelo’s cowardly approach; all the time defending himself and making excuses for the sentence.

Lucio and the Provost begin to see that Isabella is gradually wearing down Angelo, they encourage her by saying, “Thou art in the right girl; more of that. At this time Isabella maybe needs some encouragement as she has been endeavouring to break Angelo for some time. Spurned on by this new confidence she asks Angelo to look at his conscience, she asks if his conviction of Claudio makes him feel any sort of guilt. “Go to your bosom knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know. ” This definitely seems to affect Angelo, as his aside suggests, “She speaks, and ’tis such sense. ” Here you can see the beginnings of the attraction of Angelo to Isabella; he admires her linguistic skills and eloquence, also her physical beauty.

Isabella says that she will return the next day to “bribe” Angelo, but he, in his impassioned state misunderstands this to mean she will give her body to him, hence the line “How! Bribe me? ” Isabella is perhaps being quite nai?? ve here, not to pick up on the fact that she was implying sex for Claudio’s salvation. But it is not important as she now has another chance to plead with Angelo and more time to realise his despicable intentions. Here the audience would be feeling sympathy towards Isabella, simply for the lack of success in her ardent attempts to save Claudio from death.

Also I would assume that they are also developing a dislike for Angelo due to his hypocrisy and general unpleasantness towards Isabella and Claudio. Although I shall deal with the subject of soliloquies later, now is a suitable time to include some analysis of Angelo’s personal reflections. Although he is not part of my essay title, Angelo does bear some significance in examining Shakespeare’s presentation of Isabella. From his soliloquies we can see the effect that Isabella has upon him, the ways in which her attempts to sway Angelo do and do not work.

At the end of Act 2 scene 2, this passage reveals a great deal about the way Angelo has reacted to Isabella, his first line “From thee: even from thy virtue! ” He needs to be saved from Isabella, from her virtue that has aroused him to a great extent. All through this soliloquy he speaks in short sentences that all show his confusion as to why he feels this attraction and the morals behind it. A lot of these are to do with how Isabella’s virtue is corrupting his own strict moral code. He touches upon the subject of letting Claudio live, “O, let her brother live!

Thieves for their robbery have authority, when judges steal themselves” here he is trying to convince himself that it would be the right thing to do, as opposed to merely doing it to sleep with Isabella. He simply does not understand why these emotions have surfaced; he says that she aroused him more that a prostitute ever has. The final line shows conclusively that these feelings are new to him and he previously had no knowledge of how they arose, he says “When men were fond, I smiled, and wondered how. ”

Act 2 Scene 4 is the second meeting between Angelo and Isabella; this is a very important scene, as it is where Isabella finally becomes aware of Angelo’s devious plan to de-flower her in return for Claudio’s life. The opening lines of this scene are occupied by yet another of Angelo’s soliloquies, this again is important to learn of how Isabella’s persuasion has been working. The entire passage is based upon the fact that he is incredibly confused about new feelings that have arisen for Isabella.

There are many ways in which he expresses this, “I think and pray to several subjects” meaning that he cannot concentrate on the task at hand. Heaven hath my empty words”, means that although he is praying, the words have no purpose. When Isabella is announced by the Servant, Angelo is overwhelmed by how anxious he is of seeing her again. “O heavens, why does my blood thus muster to my heart”. So we assume that due to his strong feelings for Isabella, Angelo will not behave as normal but try and press upon her the trade of sex for Claudio’s life that was touched upon in Act 2 Scene 2. The very first thing that Isabella says instantly draws you to the fact that she has no idea of Angelo’s intentions. “I come to know your pleasure.

This is an unintentionally provocative comment, because Angelo’s ‘pleasure’ would be to engage in sexual relations with her. Throughout this scene, Isabella is arguing with Angelo hypothetically about how it is wrong to commit a sin to save someone’s life; not realising that she is arguing to save her own soul. I believe that the reason why Shakespeare made Isabella not recognise Angelo’s implications is because he presents her as so virtuous and pure. Her mind would not jump to those kinds of conclusions straight away; this in turn strengthens the audience’s view of her as a victim of Angelo’s corrupt nature.

An excellent example of Isabella’s innocence is after Angelo says, “to redeem him, give up your body to such sweet uncleanness”. To this blatant offer of a sexual exchange she answers “I had rather give my body than my soul. ” These types of retaliations will no doubt serve to make Angelo more attracted to her and to make his proposition more obvious. Later in the scene Angelo asks her if she would give up her body to save Claudio, she replies “Better it were a brother died at once, than that a sister, by redeeming him, should die for ever.

This shows the audience what she would supposedly do in such a situation; in other words not give herself, as it would mean eternal damnation. As it is reasonably clear what Angelo is to suggest, it will be interesting for them to see what her actual reaction will be. Whether she will stick to her morals as proposed, or be willing to do such a thing to save Claudio. I think that the audience’s decision at this point would be undecided; they have seen how devout she is. However she has done a lot to attempt to save him; so the family bond may come first.

Shakespeare deliberately creates this remarkably difficult choice, to make the audience empathise with Isabella and condemn Angelo. Angelo then says that her not attempting to save Claudio is a sin in itself, Isabella reinforces the fact that her salvation is of the utmost importance. “Lawful mercy is nothing kin to foul redemption. ” She argues this point for approximately a hundred lines, until she finally realises Angelo’s true intentions. “He shall not (die), Isabel, if you give me love. ” This disgusts Isabella; she accuses him of hypocrisy and threatens to expose him to the city. Sign me a present pardon for my brother, or… I’ll tell the world aloud what a man thou art. ”

This shows her incredible strength of character; she is freely threatening a man in a powerful position, which is not typical of the woman of that day. Angelo leaves her with a resounding speech on how his esteemed reputation will mean that no-one would believe her, “my false o’erweighs your true. ” Along with the fact that if she does not succumb to his desire then “he (Claudio) must not only die the death, but thy unkindness shall his death draw out to lingering sufferance. Soliloquies play a vital part in the analysis of any character; they give you an insight into what kind of people the playwright intended them to be. Isabella has only one, at the very end of Act 2 Scene 4.

This is very cleverly placed directly after the moment where Angelo proposes that she sleep with him; therefore in this soliloquy we see her reaction to this scandalous request. She is initially very confused and shocked at Angelo. “to whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who should believe me? This is not really consistent with Isabella’s character as she seems to be presented as weaker then usual, but perhaps Shakespeare wanted to show that even the strongest of people are sometimes in weak positions.

She talks badly of Angelo and herself for being led into this difficult position. Finally she decides to go and tell Claudio of the predicament that she faces, convincing herself that he would quite readily die to save her virginity. “That he had twenty heads… he’d yield them up before his sister should her body stoop. She even believes that his life is so unimportant compared to her chastity, “more than our brother is our chastity” This shows arrogance and naivety. She assumes that her honour is more important than his life.

Even if it is the case that he is willing to die for her eternal salvation, she should not presume that he would. Here Shakespeare is showing us a side of Isabella that the audience may not like, perhaps a more insensitive and self-seeking side. By the end of the soliloquy she has decided to “fit his mind for death” after she has told him of Angelo’s terrible plan.

Act 3 Scene 1 involves Isabella telling Claudio of Angelo’s proposal, as well as the Duke making plans to expose Angelo. Isabella starts by telling Claudio that there is a way to save him, but one that would mean horrendous repercussions, bringing total damnation upon him. “such a remedy as, to save a head, to cleave a heart in twain. ” Together with “there is a devilish mercy in the judge, if you’ll implore it, that will free your life, but fetter you till death. ” Isabella skilfully glorifies the idea of death before telling Claudio of the request to make her decision seem more plausible.

This is a very devious technique and one that the audience may not like; she is not lying but holding back certain facts to make the revelation seem less severe. When she finally poses Angelo’s plan Claudio is suitably disgusted, “Thou shalt not do’t. ” This is exactly what Isabella planned. It seems that after this initial shock, Claudio begins to fear death and contemplates Isabella giving herself to Angelo. He describes his idea of hell in an attempt to sway Isabella, but like before she shows just how strong her morals are and ignores his pleas.

This is clearly a very difficult time for Isabella and her sedate and calculated exterior cracks when Claudio says “What sin you do to save a brother’s life, nature dispenses with the deed so far that it becomes a virtue. ” This is very similar to Angelo’s argument and Isabella is extremely annoyed at him, “o, you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch! ” It seems that the stress of having to decide between her faith and her family became too much. She is possibly overdoes it a little when she says “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death. At this point the audience will be feeling quite angry at Isabella’s lack of compassion for her brother.

However they will understand that her faith is very important, as at that period in history most people believed that if they sinned then eternal damnation would be their punishment. The Duke takes Isabella aside and tells her of his plan to frame Angelo using Mariana in place of her. After telling Isabella how callous Angelo was towards Mariana, her passionate dislike of Angelo is heightened.

“What corruption in this life, that it will let this man live. She asks the Duke to explain the plan which she is more than happy to execute, due to her new sympathy for Mariana. “The image of it gives me content already, and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection. ” Act 5 Scene 1 is the final scene of the play in which after much arguing and bickering the Friar is revealed as the Duke and everyone is suitably punished, pardoned and married. Isabella plays a great part in this by her attempts to persuade the Duke to condemn Angelo for his crimes. She first speaks to make her plea.

Then the Duke suggests that she complain to Angelo, this is not received warmly, “O worthy Duke, you bid me seek redemption of the devil. ” Angelo tells the Duke not to listen to her as she “will speak most bitterly and strange. ” Isabella has her say and accuses Angelo of all the crimes that he is guilty for. She uses repetition to reinforce her statement to the Duke. “That Angelo’s forsworn, is it not strange? That Angelo’s a murderer, is it not strange? That Angelo is an adulterous thief, a hypocrite, a virgin-violator, is it not strange, and strange? ” The Duke dismisses her, saying that she is mad.

Isabella will no doubt be annoyed at the fact that the Duke does not believe her, especially as he knows her to be honest. Regardless of what the Duke says she carries on with her impassioned account of what happened with Angelo. She continues to use emotive language and her natural speaking skills to persuade the Duke that Angelo is not all that he seems to be. “He would not, but by gift of my chaste body to his concupiscible intemperate lust, release my brother. ” The Duke does not believe her and accuses her of lying, so Isabella is taken away by a guard to be imprisoned.

At this point both Isabella and the audience would be feeling great anger at the Duke for his mistrust; she was pleading her case as honestly and truthfully as she could, yet it yielded no reward. The audience would feel very sympathetic towards her, as they have seen all she has gone through. Shakespeare has done this to evoke such a response in the viewer. All through the play they are feeling this sympathy and compassion towards Isabella. When Isabella appears next she does something that proves without a doubt just how strong her faith is, it is such a selfless act that goes against every human instinct.

The Duke has demanded Angelo’s life for Claudio’s death, and Mariana is protesting against this saying “best men are moulded out of faults. ” She asks Isabella to plead with her, and she does so. Isabella asks the Duke to “look upon this man condemned (Angelo) as if my brother lived. ” All of her previous efforts to save Claudio’s life and attain justice for his death are seemingly forgotten, and she is striving to save him. Here the audience will have the utmost admiration for Isabella; she has done something that is the sign of a true Christian and a good, forgiving person.

Throughout the play Isabella has been presented as a very strong and intransigent female character, but along with that Shakespeare also made her human and susceptible to manipulation by men in strong positions of power. Apart from the incidents with Angelo that have been dealt with, the first good example of this is in Act 4 Scene 3. Isabella is seeking news of Claudio’s pardon from the Duke; he uses his position of power as a holy man to lie to Isabella, he believes this will make her happier when she discovers that Claudio is alive.

But I will keep her ignorant of her good, to make her heavenly comforts of despair when it is least expected. ” He tells her that Claudio has been released from the world. I believe that his other reason for doing this is to make her hatred towards Angelo grow, meaning that she will argue her case more forcibly in the final chapter. The audience would no doubt feel that this is very unfair to Isabella, as she is the innocent victim in the Duke’s scheme. She is quite simply being used.

Shakespeare’s reasons for doing this are possibly to show that everyone is prone to being influenced and treated unfairly by people in power, and that this can happen to even the most strong-minded people. Shakespeare presents Isabella as a very strong female character, her morally upright nature and virtuous disposition make it easy to sympathise and empathise with her. The fact that her battles to save her brother are so fruitless and her innocence and piety are exploited by Angelo evokes yet more empathy from the audience.

I would argue that she is the most fascinating character in ‘Measure for Measure’. All her decisions made are torn between faith and family, the most difficult of these being the death of Claudio versus her own eternal salvation. It is the emotional turmoil therein that is so intriguing about her character, this ‘extra dimension’ to her fabricated personality that makes her seem a lot more human than other characters. In Isabella, Shakespeare has created a latter-day feminist. A woman who is not bound by the restraints of a male dominated society, but freely expresses her opinions and argues them forcibly.

However, despite the strength of her character, most men in the play attempt to manipulate her to their own means. Her ultimate acceptance or rejection of the Duke is a clever device used by Shakespeare to leave things ‘open’. This lets us, the audience, make up our own mind as to which path she will choose, based upon our interpretation of her character throughout the play. The union of all these elements create a picture Isabella, perhaps one of the most genuine and interesting characters Shakespeare created.

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