Main Menu - HomePage - The Play

Measuring Isabella From Within
Clare Marie Wall

"But why doesn't Isabella just sleep with Angelo? What's the big deal?" audience members asked during intermission, backstage with the cast and in the reviews of our Measure for Measure. "Isn't a man's life more important than one little sexual act?" With similar disapproval, critics in general introductions to the play judge Isabella as "a narrow minded but passionate girl afflicted with an irrational terror of sex" (Barton, 546), "a young, immature woman" demonstrating "moral absurdity and cruelty" (Nicholls, 478), whose actions are scarcely defensible. Now, such responses bother me, not as part of a campaign to rehabilitate Shakespeare's heroines (Jameson did that beautifully in 1879.) Or because the abuses of power, specifically sexual power, which the play reveals continue to be our issues. Rather, they bother me because I have had occasion to take such put downs personally. In a Fresno production of Measure for Measure in 1991, I played Isabella, and I know--Measure is a play about a woman on her knees. And it bothers me that her position, socially, morally and physically, still touches so few sympathies.

Because of the current success of theatrical criticism in Shakespeare studies, my personal approach to Isabella should not surprise you. Preparing and playing a Shakespearean role onstage leads to a kind of understanding of that character that no other activity can match. When we professors encourage our Shakespeare students to work toward an interpretation of a play by imagining how they might play various roles, we are approaching that kind of understanding. When we ask them to view various productions, or read about the performances of different actors in the same role, we add to their sense of what the play means "from within." But especially when we ask them to read a scene aloud, or, even better, to prepare an in class performance, they learn something of what Shakespearean actors know: the full motivations and actions, thought, and feelings of an individual character. From those details, even amateur actors learn more about the conflicts and resolutions of the whole play.

Therefore, in order to balance the still frequent condemnation of Isabella's thoughts and actions, I want to share with you some of the discoveries I made by being Isabella for sixteen performances at the Courtyard Shakespeare Festival in the summer and fall of 1991. Certainly Isabella is no saint (as Schlegel, Ruskin and Northrop Frye believe), nor need we call Shakespeare a feminist in his attitude toward her. Yet I found that the script does allow for an Isabella of greater richness than we usually see reflected in print. From within, I measured her differently.

We often hear that Isabella is a rigid absolutist, particularly in her attitude toward sexual activity outside marriage. But beginning at the beginning, I found that Isabella is a humorous, tolerant wit. Now I imagine that those adjectives surprise you, but let me move through her first scene, taking into account the choices our director Ronnie Larson, the other actors and I made. In Act I scene iv, I was blocked to enter quietly, head down, and then suddenly see the Duke (disguised in his monk's habit) who was still center stage after his soliloquy. I paused, while our Duke awkwardly and hesitantly blessed me with the sign of the cross. I smiled and shook my head slightly, amused at his evident bashfulness, thinking "Who is this strange brother?" This moment gave me a sense of calm certainty--I knew what I was doing in this convent and in a habit, even if he didn't. I passed downstage of him as he exited, unfurled a large white cloth on the stage as a symbolic altar, and kneeled on it, beginning an audible rosary, "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee."

Our Lucio, entering from the audience, saw me praying and knelt down beside me for his line, "Hail, virgin, if you be." I rose at his unexpected voice, drawing back but not running away as he slapped me behind to pun on the line "those cheek roses / Proclaim you are no less." He continued to come on to me, grabbing my hand and sliding closer. I backed up one step, then stopped, keeping him firmly at arm's length on "I now must make you know / I am that Isabella and his sister," I was not afraid of him, just properly keeping him at a distance. What was important was finding out about my "unhappy brother." We actors had decided that Claudio had a history of getting in trouble and asking his older sister to get him out of it, so I was not really surprised to hear he was in trouble again. That he was in prison was a bit much, but for getting someone with child? Oh really! For me, Isabella's "Sir, make me not your story," means "Don't try to fool me why imprison someone for that?" I also firmly scorned Lucio's flattery when he said, I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted."' And we found that the audience's laughs at Lucio's "full tilth and husbandry" description of Juliet's pregnancy. I didn't need that delicate euphemism. My response "Someone with child by hirn?' was a mocking, deadpan translation of his elaborate metaphors, not a slow on the uptake reply. I knew instantly who must be pregnant, was not shocked, but simply suggested that the whole affair could be settled, and even come to good, if Claudio were to marry Juliet immediately. The situation was more complicated, of course, and I agreed to go to Angelo and use my own methods, not Lucio's stereotyped female begging-on-my-knees, to save my brother's life. "Išll see what I can do," with words, not wiles. In this scene, instead of a "narrow minded girl," I discovered Isabella to be a woman who has happily found her own vocation, yet who is unfazed and even amused by sexually aggressive Lucio; who is willing once again to try to help her brother, yet who believes that her "power," which Lucio and Claudio see as her sexual attractiveness, should not be used to manipulate another: instead, she will use the power of wit and words to save her brother's life. She never condemns the sexual act for others, nor sees the resulting pregnancy as evil, since she knows Claudio and Juliet have a history of affection. For herself, however, she has simply chosen a different life, and I found no signs of unhealthy repression in her language or actions.

You'll note that the often cited opening lines of Shakespeare's script, "And have you nuns no farther privileges?" were cut. Frankly, we didn't have the personnel for another nun, though I was sorry not to explore Isabella's motivations for asking. I have often wondered whether her quick reply to Francesca isn't a quick on the uptake self-defense instead of a revelation of true ascetic fervor. She may honestly wonder whether there aren't more liberties. Finding that Francesca questions her back, she offers an ingratiating praise of the order, of Francesca's choice, and a rationalization of her own. After all, she later admits, "to have what we would have, we speak not what we mean." She doesn't want to make a bad first impression, so has to use her considerable wit to get past her social gaffe. Why must we believe she is unhealthily repressive?

In the pleading scene with Angelo, Act II scene ii, I continued to find that tolerance of others' different beliefs is Isabella's natural impulse. She announces that she "abhors" a "vice" (without specifying whether it is fornication). But then she is known as a persuasive speaker. To get on the right side of the judge, she echoes his position. Any abstractions about a "vice" however immediately lead to the need for mercy when an actual human being--her brother--is condemned for it. Like Portia, Isabella finds her voice to plead passionately and directly for tolerance and for empathy (after Lucio's initial prompting).

Freed of all self-consciousness by the intense need to change Angelo's mind, I strode around the stage, stopping him from leaving by running to him and blocking his way, sitting in his own chair on "I would to heaven I had your potency, / And you were Isabel!" kneeling finally on "Spare him, spare him!" (an incomplete verse line that calls for a major action). Also I found a self-possessed humor on "Who is it that hath died for this offence? / There's many have committed it," as I indicated that Lucio was clearly one of those habitual offenders. As the audience laughed, Lucio wryly agreed. Soon, my pleading with Angelo changed to a pointed scorn of his tyrannical power and his lack of empathy, until I sat at Angelo's side arguing as with a peer that he should find a shared sense of human frailty which would make him a better judge and a better man. And I thought I had done so at the end of the scene, and nearly danced with relief as I exited.

Because of Isabella's expectation that Angelo, like herself is an honest and generous person, Act II scene iv was a shocking and frightening one. I used the common experience of having an apparently collegial conversation turn into harassment to play the scene. In rehearsal, we found that the surface of the scene is civilized: we two sat in the same formal chairs from II. ii., and debated various hypothetical situations. Of course, the audience is cognizant of Angelo's motives, and Angelo's asides keep the tension between his desires and Isabella's obliviousness clear. But as Isabella, I didn't find an unusually naive ignorance or innocence in my response. Why ever would I expect a middle aged deputy of the state to attempt rape? Confusingly, each time I spoke with one clear meaning, Angelo muddied the waters.

As in the previous scene, I found that the moments when Isabella's speeches become simple, almost monosyllabic, the central issues of the scene are revealed. She states clearly that while she would die to save a brother's life, the violation of her soul which would come in the shame of yielding her body to another's lust is too great a price to pay.

Better it were a brother died at once.
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever. (II. iv. 106-109)

That certainly is an absolute statement. But her religious convictions (which so many audience members seem to quickly discount) as well as the more contemporary belief that a woman has a right to make choices about what she will do with her own body and soul, are firm. Why should we want to see her compound one error--her brother's actions--with another? Others she does not condemn, but uses and advises mercy. For herself, however, she dares to assert autonomy, and a faith that honor is as important as a brother's life. That stance seems to gall some viewers even today. But from within, I found it understandable, reasonable, admirable.

One driving force in Isabella which I have not seen discussed often in criticism of the play is her enormous sympathy for the other women in the play. In her first scene, she speaks of Juliet as her "cousin," in other words as a kinswoman. Lucio may be titillated by the idea of Claudio getting a cousin pregnant, but Isabella firmly explains that they are cousins because of the affection formed in their schooldays. Like Celia and Rosalind, Hermia and Helena, or Emilia and Desdemona, Isabella and Juliet are presented as examples of admirable female friendship. It is true that in Measure these two are never seen together until possibly in the last scene, if Juliet is brought on (with child) for a reunion with Claudio. Throughout the play, however, Isabella's strong sense of sisterhood is revealed, not just for the nun Francesca and the Mother Superior of her order, but more actively in her concern for Juliet, Mariana, Kate Keepdown and herself. I was particularly pleased in Act V scene i that Lucio, forced though he be, will marry the mother of his child for their sakes, if not for Lucio's. Though I had never particularly noticed such moments when reading or seeing the play, I found them crucial when playing the role.

Near the end of Act II scene iv, the subject of women's frailty arises between Isabella and Angelo. Following a generalized confession of male frailty, Angelo comments pointedly, "Nay, women are frail too." Isabella replies:

Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves,
Which are as easy broke as they make forms.
Women? Help, heaven! Men their creation mar
In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times frail;
For we are soft as our complexions are,
And credulous to false prints. (II. iv. 124 129)

A friend of mine commented after the show one night, "I couldn't believe those words were coming out of your lips." She probably meant that such a confirmation of stereotypical female frailty seemed inappropriate from a strong Isabella. Thus I realized that during that performance, my intention in the speech had unfortunately not been made clear. For I believe that while Isabella uses the familiar derogatory image of women looking narcissistically into mirrors, she alters the expected Renaissance moral about women's inconstancy and vanity in order to speak against men's cruelty. As the glasses can be broken, so can the reflected forms: as the women's forms can be broken, so can their bodies and spirits, society being what it is. When men try to "profit" by women, to use them as sexual objects as in the Vienna of brothels and tap houses or even to gain considerable dowries from them (as Claudio and Angelo both try to do), then their own male likeness to God is marred, is destroyed, even as they destroy the women's God image. Additionally, when Isabella agrees that women are "soft," she agrees that women are likely to believe the falsehoods of men, but they do so out of a natural generosity of spirit, not a natural ignorance. A misogynist might read the speech as confirming women's moral inferiority, I found it to reflect a consciousness of women's inferior social position and what it costs them.

The end of the scene immediately illustrates--vividly--what Isabella means in that speech. Women are open to attack. I found myself trying to defend myself against Angelo, first with words, and then with physical retreat, but I was finally thrown to the ground by the furious, powerful man. Afraid to rise, thinking I could at least defend myself if I remained in a tight fetal crouch, I finally heard him going. Slowly, still on the ground, I turned to the audience and asked the bitter, still contemporary question, "To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?" (170-71). In this soliloquy --the only one in the role--I found true horror at the sense of helplessness, of isolation, and at the realization that the powerful can control others without mercy. I felt less numb than enraged at the injustice--the imagery of mouths, tongues, curtsies, hooks and appetite is visceral, anguished. In the turmoil, my sudden thought of Claudio was a comfort: I wasn't alone after all! My desperate expectation that my brother would never ask me to give up my body and soul, to allow Angelo to rape me, might seem naive or uncharitable to some: but I didn't, and don't, see why.

The concluding lines of the scene often cause problems for audiences and scholars--"Then Isabel, live chaste, and brother, die; / More than our brother is our chastity." As Isabella, numbed and drained by the shocking scene, I felt enormous grief that my brother had to die and that I could not find some way out. But I had to confirm a simple truth, ordering myself in simple words to keep on living, whole, with unbroken vows to God. For Isabella, this simple truth is not cold selfishness, hysterical hatred of sexuality (as if rape is the same as sexual activity) or lack of generosity. It is the truth that even a woman has a right to preserve herself even though others would deny that right. In 1605, "chastity' meant "purity from unlawful sexual intercourse" with the emphasis on the word "unlawful" (See OED). For Angelo to demand the right to rape is criminal. "Chastity" also meant "virginity--as a virtue of great commendation, or as conferring special merit or sanctity" or "purity freedom from moral corruption." In a Vienna so hypocritical, where even the Duke becomes a spy, chastity stands for a remarkable honesty. Finally, when I spoke the line, I defined "chastity" as "integrity," a completeness of self which is surely an admirable condition.

In III. i., I found the encounter with Claudio, who betrays me the way Angelo betrayed me and the way the Duke betrays me when concealing Claudio's salvation, to be so painful a scene that I am tempted to skip over it here. But I will be brief. Certainly Isabella becomes verbally cruel in III. i. ("I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death, / No word to save thee,"), but the cruelty comes out of a deep disillusionment. She tried to support others: why won't her own brother support her? She finds instead that he too wants to use her for his own ends. His request is a kind of incest, as we emphasized visually. As Claudio imagines the horrors of a hellish afterlife, I slowly twisted, curled over, then crouched on the floor, my hands pressed over my ears to block out his fears, murmuring "Alas, alas" as I realized just how fearful his pagan vision was. Then on "Sweet sister, let me live!," Claudio flung me backwards and pressed me onto the floor --an exact physical repetition of Angelo's earlier sexual threat. At that, my fury--a delayed response to Angelo's assault compounded by this new treachery--burst out until shaking with hurt and rage I turned from Claudio, not to look at him again until the end of the play. Trevor Nunn, in his recent Royal Shakespeare Company production, added a mimed moment of reconciliation between brother and sister. For me, such forgiveness was not (yet) possible.

The ensuing Mariana/bed trick plot, offered to a shattered Isabella in her moment of total despair, did not strike me as overly problematical. Baroque ethical issues which many see in her active participation were overshadowed by my desire to save my brother, myself and help Mariana to a husband whom she has waited for for years. Again, Isabella is less judgmental than some might expect. Although Angelo is clearly repugnant to her, she cannot condemn Mariana's desires, and will even help her to fulfill what she sees as her happiness. Isabella's support of other women, and the bedrock tolerance of others, explain her decision.

The final scene of the play provides Isabella with the opportunity to show simultaneously mercy and to preserve her integrity, even to strengthen it. I found that I was greatly shocked when the Duke condemned Angelo ("An Angelo for Claudio, death for death,") frowning at the Duke and shaking my head slightly in disapproval as he spoke those lines. When Mariana, whom I had gladly helped to this husband, begs the Duke to spare Angelo, I remembered my own kneeling to Angelo, and the cruelty of Angelo's refusal. I thought to myself-- "Mariana loves Angelo. Who am I to judge? His life should not be forfeit," and I found myself weeping as I knelt with Mariana to beg for his life. I did it for her sake. "Women? Help, heaven!" I thought that we can help each other as well. Finally, it is Mariana who teaches me mercy toward the one who has wronged me, in thought if not in deed. She can forgive and love Angelo; I can try to match her spirit, and realize that such "softness" is actually great strength. I had not been capable of fully understanding mercy before, but Mariana shows me what it means.

But the Duke refuses to show mercy. He brusquely refuses the women, and orders them to get up, continuing to stage manage the action without considering others' feelings. In this and in so many other moments of the play, the Duke is far from beneficent, at least in his treatment of Isabella and Angelo. Putting them to the test as he does is, from the characters' point of view, unnecessarily cruel. The horror I felt waiting offstage in Act IV scene iii, knowing that the Duke would keep the news of her brother's salvation from Isabella in order "to make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected," fueled my onstage grief in the ensuing scene. It also allowed me to see that in the last scene Isabella, though given few words at that point, can respond to the revelation that the Friar was no Friar with dismay, not amazed joy. Besides, what treachery to pretend to be a friar, hear one's confessions, receive one's trust, and still prove helpless to save Claudio. Told by the Duke in V. i. to be comforted by Claudio's undoubted spiritual salvation, Isabella has a curt, monosyllabic reply. Some comfort. I thought that surely the Duke could have done something; and to spout such religious commonplaces at such a moment seemed, at best, disingenuous.

It is ironic that at the precise moment when Isabella is given reason to trust in the goodness of others, she is betrayed again. Just as Claudio is revealed and a joyous reunion is under way, the Duke asks her to deny her self, her vocation, and marry him.

If he be like your brother, for his sake,
Is he pardoned; And for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand, and say you will be mine,
He is my brother too; but fitter time for that.

In performance, the request was so totally unexpected and inappropriate that the audience rightly roared with laughter as the Duke backpedaled. (The bland look on my face might have had something to do with the laugh.) "But fitter time for that." There was no fitter time; from within Isabella, I heard his words as yet another unwelcome demand from a powerful man who assumed acquiescence on the part of a pliant woman. As in so many modem productions, I refused him. Left alone onstage, I gazed after the exiting couples, until the Duke turned, came toward me and held out his hand. Slowly, after looking questioningly into his face, I again backed away from him three paces, stopped, and stood my ground until the lights came down. Once again, I had to deny another by choosing my self with no one left to understand, except, possibly, the audience.

Select Bibliography

Anne Barton. Introduction to Measure for Measure in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakernore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifffin, 1974.

Terry Eagleton. William Shakespeare. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

George L. Geckle, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Measure for Measure. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970.

Andrew Gurr. Studying Shakespeare: An Introduction.. London: Edward Arnold, 1988.

Anna B. Jameson. Shakespeare's Heroines. London: Bell, 1879.

Kathleen McLuskie. "The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure" in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimor and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985, 88-108.

Graham Nicholls. Measure for Measure: Text and Performance. Houdmills: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1986.

Carol Rutter. Clamorous Voices. Shakespeare's Women Today. New York: Routledge, 1989.

William Shakespeare. Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

__________. Measure for Measure, ed. N. W. Bawcutt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

__________. Measure for Measure (The Arden Shakespeare), ed. J. W. Lever. London & New York: Routledge, 1965.

Cedric Watts. Measure for Measure. London: Penguin, 1986.

Main Menu - HomePage - The Play