CharacterAnalysis: Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Measurefor measureis one of William Shakespeare’s famous plays that is believed tohave been written in the early 17thcentury. The play revolves around the experiences of a young nameClaudio and the people close to him after he is arrested for aviolation of the law. The play has prominent views on major themesincluding sexuality, religion, gender relations and morality. Tofurther highlight these themes, the play has created major characterswith strong personality traits, some desirable and othersundesirable. The use of characters and creating key attributes aboutthem also enables the play achieve its goals and keep to the plot.One such character is Isabella. In the play, Isabella is Claudio’ssister who endeavors to release her brother from prison where he hasbeen sentenced to death. Through Isabella, Shakespeare seeks tocreate an epitome of a morally upright and religious human being whohas a net positive effect on society.
Isabellais strictly religious. She is introduced into the play after thearrest of Claudio, where the audience learns that she is about tojoin the order of Saint Claire as a nun. Claudio mentions Isabella tohis friend Lucio and describes her as “a prone and speechlessdialect, / Such as move men beside, she hath prosperous art / Whenshe will play with reason and discourse, / And well she can persuade"(1. 2. 188-91). Again her commitment to her faith is captured by herdevotion to the rules of the Coventry. To Isabella, the existingrules are not even strict enough. She says to Francisca “I speaknot as desiring more But rather wishing a more strict restraint uponthe sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare”(1.4.1). It can only be assumed that Isabella’s desire for stricterrules is because she wants to establish an even closer relationshipwith God.
Inkeeping with God’s desires, Isabella has remained a virgin. She isopposed to the idea of sex before marriage. Her innocence is alsocaptured by the fact that she cannot bring herself to mention theword sex. She prefers using the term “fornication” and is alsovery horrified to learn that her brother has been accused andsentenced for engaging in such a grave sin. Again, when she isinvited by Antonio to sleep with him in order to save his brother,she declines knowing very well what is at stake. For this reason,Hampton –Reeves indicates that she suffers from “profound sexualnausea” (117). In so many ways, her actions reveal that she valuesher virginity and moral principles. By juxtaposing her character tothat of Marianna, a woman who does not fear sleeping around, itbecomes more telling on Isabella’s belief on sex before marriageand her moral standing.
Additionally,Isabella reflects on the morality of the society as whole. In hermind, she meditates on the cruelty and rigidity of some people andhow power can be so corrupting if it falls in the hands ofunreasonable people. This way, Shakespeare uses the character ofIsabella not only to allow the reader to understand her as anindividual but also as a character that contrasts highly with othercharacters represented in the society. In fact, Hampton-Reeves (117)brands her a “moral show-off” in reference to her ‘holier thanthou’ attitude. For instance, when Lucio approaches her and appealsto her to approach Antonio and intercede on behalf of her brotherClaudio, she expresses her disbelief that a humble servant of Godlike her could make any difference. Ideally, this shows that Antonioas a person has little belief in God and the people who serve whichout-rightly makes him evil.
Nonetheless,some critics have expressed some reservations on Isabella’scharacter. This is most seemingly lack of sympathy for her brotherClaudio (Rose 124). Isabella is acutely aware of the demands ofAntonio in order to save her brother from death. Isabella is clearlynot ready to sacrifice her virginity to save Claudio and even says“Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die: / More than ourbrother is our chastity" (2.4.23). When Claudio pleads with herto give herself sexually to Antonio, she is clearly angered by suchsuggestions and even condemns his brother for such weaknesses anddismisses him of being not a true son of their father. In fact, suchpleas for Claudio angers her so much that she does not forgive himand does not speak to him again through the play. In so doing, sheseems not to understand her brother’s desperation in the face ofdeath. As a Christina, she should be capable of forgiving her brotheras the faith demands.
Thebrief discussion above about Isabella’s character and role in theplay clearly shows that she plays an integral part in the play. Shenot only allows the continuation of the plot but is also used by theplaywright to drive important messages home especially on sexuality,religion and even moral principles. As a human being also, she is notperfect as she is unforgiving and lacks sympathy and empathy moretowards her brother. However, on the overall Isabella has a modelpersonality in any society.
Hampton-Reeves,Stuart. Measure for measure. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan. 2011.Print.
Rose,Mary, Perspectiveson Renaissance Drama.St. Evanston: North western university. 1995.
Shakespeare,William and Gibbons Brian. Measure for measure. New York: Cambridge
UniversityPress. 2006. Print.