Measure for Measure is a play about a woman on her knees. It is quite bothersome that her status in the play, socially, morally, and physically, only touches a few sympathies. Marcia Reefer would share this bother. In her feminist essay entitled Instruments of Some More Mightier Member The Construction of Female Power in Measure for Measure, she speaks about how Isabella is trapped in a situation, no matter her decision, she will still be looked at as making a mistake.
Reifer and I share the opinion that Isabella is a strong-witted and wonderfully unique individual that possesses higher personal values than anyone in the play.
Isabella’s role in Measure is commonly viewed as being that of a narrow-minded but passionate girl afflicted with an irrational terror of sex (Barton 546). Her role in the play is sometimes considered only important as far as the lines of comedy go. However, I believe that her role is crucial in understanding, and unfolding the play’s contextual themes.
In parts of the play, I found that Isabella’s speeches become almost monosyllabic, and simple, where the central issues are revealed. She speaks very clearly that while she would die for her brother, 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,
Then that a sister, by redeeming him
Should die forever. (II.iv. 106-a )
The above statement is quite simple, yet her religious beliefs and the more contemporary beliefs that women have the right to make choices about what will happen to their body and soul stand firm. Why would anyone want Isabella to make matters worse, after all, her brother’s actions have already occurred. She does not agree with his actions but still pleads for his mercy. In her case, she has such great faith that honor is as important as her brother’s life. This seems to appall some people, but I find it admirable and reasonable.
The character of Isabella shines through near the end of Act II, scene VI when the subject of women’s frailty is questioned. After a generalized confession of mail frailty, Angelo comments Nay, women are frail too. Isabellas response is
Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves,
Which are as easily broken as they make forms.
Women? Help, heaven! Men their creations 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)
She probably meant that such a confirmation of stereotypical female frailty seemed inappropriate from a strong Isabella. I also believe that while Isabella uses the familiar derogatory image of women staring into mirrors for hours, she alters the expected Renaissance moral about women’s inconsistency and vanity to speak against men’s cruelty. As the glasses can be broken, the images and reflections can be broken as well. So can the reflected forms: as the women’s form is broken so can their bodies and spirits. When men try and use women as sexual objects their male likeness to god is marred and destroyed. 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. One might consider this as admitting the inferiority of women, however, I view this as reflecting a female’s inferior social position and what it costs them.
The view of women in Measure is hard to discuss because it offers the reader a wide variety of possibilities. However, when comprehending the last scene I had no choice but to view Isabella as a very good soul, of a strong character that receives much scrutiny. The respect that I have for her comes when she realizes that her softness is a great strength. I had not fully understood this until Mariana shows her what mercy is. When the Duke condemns Angelo to death Mariana begs for his mercy, Isabella then realizes that she is, and cannot be the judge of anyone. So she begs Marianna for Angelos’s life to be sparred. She does this because she understands compassion, she does it for Mariana’s sake. This is where I fully understand the character of Isabella. She has managed to overcome any selfishness that she had previously held, all the while she has maintained her faith in what she believes in, and she never gives the Duke what he wants.
Reifer shows many of the same beliefs that I have about the role of Isabella. On Page 161 of her essay, she maintains that Mariana and Isabella are victims of the Duke’s disturbing manipulatives. In other words, Isabella isn’t just a woman who is bringing her pain to herself, rather she is a woman amid the Duke’s turmoil. Reifer also agrees that when judging Isabella we must consider her surroundings. With the Duke giving commands to everyone, only the men resist. This upsets Riefer because it shows general powerlessness in the case of the women. Riefer believes as well as I that Isabella is a strong-willed character, but she ridicules the play because in a place like Vienna, at this time, women weren’t treated nearly as bad as they are portrayed in Measure.
Riefer also emphasizes the fact that in most Shakespeare plays the main action of the comedy occurs in a way so that the women can get around the main action. Isabella is under extreme scrutiny because the main action is surrounding her, and due to their unique situation, she is faced with difficult decisions at the forefront of the audience. It may sound as if Riefer is simply protecting the integrity of Isabella but realistically speaking she is right. After all, when put under a gun people tend to act differently.
Isabella’s character is the product of a play that forces her to act according to her character’s moral standards. Shakespeare seems to have masterfully made her a wonderfully pure woman, who then turns into a typical woman who falls under pressure. I completely disagree with what he has done because he is single-handedly tearing down the mind of women and ruining their life. At the same time, he is influencing men who read these plays and sending us back to a male-dominated society.
Isabella represents everything that women should be proud of, strong morals, a strong mind, and a good sense of faith. It is too bad that she has been put in the situation that Shakespeare has chosen because it causes her to look as if she is deteriorating. If we read between the lines we can understand her, and come to grips with the fact that she is making the men, and not the women look powerless and weak.