Measure for Measure

Responses to the Presentation of Isabella


There are various possible responses to Isabella here: it is possible to see her as totally selfish, unwilling to buy her brother's life by sacrificing her chastity to Angelo. We may agree with Claudio in his judgement that

"it is no sin
Or of the deadly seven it is the least."

Death is, after all "a fearful thing" and it is not herself that Isabella is condemning to it.

We may, therefore, feel that Isabella's reaction to Claudio's request that she submit to Angelo is excessive. Certainly her language is emotive and highly charged, especially in the speech beginning with the vocative triplet.

However, no one could accuse her of selfishness in Act 5 when she joins Mariana in pleading for the life of Angelo to be spared. At this later point she is scrupulously fair and impartial, even though she still believes her brother to be dead at Angelo's instigation despite, as Angelo thinks, having enjoyed her the night before.

Some would say that her speech here reeks of fanaticism. Those who would claim this might refer also to her desire at the beginning of 1:4 for "a more strict restraint" within the convent.

At the end of the play, though, her behaviour is merciful rather than legalistic, as shown in her argument for Angelo that

"His act did not oe'rtake his bad intent;
And must be buried but as an intent
That perished by the way."

Had Isabella wanted to be legalistic and inflexible about it she could have poited to the section of the gospels in which Jesus argues that sins of intent are as bad as the actual sins in practice.

On the other hand, maybe she has a point: Claudio's initial reaction, before fear set in, was to agree that such an act was inconceivable, calling forth his unequivocal response "thou shalt not do't" If it is his fear, not his judgement that is controlling his thinking now, perhaps there is justice in her subsequent questions -

"Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest to take life
From thine own sister's shame?"

Maybe the vehemence of her response at this point arises not only from her disappointment in him but also from a sense that she has been betrayed both by justice and by her brother.

We see equal vehemence and an equal sense of betrayal at the beginning of Act 5 when Isabella confronts Vincentio with the injustice that has been done to her by Angelo. The language is as passionate in each case.

What is more, we mustn't forget that Isabella was about to take vows and become a nun, a bride of Christ, and this was due to happen "this day". It is not surprising that Isabella is somewhat fazed by this turn of events. The accusation of selfishness might perhaps be challenged by her assertion that her life would readily be sacrificed for him, that she would

"throw it down for (his) deliverance
As frankly as a pin."

The question is, do we believe her? I think the play requires that we do, as Isabella is not meant to be the one on trial here, the real villains of the piece being Angelo and Vincentio.

It could be said that Isabella does take risks in publicly confronting Angelo as she does in Act 5; she has no assurance of how her complaint will be recieved and she is not aware, as the audience is, that her friar is in fact Vincentio. As far as she knows when she is bundled off to jail, it's for real.

Ultimately I believe the audience is meant to respond positively to Isabella; she is the victim yet she demonstrates true Christian forgiveness in her behaiour towards Angelo and compassion towards Mariana.

These are the issues I'd be looking at if writing this essay. I expect you would want to be more specifically analytical about language use. This is just to start you thinking and show you a possible structure.