Isabella: Dedicated to God or Self?

Measure for Measure is another very “uncomfortable” Shakespeare comedy. Almost all of the characters are selfish, scheming technicians of…well, something. Among those is the woman Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a beautiful woman who lives in a convent.  After being persuaded by Lucio, one of Claudio’s friends, to make an attempt to save Claudio’s life (he is sentenced to die for having illicit sexual relations with a woman named Juliet), Isabella pleads with Angelo, the ruler of Vienna, to spare her brother’s life. However, Angelo himself becomes incredibly lustful and tells Isabella that the only way Claudio might be saved, is for her to give herself completely to Angelo’s lust. 

Isabella is perhaps the second most central character of Measure for Measure. She is a fascinating character to study, although she is certainly a disappointing one. Her definitive quality seems to be her incredible hypocrisy. She has convictions, this is good. And her refusal to comply with satisfying Angelo’s depraved lust with her own body is honorable. But her reasons, her real motives, for doing the seemingly “right” thing are wrong.

She, living as a self-proclaimed woman of God as a nun in a convent (although she had not yet taken the vows), should have been most concerned with following God and His rules. She certainly exhibits knowledge of those rules by making several allusions to the Bible in her pleadings with Angelo. But, as the play goes on, she is shown to have motives that are fundamentally opposed to Christ’s teachings about life and living as His follower.

Yes, fornication is forbidden by God, but so is self-centeredness. Isabella should notagree to Angelo’s ridiculous ultimatum for her virginity because it would dishonor Christ (1 Cor. 6:18-20). But the reason she offers is not that at all. She tells Angelo in 3.1, lines 183-186, that she would have her brother die twenty deaths before she would ever consider “her body to stoop/To such abhorr’d pollution.” Notice she never says who abhors fornication (God, herself, or other people), but from the context of her speech, it becomes clear that she must maintain her honor (not God’s), so it would seem to follow that she is referring to society’s aberration of fornication. This would indicate pride on her part; instead of being concerned that her sin would affect God, she is merely concerned with how it would affect her reputation among humans.

Later, in Claudio’s prison cell, she tells him of Angelo’s demand in a very calculating, egocentric, manipulative manner. Far from exhibiting concern for Claudio’s life or any kind of selfless intent, Isabella first frames Angelo’s demand with informing Claudio that there is a way he might be saved, but it is one that would hurt her. She then expresses her fear of confiding the way he might be saved as being that she is afraid he’ll wish her to comply with Angelo.

This does not at all seem like love, either for God or Claudio. Instead of wanting to help Claudio, at any cost to herself, she only wishes to help him if it will not cost her too dearly. In response to Claudio’s declaration that “death is a fearful thing,” she says “And shamed life a hateful,” clearly expressing her unwillingness to suffer any reproach to herself. This prideful unwillingness to suffer, to be scorned in any way, is the primary reason she refuses Angelo’s demand. And this pride is very opposite to the type of attitude  Christ showed by humbly giving His life as a ransom for others’. He was shamed, wrongfully treated, and injustly punished, but He endured all out of His love for God and people. According to Christ, the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and the second greatest was to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt.22:37-39). Can anyone be closer to being a neighbor than a brother is?

Isabella is a holy hypocrite, a white-washed tomb. She is more concerned with her outward appearance of virtue than her true inward condition, and seems to care more about herself and what other people will think of her than what God will. Ths is all the more heinous because she claims to be God’s follower, and basically uses her pretense of piety as an excuse for her selfishness. She has shown in the beginning of the play that she is willing to renounce life in the world and go live in an isolated convent. But which is more pleasing to God? Having her live a life of seclusion, having no impact on those who need Him, and stay “unshamed” and prideful, or selflessly imitate his example and show love to those, like Claudio, who are sinners and need His love and mercy?

One of the passages spoken by Isabella that demonstrate her knowlegde of what is right, thereby completely destroying any excuses on her part for her failure to apply that knowledge to her actions, is in 2.2 lines 78-84.

 “Why, all the souls that were forfeit once;

And He that might the vantage best have took,

Found out the remedy. How would you be,

 If He, which is the top of judgement, should

But judge you as you are? O! think on that,

And mercy then will breathe within your lips,

Like man new made.”

She asked the Duke to follow Christ’s example and judge with mercy, as he would wish to be judged, but she later judges with no mercy and acts in opposition to Christ’s example of self-sacrifice and love.

Then, Isabella takes he hypocrisy one strp farther and immediately agrees to the disguised Duke’s proposal to remedy the situation at no cost to herself. She agrees to his reasoning that it would not be fornication if Angelo and Mariana have sex because they were engaged at one time (never mind the fact that it is no longer a mutially binding agreement because Angelo ceased loving Mariana months ago), despite the fact that she originally agreed with Angelo that Claudio and Juliet had sinned by having sex outside of marriage – which is the exact same as what Angelo and Mariana would be doing with her sanction. But in fact, Claudio and Juliet had more of a marriage agreement for they both had pledged their love to each other but were waiting for the financial matters to be worked out to their friends’ and relations’ approval before they could declare their marriage when they committed the sin.  Angelo and Mariana however, have no such agreement because it had been broken by Angelo.

Isabella, like Angelo, fails to live by the standards she expects others to follow. And she, though previously exclaiming that for a woman to lie with a man who was not her husband would be shameful, and that a shameful life is a hateful thing (with the implication that is is worse than death), and completely below her, she has no inhibitions at all in causing another woman to committ the sin that would sentence bring that woman shame.

So not only is Isabella a hypocrite, she is an unfeeling villain! She is not a worshipper of God (unless it is to her advantage), she is a worshipper of herself. Far from living up to her name’s meaning of “Dedicated to God,” Isabella lives soley for herself and her desires. She is “Isabella” in name only!

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