Juliet and Isabella

I think it is very interesting to compare two of Measure for Measure’s women, Juliet and Isabella. These women are vastly different, although they are cousins and both connected to Claudio.

Juliet is perhaps the only character in Measure for Measure who is willing to make selfless sacrifices for others. First, she gave her body to Claudio, which was wrong. But, once the sin was committed, she repented and was entirely willing to endure shame for her sin, still love Claudio (although it was clear that he did not so much return that love), and bear and rear their child in spite of the social rejection and ostracization it would cost her. She has only one speaking part in the play, although she appears twice. Her silence in her first appearance during 1.2 indicates her lack of self-absortion and self-centeredness. Instead of excusing her sin, or complaining about its consquences as Claudio does, she humbly remains silent and endures her shame.

Quite a contrast to Isabella’s constant talking. It could be reasonably argued that Isabella’s sole incentive for imploring Angelo to save Claudio was that her name would not be shamed more through Claudio’s death. And to achieve her goal, she uses as many persuasive  speeches as she could, but she never acted in a way that would cause her any type of discomfort. She even acts very willing to abandon her case with Angelo several times, and seems likely to give up after only a few half-hearted attempts but for Lucio’s prodding. To summarize Isabella: lots of words, fewer actions in accordance with those words, and pretended piety.

But Juliet is quite different. She uses few words (that we hear), proves those words with her actions, makes no pretense of empty religion but humbly professes her sin and repentence. She also mentions that she takes “the shame with joy,” which could possibly refer to the joy of giving life to another. This would create one other essential difference between herself and Isabella: Isabella has no joy because she is consumed with herself while Juliet has joy because she is able to live not only for herself but others, after she learned the danger of being self-consumed.

This comparison of Juliet and Isabella seems similar to that given in Luke 18: 9-14 between the tax collector and the Pharisee.  In this parable, Jesus said that the Pharisee thanked God loudly for his holiness and bragged about how much better he was than the “sinner.” But the sinner humbly acknowledged his sin an his own unworthiness of God’s grace. The ironic thins about this parable, which Jesus is teaching, is that both men were sinners, but the tax collector was more pleasing to God because of his recognition of his own sinfulness and dependence on God while  the Pharisee simply rejoiced in his own perceived righteousness, leaving God completely out of the picture.

Perhaps the verse given at the end of the parable in Luke 18 best summarizes the characters of Juliet and Isabella:

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

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