Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Isabella and Measure

Yes, her name is from Measure for Measure. I thought a bit about it, had some conversations with friends about her character (even though I hadn’t met her, she already had a reputation), and was persuaded that it should be Isabella. Why? Well, the temptation to pontificate on this and all other private matters is almost overwhelming (why does having a blog seem like I am standing in the middle of the piazza naked?)...yet, I will not be absolute. It is a great play, a dark comedy, they call it. A city in trouble, it is dissolute, laws mean nothing, bad rule. No citizens. No families. No moderation, but plenty of illicit passion and extreme chastity; and justice is bitter, harsh and cruel. "Liberty plucks justice by the nose, / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum". Even virtue in such a setting seems rabid. In what form should moderation and love and mercy come? There is much art and statesmanship, and a disposition of natures, and a Duke of dark corners, and a famous bed trick, and a resolution in which lust becomes ethical and caring love: "What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine." And around Isabella’s soul and mind and body the good thing revolves and resolves. And now is a just city possible, and not merely as a splendid vice.

Discussions - 9 Comments

Something odd about naming a motorcycle for a chaste nun. Referring to the bike, Schramm says "..she already had a reputation." ??? Some would call all of this well nigh obscene.

How is rule brought to the land? What does Vincentio do to know the souls of men? Do professors hear confessions? Are you a friar? In order to wed Isabella you must choose to after measuring her soul compared to others. What disguise did you choose to get there professor?

As much as I admire those who know enough Shakespeare to understand where the name of the motorcycle came from, my interests are, embarrassingly, more mundane: what are the specifics on the bike itself? Make, model, displacement?

Peter, where do you find rabid virtue in this play? Hypocrisy, not herein the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but the mask vice wears to the wide world, yes, that is rabid here. In our modern world such an hypocrisy may seem outdated, but might it also have seemed so in the context of the city Shakespeare here creates? Which is why Angelo’s attempt at hypocrisy seems so crude and is so easily overturned. But how is virtue rabid, ever? The only truly virtuous character in the play is Isabella, who says this:

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 judgment, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.

And thereby excuses vice, or rather begs mercy and forgiveness for it.

The illicit passion is easy to see, as in our world, but not the extremity of virtue. She had made a vow. If she has any failure of virtue it is in breaking that vow for love of the Duke. Since she did so, where is the extreme chastity in this play?

Where do you find rabid virtue in this play...?

Then Isabel live chaste and brother die, more than our brother is our chastity..."

Act II, sc 4

Good points all. I will talk no more!

Pro 31:10-12 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price [is] far above rubies.

So virtue not worth dying for? Is it not worth a life? It is a Christian concept and so, maybe not one accepted today. However, Isabella would have given her own life for her virtue. Therefore, the story hinges on this conflict for her, how to reconcile her virtue in chastity, her vow to Jesus as a bride of Christ and yet to be able to do what she dearly wants to do, rescue her brother. Shakespeare gives her a gracious means of dealing with her dilemma by means of the character, Mariana, whose body was already Angelo’s. By his previous sin, is I. rescued.

Not to miss another point S. makes, for I. to give herself to Angelo, who represents lust, would have been very wrong. Yet, in the end, after much trial, she does give herself to love, represented by the Duke. In this, Shakespeare expresses his dislike of celibacy, which he saw as no virtue. He presumes that as a bride of Christ, she could give herself in earthly love and be forgiven. Earthly husbands are not so forgiving.


I think Vincentio is involved in a project throughout the work. In many ways the play parallels The Tempest in its treatment of the duke when compared to Prospero. See I.3. He acknowledges that a lack of enforcing the laws has led to their abuse. He realizes that this resulted from his idle entertainment (How I have ever loved the life removed and held in idle practice to haunt assemblieswhere youth and cost witless bravery keeps). However, the current laws have too much bite, and their strict enforcement would be unjust (the laws are "morality" based, including chastity laws outside of marriage). He appoints Angelo b/c, among other things, he knows that strict enforcement will unveil their teeth and allow conditions needed for their change [while also teaching Angelo something about himself (not so moral, but he thinks he is)].

In regards to Isabella, note that Claudio (her brother, so he would know) describes her to Lucio as one who has the power to move men "for in her youth there is a prone and specchless dialect, such as move men; beside, she hath prosperous art when she will play with reason and discourse, and well she can persuade." I.2, 181-185. Similar to Viola in Twelfth Night, no?

I think that Isabella is too big of a character, from the play’s point of view, to waste her talents in a nunnery. Her devotion to morality by chastity is her easy way out. It’s simple and clear, and it is told to her without conflict. It is selfish of her, and the conflict in the play is what allows her to recognize it. Yet, she knows things are not so simple, because she tells Angelo at II.4 49 "’Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth," when Angelo quote to the rule of the book to take Claudio’s life. It seems she believes the justice of man is not the same as the Justice of God. Perhaps this results from her conflict. She says, "What a merit were it in death to take this poor maid from the world! What a corruption in this life, that it will let this man live! But how out of this can she avail?" ...not by going to a nunnery, at least so far as man’s justice is concerned.

Put simply, her vow to chastity is selfish and the conflict in the play is what allows her to recognize it. In this manner, she’s part of the duke’s project as well. She is better than all, but not perfect. The duke moves her closer to that through his project. I think the play in regards to the characters (besides the duke) is best put by the words of Claudio (an interesting character hwen he says, "Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."

I won’t even attempt to read this to see if it is coherent, I’m off to a bar. Night.

You are quite right about Vincentio. For simplicity’s sake, I was not addressing that aspect of the plot. Which was probably unfair.

I always thought Angelo thought himself above the law. I do not see that he thought himself moral and was not, but that he thought that morality did not truly apply to him, but this is a quibble and you may be right.

i>I think that Isabella is too big of a waste her talents in a nunnery Within the play, I see your point, and that is clearly Shakespeare intent here. But in a larger sense, beyond the confines of the logic of this particular play, surely, to make a vow and then not see it through is wrong. And has there ever been any question that God’s justice is different from man’s justice? Man has such a limited perspective in comparison to God’s. How could it be otherwise?

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