William Shakespeare's play, Measure for Measure is considered a problem play because it operates on several levels. Shakespeare explores complex matters of ethics in this play through complicated situations and characters. The complexities of the human psyche are explored in this play, with a focus on the emotions of love, shame, and honor. Shakespeare brings these sensitive issues to the surface with the characters and curious behavior of Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke. This paper will examine how the play is problematic when considering its generic conventions.
Isabella becomes a pivotal character in the play because as we become concerned with what she should do, we realize the problems her choice means to her. Part of the difficulty associated with Measure for Measure is that the answer to this question is not clear. What we discover about Isabella is something peculiar about her chastity. In short, her actions reveal that she is not as pure as she may seem. She no doubt wants to save her own soul, life, and chastity, obviously at whatever the cost. While Isabella's behavior causes her to appear to be somewhat selfish, it is also important to realize that there is little else she can do.
The complications that arise from this play help us appreciate Shakespeare's talent at creating complex characters that are surrounded by the conflicts we call life. Isabella is not consistent in her actions. This is clear when we witness how she begs Angelo for Claudio's life and is then able to dismiss him from her life with ease -- even after she believes him to be dead. The issue surrounding Isabella's character is somewhat disappointing because through the course of the play, she never quite seems to learn anything from her circumstance.
At first, Isabella seems torn between her love for her brother and her self-respect. She wavers, and tells Angelo that she is "at war 'twixt will and will not" (II. ii. 33). However, she soon recovers from that during her conversation with Lucio and emerges from their conversation more self-confident than before. Her honor suddenly becomes extremely important and worth saving at any cost and she rejects Angelo's request without a second thought. When Angelo begs Isabella to believe him, she remains steadfast and simply laughs at him, saying:
Ha! Little honor to be much believed
And most pernicious purpose! Seeming, seeming!
I will proclaim thee, Angelo; look for't
Sign me a present pardon for my brother.
Or with an outstretch'd throat I'll tell the world
Aloud what man thou art" (II.iv.150-5).
This scene helps us appreciate Isabella because she knows the right thing to do, despite what it means for her brother. She declares she will:
live chaste, and, brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity
I'll tell him yet of Angelo's request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul's rest. (II.iv.185-6).
Her righteousness, even though we cannot help but respect it, smacks of arrogance because she seems to have such little regard for her bother's life. However, once she is convinced that she is doing the tight thing, she attaches pride and confidence in Claudio's courage. She sees him in a much better light. For instance, she says:
I'll to my brother;
Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour,
That had he twenty hearts to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he'd yield them up,
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr'd pollution. (II.iv.177-83)
Certainly, it is easy to understand how Isabella would feel elated over her brother's actions. We might be able to stomach her behavior and attitude easier if she should also express a sense of gratitude. However, when Claudio expresses difficulty with his fate and wavers, she admonishes him in an astonishing way. She becomes almost frightening when she tells him:
faithless coward! O. dishonest wretch!
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? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood. Take my defiance:
Die! perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee. (III.i.136-46)
This statement reveals how Isabella is becoming foolish in her thoughts concerning bad behavior and its repercussions. Her character is shifting from appearing chaste and virtuous to selfish and prudish.
The conflict between brother and sister grows greater when Claudio begs her to let him live. He tells her, "What sin you do to save a bother's life,/Nature dispenses with the deed so far,/That is becomes a virtue" (III.i.131-3). Interestingly, her honor and virtue are coupled with harshness of the worst degree. She responds to his pleas by calling him a beast and a:
Faithless coward! O. dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take a life
From thine own sister's shame? (III.i.134-8)
What we find with these siblings is Isabella will not give up her honor for Claudio and Claudio does not especially want to give his life for his sister. In short, Isabella cannot redeem her brother and what is disturbing is the fact that she does not appear to want to redeem him. Oddly, she seems to place more importance on his sacrificial death for her rather than his own life. Her life is of more importance. For example, she says, "What a merit were it in death to take this poor maid from the world! What corruption in this life, that it will let this man live! -- But how out of this can she avail? (III.i.232-4). We find that their behavior is repulsive but at the same time realistic. Again, we are confronted with the genius of Shakespeare's characters. We may love them or hate them -- but what we cannot deny is how very much like us they are.
Interestingly, Isabella does not seem to respect her brother's life in the same way that she wishes him to respect her. For example, her first plea for Claudio's life is that he is not prepared for death rather than he should be allowed to live. She tells Angelo, "He's not prepar'd for death" (II.ii.85). In addition, when she visits her brother in prison, she hopes to find him in agreement with her choice. While he does agree, she is hesitant to accept this wholeheartedly. She explains to him:
O, I do fear thee, Claudio; and I quake,
Lest thou a feverous life shouldst entertain,
And six or seven winters more respect
Than a perpetual honour. Dar'st thou die?
The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle that we tread upon In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies. (III.i.71-77).
This statement only serves as her attempt to convince him that he is doing the right thing. Of course, Claudio's disagreement with her only leads him to feel shame for being so selfish.
Isabella's character also gives us insight into the complex emotions of love and shame. She becomes even more interesting and problematic when she becomes aware of the fact that Claudio is dead. Her lie justifies her action. She tells the Duke:
now begin with grief and shame to utter
He would not, but by gift of my chaste body
To his concupiscible intemperate lust
Release my brother; and, after much debatement,
My sisterly remorse confutes mine honour,
And I did yield to him (V.i.97-103)
Her statement is shocking because she would not consider uttering such a thing when her brother was alive. We might think that as a consequence of her actions (regardless if they are right or wrong), she is experiencing shame. In the last scene, she turns her focus to that of her humiliation.
She says, "I now begin with grief and shame to utter" (V.i.98-99).
However, it is important to note that she does seem to feel genuine remorse for her brother's death -- but not nearly enough to prevent him from dying.
Earlier in the play, it was more about her life and her chastity, as seen when she states, "I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death;/No word to save thee" (III.i.143-4) and then she shockingly tells Claudio, "Tis best that thou diest quickly" (III.i.150). In this last scene, we witness Isabella grasping the truth and true meaning behind Claudio's death.
These statements illustrate that Isabella has grown somewhat as a result of her experience. What is interesting is the extent that the circumstances have gone in order to teach Isabella a lesson.
In contrast to Isabella's chaste nature, Angelo and Claudio exhibit a rather loose lifestyle. Claudio reveals the moods and opinions of the townspeople when he declares that he…