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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Isabella's Chastity
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1055  Wednesday, 17 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 09:29:37 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[2]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 09:29:37 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[3]     From:   Judy Kennedy <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 16:37:57 -0300 (ADT)
        Subj:   Isabella's chastity

[4]     From:   Paul Swanson <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 16:12:33 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[5]     From:   Annalisa Castaldo <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 16:30:45 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[6]     From:   Ros King <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 17:31:31 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[7]     From:   Tony Burton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 15:12:11 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[8]     From:   Ann Carrigan <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 May 2000 23:04:12 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[9]     From:   Janet MacLellan <
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        Date:   Wed, 17 May 2000 02:28:01 -0500
        Subj:   Isabella's Chastity


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 May 2000 09:29:37 -0400
Subject: 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Ed Taft asks,

>As the father of an 11-year old girl who already has
>noticed that some girls in her class are "loose," what is a father to
>do?  Where is her first line of defense, which she will surely need
>soon?  After all, mom or dad probably won't be around when she faces the
>first boy who says, "Show me that you love me."

Ed, I would teach her to see that she is a precious commodity, the only
truly unique and wonderful gift she has to give the man she loves, and
that if she has given herself promiscuously to every man who asks prior
to meeting him, she will have nothing special left to give the man to
whom she gives her heart. That is true not only in terms of her
sexuality, but in terms of such overuse of the phrase "I love you" that
it becomes phatic communication, too. Most of us can remember falling in
love: you wish you had never seen a sunrise, or a seashell, or a
butterfly, or starlight, so that you could share all of those first-time
experiences with the object of your true affection . . . Tell her about
that, and she will understand that self-respect is not prudishness, and
that saying no can be a greater proof of love than saying yes.

(Then there is also the standard response: "If you loved me, you
wouldn't ask me.")

All of this still ties in to Isabella. She has confused signified with
signifier, as Ms. Swilley points out-she in her way is as rigidly
puritanical as Angelo, and views her chastity not as a gift to God, an
outward sign of her inward spiritual commitment, but as an emblem of her
righteousness, which is a different thing. She is uncertain of her
choice because, at its core, her argument is superficial: she IS arguing
"her [physical] body" against "his [temporal] life," rather than what
she says she means: his life against her soul.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund M. Taft <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 May 2000 01:43:36 +0000
Subject:        Isabella

L. Swilley writes that *Measure for Measure* "is about the need for our
soul's accommodation of the body."  Nicely put, and, for my money,
absolutely right.  The root problem with Isabella is that she is afraid
of-and seeks to bury and hide-her own highly sexual, passionate nature.
That's why she is a "nunlet," to use Swilley's apt (and really funny)
epithet.  Early on, we learn from Claudio that Isabella possesses "a
prone and speechless dialect/Such as move men" (1.2.180-81).  In other
words, everything about her is sexy-and at some level Isabella knows
that, and rebels against the truth of what she knows.

The parallel with Angelo is obvious: he wants to stay above the world,
in a germ-free house from which he can dispense justice, uncontaminated
by the likes of Pompey and Elbow.  He knows, way down deep, that he is
human like the rest of us, but he fights this knowledge with everything
at his command.

So, it is wonderful to see the two of them-Angelo and Isabella-have at
it in 2.2 and, again, in 2.4.  Angelo's justice turns to lust, and it
ism Isabella who turns him on, as Lucio points out.  Not consciously, of
course, but by the passion of her argument for her brother, and what
that passion reveals about Isabella's own nature:

                  . . . were I under the terms of death
                 Th' impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
                 And strip myself to death as to a bed
                 That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
                 My body up to shame  (2.4.100-104)

The lady doth protest too much.

The Duke suffers from the same problem as Isabella:

               No, holy Father, throw away that thought;
               Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
               Can pierce a complete bosom (1.3.1-3).

Friar Thomas has just asked, rather boldly, why the Duke wants to stay
at a friary.  Clearly, the good friar knows that dukes have bodies as
well as souls!  In essence, Vincentio arranges things so that he can
replace Angelo as the "necessary" man in Isabella's life.  Then, at the
end of the play, he pops the question-not once, but twice, and in
public, too, to make it hard for Isabella to say "No."

Whether he is right to do so is a matter of great critical debate.  But
this much is clear: Isabella is made for marriage and has all the
qualities to become an excellent helpmate as "Mrs. Duke."  But, much
like Angelo, the Duke really uses "force" (a public occasion) and his
position (he has just saved her brother and saved the day, really) to
get what he wants.

Is he so much different than Angelo?  Or just a lot smarter and
trickier?

--Ed Taft

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Judy Kennedy <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 May 2000 16:37:57 -0300 (ADT)
Subject:        Isabella's chastity

This is probably shifting the focus of the discussion, but is it
possible that audience reaction to Isabella's choice might also be
conditioned by knowledge of the usual form of the story?  The surrender
of chastity (usually married chastity rather than virginity) in most
analogues is useless; the beloved (usually husband) is brutally executed
anyway.  {Good recent summary in Nigel Bawcutt's Oxford/World's Classics
ed.; see also Lever's Arden2, and Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare's MM
1953}.

The play is, I suppose, about sex or lust or repression or regulation of
desire, and certainly also about justice and mercy (incidentally I love
the name of the modern Italian branch of government - Il ministro di
grazia e di giustizia), but surely also about acute problems of
principle and compromise.

The problems aren't solved by a casual or even heroic readiness to
'screw anybody'.

Judy Kennedy

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[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul Swanson <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 May 2000 16:12:33 -0400
Subject: 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

L. Swilley's response to "Measure for Measure" is one of the most
fascinating, cohesive interpretations I have read, and I really
appreciate it. Having said that, I have a question about this statement:

"Claudio's failing her in that is one of the important steps in bringing
Isabella into the circle of humanity (she has certainly been beyond that
pale so far).  Her participation in the "Friar's" trap for Angelo will
be the next step; finally, her marriage to the Duke will bring her and
hold her within that healthy circle, down from the icy heights of her
earlier, inhuman attitudes that promise only a "finished," cold
character too dreadfully like that of Angelo."

Can we be so sure that Isabella will prosper in happiness and health in
this circle? Obviously, she has no lines in the scene after the Duke's
"proposal" to her, and thus we don't know how she responds to the Duke's
proposal. I suspect our knowledge of her reaction is a matter of
performance. Some directors-like the one in the stunning 1998 Alabama
Shakespeare Festival production-have staged the ending of the play to
show that Isabella is taken by force of authority, not by a newfound
"human" attitude.

Can someone respond to this?

Paul Swanson

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Annalisa Castaldo <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 May 2000 16:30:45 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

I often find it useful, especially with problem plays, to return to the
source(s) and consider the changes made by Shakespeare. In Whetstone's
Promos and Cassandra (as in all other possible sources) the Isabella
character does sleep with the Angelo character. Despite this, she is
described as "a chaste Ladye" with "vertuous behaviours." What happens
to her is described as "abuse." It seems likely, given this background,
that Shakespeare deliberately complicated the straightforward story to
highlight the unfairness of what is being asked of Isabella.

The second point I would like to raise is Angelo's behavior after he
believes he has slept with Isabella. He orders Claudio executed at once,
and when he is accused, he uses the full weight of his authority and
good name to have her declared insane. Without the double manipulation
of the Duke (who knows Isabella is not insane) and the author (who keeps
Claudio alive), this play would have been the bleakest of tragedies.
While we can debate Isabella's character (certainly she shows a lack of
pity, especially in her meeting with her brother), it seems perfectly
clear by the end of the play that her decision was right. After all, she
would not have traded her chastity for Claudio's life; she would have
lost both.

Annalisa Castaldo
Temple University

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ros King <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 May 2000 17:31:31 EDT
Subject: 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

<<This play is about Isabella's - and everyone's - salvation in
humanity.

True. But it is an indication of what nice trusting souls we all are on
this list - and perhaps what sheltered lives we lead - that we so
readily assume that if Isabella had given in, Angelo would keep his
bargain! He couldn't afford to, as it would be an admission that he's
broken his own law. If she complained, he has his answer, 'Who will
believe thee, Isabel?'. Honesty and decency and a salvation in humanity
are perhaps not possible in certain political (and religious) systems.
Isn't that the point?

Ros

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[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tony Burton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 May 2000 15:12:11 -0700
Subject: 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Much thanks to Melissa Aaron and and L. Swilley for making the point
that Isabella's chastity is, for her, all about the soul and not the
body.  I wonder how many readers of these notes think of the "soul" as
something real, that survives the death of the body?   What if Isabella
had pledged her soul to a life of vegetarianism or a pilgrimage to
Lourdes?  Or, if we don't believe in "soul", let us  imagine that she
made a vow over her dear, dying mother's deathbed.   I think we would
find it easier to understand and honor her determination not to waver
even if we think her reasons are whacky.  But sex and gender is a hot
button issue nowadays, and sometimes makes us say silly things.
Vegetarians are a lot calmer.

Swilley is right in saying that Isabella expects Claudio to applaud her
constancy to the higher obligation.  And sure, she's amazed when he
doesn't, when he proves to be more like you and me in "not getting it."
But the "it" he doesn't get is about the life of the soul versus that of
the body, not about sex.  He honors the obligations of his own world,
but his is the earthly world, not the spiritual.  And within that world
his vow to marry the girl he impregnated is as serious to him as
Isabella's vow, and he intends to keep it.   It's the bad guy, Angelo,
who breaks his promises, and not just about sex and gender but about
life and death too.

Swilley makes a nice point, that Isabella has foresaken the circle of
humanity for the heights of her spiritual world.  But that doesn't make
her a lot worse than the locals, who have foresaken the spiritual world
to enjoy the physical.  As circumstances draw Isabella into what is
earthly, they also draw the various sinners upward, with examples of
faith, patience, and compassion.  That's what comedies do, they heal
what ails.  The ailment  in MM (okay, one of many) is the inability to
live in harmony with both worlds at once.

And there is a nice parallel to be noticed between Isabella and the
Duke, which makes them a pretty good match.  Neither is naturally
comfortable in this world, and each seeks to withdraw.  Isabella by
seeking a rigid monastic rule that she can use to batter and subdue her
feelings.  The Duke shrinks from the burden of rule which he has not
really exercized effectively for years.  He wants to withdraw from the
world in a different way, from taking responsbility for exercizing his
own will. And so lays off the heavy lifting onto Angelo the Unready.
Circumstances draw him into active involvement with the world just as
they did with Isabella.  Sort of like the Cowardly Lion (if I may offer
a dubious comparison), he finds that he has had the necessary courage
all along; and like the Tin Woodman, Isabella discovers that she can
feel.   One overcomes a weakness in willing and the other in feeling,
but they both return to the world of humanity without sacrificing their
higher inclinations.  Truly a match made in, umm, Vienna.

Tony

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ann Carrigan <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 May 2000 23:04:12 EDT
Subject: 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1048 Re: Isabella's Chastity

L Swilley pretty much speaks my mind on the Isabella "problem":

>All the responses so far - including mine - have failed to take note of
>Isabella's faulty character as established by her first lines in the
>play, and continued (although under siege) thereafter.  In those lines
>she tells us she finds the rules of one of the strictest orders of nuns,
>the Poor Clares, too relaxed!!  She wishes "a more strict restraint upon
>the sisterhood."

Yes, I feel Isabella is only one in a line of likeable but misguided
zealots in the canon.  The four young men in Love's Labour's Lost;
Olivia who decides to mourn seven years and Viola who so admires this
vow she wishes she could "serve that lady"; Mariana and her self-imposed
exile; Isabella and her urgent desire to be the strictest nun.  It's
pretty clear to me that the author thought "salvation", at least in the
sense of "self-preservation", lay in following natural desires which
under his heavens are still holy (desire leading to marriage.)

>Claudio's failing her in that is one of the important steps in bringing
>Isabella into the circle of humanity (she has certainly been beyond that
>pale so far).  Her participation in the "Friar's" trap for Angelo will
>be the next step; finally, her marriage to the Duke will  bring her and
>hold her within that healthy circle, down from the icy heights of her
>earlier, inhuman attitudes that promise only a "finished," cold
>character too dreadfully like that of Angelo.

I see a big turning point in Isabella's humanity happening, too, in the
sisterly relationship she forges with Mariana.  I think it's got to be a
revelation to her that Mariana's love and desire for Angelo could be so
strong that after all that's transpired she could still want him.  When
Isabel herself pleads for Angelo's pardon, it's as if she's declaring to
the Duke that she's a different woman than she was before; her plea for
pity on Angelo neatly reverses the judgment she made on her own brother
before.

>"Measure" is about the need for our soul's accommodation of the body,
>about the patience and mercy to be shown those who give way to the
>demands of the latter, and about the dangers waiting for those who
>imagine that the world and the flesh can be suppressed with a determined
>vow (not realizing that the energy displayed in the vow betrays them
>equally and oppositely to the other camp.)

>This play is about Isabella's - and everyone's - salvation in humanity.

I agree. I just wish the ending weren't so clumsy; I wish there had been
a more intimate scene in which the Duke and Isabel perhaps reveal some
gravitation towards each other before the awkward pre-proposal warning.

Peace,
Ann

[9]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Janet MacLellan <
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Date:           Wed, 17 May 2000 02:28:01 -0500
Subject:        Isabella's Chastity

In noting the shift in values between Shakespeare's time and ours, one
should take care not to give students the impression that Isabella's
choice would have been unproblematic to a first audience. In the source
stories for Measure for Measure, the heroine traditionally gives up her
chastity to save her brother, and is not condemned for doing so. In much
the same way as the classic western or modern action movie delights in
placing ordinary law-abiding folk in circumstances that seem to demand
that they break the taboo on killing another human being, the "corrupt
magistrate" plot places its heroine in a situation in which the
otherwise unforgivable relinquishing of her chastity becomes
justified-indeed, praiseworthy-as an act of charity.

Characteristically, Shakespeare takes this well-established plot and
twists it around: if we can forgive a heroine who gives up her chastity
to save her brother's life, can we forgive one who makes the opposite
choice?  (Shakespeare makes Isabella a nun-to-be, just to complicate our
decision.) Given a widely-accepted incentive to break the chastity
taboo, Isabella chooses nevertheless to abide by it. It is as if the
western/action hero-having seen his father/wife/best friend killed in
cold blood by a villain who is now seeking to destroy him/his family/his
country-were to decide *not* to pull the trigger....but that of course
takes us into the territory of a different Shakespeare play.

Translated into purely secular terms, Isabella's dilemma has always
struck me as something along the lines of "do we negotiate with
terrorists?" Angelo is placing a responsibility on her head which is
not, in fact, hers: does she accept it or not? Doing so would radically
compromise her personal integrity-something very important to the young,
self-absorbed idealist.  An older Isabella, more used to the fact that
many things in life will be beyond her control, might choose
differently.

Ed Taft writes:

>Many serious conservatives argue that the
>separation of sex and procreation has been, overall, a bad thing that
>leaves young women with no cover, no way to say "NO." The result is a
>generation of defenseless young girls who can no longer mount a
>religious or a physiological argument against sex anytime anywhere.
>Some fiercely object to this line of thought, but it seems to me to have
>some value.  As the father of an 11-year old girl who already has
>noticed that some girls in her class are "loose," what is a father to
>do?  Where is her first line of defense, which she will surely need
>soon?  After all, mom or dad probably won't be around when she faces the
>first boy who says, "Show me that you love me."

It is to be hoped that the decline in external prohibitions against sex
has been accompanied in women (and girls) by an increased awareness of
and commitment to their personal right (and responsibility) to choose
when to initiate a sexual relationship. Your daughter need appeal to no
prohibition against sex other than the fact that she doesn't feel ready
for it (or simply doesn't wish to engage in it with this particular
suitor). The "Show me that you love me" argument is so timeworn that I
would suggest uproarious laughter as the most appropriate response, but
equally effective would be "Show me you love *me* by not pressuring me
to do something I don't want to do."

As for what a father's to do, I would imagine a lover of Shakespeare
would be well equipped to ensure that his daughter is not "defenseless"
in the face of others' persuasions. Instruct her in rhetoric, of course:
then she can, if she wishes, mount an argument against any peer pressure
you please, be it to have sex, to take up smoking, to wear those hideous
platform running shoes...

Janet MacLellan
 

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