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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Isabella's Chastity
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1061  Thursday, 18 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 17 May 2000 09:57:49 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Isabella

[2]     From:   Michael Friedman <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 17 May 2000 12:01:59 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1036 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[3]     From:   Michael Skovmand <
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        Date:   Thursday, 18 May 2000 14:14:13 +0200
        Subj:   re: Isabella's Chastity


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 May 2000 09:57:49 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Isabella

I appreciate the good advice from Janet MacLellan on how to raise
daughters these days, and she will be happy to know that I have-and
will-follow it. But Janet-and others- seem to assume that if a father
and mother do their job, all will be well.

That's not so, Janet. Every woman-child that gets pregnant or does dope
is not the victim of bad parents. Some of the best and kindest and most
admirable of parents find that, despite their best efforts, their child
has gone wrong.

It's a cultural, societal problem, Janet, that cannot be completely
remedied by lecturing parents to do their job better.

The world of today's teen and pre-teen is full of extraordinary
pressures that are far more intense than those I faced in highschool
(1966-1970), and it's worst of all for young girls.

As just one example: if you look at what models say, they all parrot the
same line: "My external beauty is really a sign of my inner beauty."
What a perversion of the once-honored notion of chastity!  And a
not-so-subtle message that it's beauty that counts, and "real" women (1)
have it and (2) use it!

Parents need help these days, Janet. They can no longer do it alone.

Best wishes,
--Ed Taft

PS      The link to Isabella and MM is that young women today face the
obverse of the problem Isabella faces. In short, what happens to women
when the notion of soul disappears and "the body is all there is"!

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Friedman <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 May 2000 12:01:59 -0400
Subject: 11.1036 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1036 Re: Isabella's Chastity

In the first round of responses to the issue of Isabella's choice
between her chastity and her brother's life, several of the respondents
used the term "rape" to apply to Angelo's assault on Isabella's
virginity.  The application of that term to this situation has always
been problematic for me, so I thought I would share some thoughts. These
two paragraphs come from the same unpublished MS that contains my
earlier remarks on "I will go get her picture" (again, documentation has
been removed but is available on request).  After a lengthy survey of
recent productions that portray Angelo's offer to Isabella as part of a
rape attempt, the following passage appears:

Turning Angelo into an attempted rapist in 2.4 also has repercussions
for the overall presentation of his reunion with Mariana at the end of
the play.  First, the act of rape distorts the nature of the perverted
sexuality of Angelo, whose arousal flows from the thought of
contaminating the purity of Isabella, not from a desire to exert power
over her or to experience the pleasure of the sexual act itself
(2.2.170-72).

Angelo does not wish to violate Isabella sexually against her will;
rather, he lusts to befoul her immaculate spirit by convincing her to
give up her virginity voluntarily in order to obtain her suit.  While
rape implies a lack of consent, Angelo bids Isabella,

             Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
             Lay by all niceties and prolixious blushes
             That banish what they sue for.  Redeem thy brother
             By yielding up thy body to my will;
             Or else he must not only die the death,
             But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
             To ling'ring sufferance. (2.4.160-66)

Angelo wants Isabella to consent willingly to her own defilement by
yielding up her body to his desire, but an element of coercion also
comes into play when the deputy vows to torture Claudio with a slow,
lingering death unless Isabella agrees to the bargain.  As a general
principle, consent may not be obtained by force or threats, but the
legal issue is complicated by the fact that Angelo's threat is not
directed at his ostensible victim, but at her brother, whose life is
forfeit to the law already.  I believe it is fair to say that, while
some modern readers may consider Angelo's proposition a form of rape,
for others, a term like "sexual blackmail," without connotations of
physical force, may seem more accurate.  However, performing the
monstrous ransom as an attempted rape, complete with graphic sexual
advances, settles this question more simply than the text presents it.

Secondly, characterizing Angelo as a would-be rapist skews his portrayal
so far to the side of evil that his marriage to Mariana at the end of
the play becomes problematic for a feminist interpretation.  Productions
of Two Gentlemen that enact Proteus's "rude uncivil touch" as an episode
of extreme sexual violence may also elect to suggest, as several recent
versions have done, that Julia, who witnesses the attack, may not be
willing to marry him.  By contrast, Mariana's desire to wed Angelo so
thoroughly pervades the conclusion of Measure that it cannot be
eliminated from an authentic performance of the play.  Thus, those
productions that dramatize an equivalent attack by Angelo on Isabella
cannot later avoid showing Mariana's undying love for this abusive man,
which tends to paint female sexual desire (unfavorably, from a feminist
point of view) as a form of masochism.  Actor Ian Richardson, who played
both Proteus and Angelo as sexually violent offenders for the RSC in
1970, recalls the effect that this conception of Angelo had on the
portrayal of Mariana in Barton's production:

I found his sexuality sinister, perhaps a kind of sadist who has met a
masochist, and this rubbed off again on Sarah Kestleman who played
Mariana, who felt that if this was so then, as she had been in love
            with Angelo, then she must play the part as someone who
really rather
            goes in for that kind of thing.

A performance of Measure that shows Mariana electing to marry and plead
for a man who abuses power may still accomplish some aspects of a
feminist agenda, especially if, through her influence, he shows promise
of becoming "much more the better / For being a little bad"
(5.4.438-39).  However, a production that depicts Angelo as a man who
abuses women physically, and Mariana as "someone who really rather goes
in for that kind of thing," sends a message about sexual dynamics that
runs counter to the designs of mainstream feminism.  Therefore, although
the depiction of Angelo's proposition in 2.4 as a sexual assault may
achieve a feminist objective by evoking sympathy for Isabella's devotion
to her chastity, such a choice may also have repercussions later in the
play that operate against feminist goals.

Michael D. Friedman
University of Scranton

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[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Skovmand <
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Date:           Thursday, 18 May 2000 14:14:13 +0200
Subject:        re: Isabella's Chastity

The discussion concerning Isabella's chastity, it seems to me, is very
much to do with MM being both a problem play and a comedy, and the
two-handed way in which Shakespeare distributes his authorial
sympathies. In 2.2 and 2.4 we are witnessing a confrontation between
Angelo and Isabella with a strong principled undertow, to do with sexual
harassment and the abuses of power.  Isabella's "Israeli" hard line in
not backing down in the face of sexual blackmail is given authorial
sympathy, by showing her extreme vulnerability (" who will believe
you?"), and subsequently by pointing to the uselessness of giving in, in
that Angelo orders Claudio's execution anyway. However, in the prison
scene between Claudio and Isabella, the problem is milked for strong
comedy - with Claudio first being persuaded by the Duke that death is so
much nicer than life,  then Claudio pleading with his sister (death is a
fearful thing!), and then finally, after another deceitful talking-to by
the duke, with Claudio again "so out of love with life that I will sue
to get rid of it". And of course, in parallel, Isabella's special
pleading, first trying to ease her own guilt by making Claudio like the
idea of death, and ending up damning him: "I'll pray a thousand prayers
for thy death".  This, effectively, marks the end of the problem play in
MM. The remainder of the play is concerned with the duke's shenanigans,
with Isabella as a passive assistant.

This generic complexity, it seems to me, shows up the limitations  of a
'Bradleyan'  character analysis of Isabella. She is a vehicle for a
principled dramatisation of  power and personal ethics, but she is also
a character in a comedy in which the incongruities between abstract
morality and personal interest  are dramatised - and I don't think
Shakespeare had any sleepless nights about a possible lack  of 'unity of
character'!

Michael Skovmand
U. of Aarhus,
Denmark
 

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