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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Isabella's Chastity
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1072  Saturday, 22 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Patrick Dolan <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 May 2000 08:48:54 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[2]     From:   Lee Gibson <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 May 2000 10:01:00 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[3]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 May 2000 10:34:19 -0700
        Subj:   SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[4]     From:   Kezia Vanmeter Sproat <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 May 2000 16:29:42 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[5]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 May 2000 17:53:41 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[6]     From:   Edmund M. Taft <
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        Date:   Saturday, 20 May 2000 00:47:29 +0000
        Subj:   Isabella

[7]     From:   Melissa D. Aaron <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 May 2000 23:16:12 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[8]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Saturday, 20 May 2000 20:59:32 -0400
        Subj:   RE: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[9]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Sunday, 21 May 2000 20:00:24 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[10]    From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Sunday, 21 May 2000 11:22:23 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Patrick Dolan <
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Date:           Friday, 19 May 2000 08:48:54 -0500
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Graham Bradshaw says,

>Before it does,
>I'd like to express a deep misgiving about this kind of discussion,
>which "highlights" a particular "issue", and then discusses it in
>relation to what "we" think. Isn't this procedure too like a TV chatshow
>discussion of what some character says or does in a TV soap opera?

I think his misgivings are well taken.

But in teaching a play as complex as MfM (or any play worth teaching) to
undergraduates, I think it's best to start with the frame my students
have ("Hey, sex is no big thing. Whatever.") and then show them that
within their own cultural resources we can find another frame to see
(Coercive sexuality, i.e., in today's terms, rape). Then we proceed to
the multiple frames that history can show us (the sources, Tudor/Stuart
discourse on sex and death) and then to the multiple frames that
Shakespeare provides. It's an additive process. One that, by the way, is
forced to leave out the multiple frames that the history of criticism
(Pope, Johnson, Coleridge and any number or our contemporaries). Ah
well, some will go to grad school, poor fools.

Pat

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Lee Gibson <
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Date:           Friday, 19 May 2000 10:01:00 -0500
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

It is a rare day indeed when I find myself in agreement with Gabriel
Egan, but I find his observations on the following quite worthwhile.

>>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.

No child should ever be taught to think of herself (or himself) as a
"commodity," precious or otherwise, and the notion that people who are
no longer virgins "have nothing special left to give" to others is not
only dangerously conservative, as Egan notes, but also quite obviously
false.  It is precisely this kind of romance novel moral posturing that
is the cause of much unnecessary shame and widespread misery in
relationships.

As for MM, I have always found Isabella every bit as disagreeable a
character as Angelo. Her action, like his, comes equally from a desire
for self-gratification at someone else's expense.  Clearly, they deserve
each other.

Lee Gibson
Department of English
Southern Methodist University

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Friday, 19 May 2000 10:34:19 -0700
Subject: Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

As usual, Graham Bradshaw clears away a lot of rubbish with his
excellent sense.  After showing that MFM is a much more challenging play
then the current discussion recognizes, he concludes:

>First, if we give more weight to whatever opinions "we" bring to the
>show, before we've seen and thought about whatever the show shows,
>wouldn't that imply that we can learn nothing from the study of
>literature and drama? Secondly, don't many of those who keep insisting
>that Shakespeare is of his age, not for all time, seem to suppose that
>their own values and opinions are somehow not of an age, but for all
>time? Am I alone in finding this odd (though all too human)? Are all
>values and beliefs culturally and historically specific, EXCEPT our own?

I have been rather stewing in my own pudding as this conversation has
developed, frustrated that we have done a fine job describing the trees,
but have not noticed the forest.  We do it every time we discuss
Merchant, where we commonly focus on Shylock, and are doing it again
with MFM.  I don't know if Dr. Bradshaw's words have made you drunk, but
they have made me bold.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the play also about law and
grace, forgiveness and redemption, keeping your word and not being
forsworn, finding a sane balance between extreme tendencies, and flawed
people making choices?  Or am I an insensitive reader of this text?

Cheers,
Mike Jensen

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kezia Vanmeter Sproat <
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Date:           Friday, 19 May 2000 16:29:42 EDT
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

>One might almost think Shakespeare
>had doubts about the whole capitalist patriarchy.


No question.

Kezia Vanmeter Sproat

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Friday, 19 May 2000 17:53:41 -0400
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Astride his customary hobby-horse, Gabriel Egan writes:

>Carol Barton offers parenting advice to the father of an 11 year old
 girl:
>
>>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.
>
>It's only ever girls who get told such harmful nonsense, never boys.
>This idea of sex as something that is done to you, that the other will
>take something from you, might be a brutal reality (especially for
>sex-workers) but surely isn't the way a child should be encouraged to
>think about relationships.

How does a supposedly enlightened young man who regularly (and
self-righteously) presumes to "correct" others' interpretations of text,
and who (heaven help us) is in the business of enlightening young minds,
derive such a reading as this one from what I recommended to Ed Taft?

>Barton's advice is heterosexist and dangerously conservative.

"Heterosexist." This would mean I am promoting the heterosexual? Or that
I am sexist only when it comes to differences? "Dangerously
conservative," I understand, Gabriel: I suspect more than a few of us
have applied that term to you.

>Ed's child
>would be better advised to take active control over her body and mind so
>that she doesn't come to dislike herself under societal pressure.
>(Teaching undergraduates Althusser's notion of ideology I use as an
>example the phenomenon of dieting; it brings home the subtlety of
>powerfully coercive forces about which little is spoken in everyday
>life.)

I do not have to resort to Althusser to teach a child, male or female,
self-respect and self-value, which was precisely the point of my
advice.  Children should not be taught to deny their sexuality, as
Isabella does- but neither should they be encouraged to undervalue it
(and by extension, themselves), either. Like you, apparently, Isabella
is afraid of her own sexuality, sees it as a monster to be beaten down
and tranquilized, not as another part of her humanity to be celebrated,
at the same time as she is paradoxically using  control of that body as
coinage in the realm of the power-brokers, while tearfully asserting
that her only concern is for the condition of her immortal soul. She is
as much a hypocrite as Angelo is, as a result, and as much a negotiator,
a willing participant in the body-brokering game: they have the facade
of respectability, without any understanding of what it means to be
respectable. Quite on the other hand, I was suggesting that Ed's
daughter value herself, her whole personhood, her sexuality as well as
her personality, as a unique and special gift, something precious, and
not a thing (yes, Larry, I know the pun) to be squandered or used
improperly to satisfy the testosterone-driven "love" of the boys of
spring. I am surprised that you haven't taken me to task for calling it
a "gift"-but the ability to love and be loved, and the wonder and joy we
feel at apprehension of another's ability to see in us better than we
see in ourselves such that he or she is willing to put our well-being
above his or her own, is a gift beyond measure
For measure.

>Promiscuity is often a sign of unhappiness, but Barton's
>marketplace model encourages careful trading (to keep the price high)
>rather than tackling the underlying problem: the commodification of
>women.

Really, Gabriel?? Thank you for this enlightened interpretation,
spinning (out of control, rather than turning) on the use of a single
term taken woefully out of context. I suggest you re-read my post, and
when you have done that, that you read it again.

>MM is problematic partly because it presents the sexual marketplace
>(whether overt like Overdone's trade or covert like Mariana's) as one
>which is rigged for men's benefit. One might almost think Shakespeare
>had doubts about the whole capitalist patriarchy.

No, one might think Shakespeare had doubts about anyone who protested
his or her own righteousness too much, and presumed, in your case, in
the name of a clearly fashionable and superficial feminism, to do what
you are doing. Tell me, Gabriel, were you among the crowd of fine,
upstanding citizens who drove a 'DC comptroller out of office for using
the racial slur "niggardly"?

Might I suggest that you think twice, or three times, before you next
blow your trump?

Carol Barton

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund M. Taft <
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Date:           Saturday, 20 May 2000 00:47:29 +0000
Subject:        Isabella

If agreeable to Sophie and Janet, I want to take this discussion of
modern parenting off list-I'll respond to both of you ASAP.  But I
cannot leave unanswered Gabriel Egan's cheap shot at Carol Barton.
Carol's use of the word "commodity" sends Egan into paroxisms of
righteous indignation:

>It's only ever girls who get told such harmful nonsense, never boys.
>This idea of sex as something that is done to you, that the other will
 >take something from you, might be a brutal reality (especially for
 >sex workers) but surely isn't the way a child should be encouraged to
 >think about relationships."

This banshee cry totally misses Carol's point-which is that sex is
really a gift-or should be-from one loving person to the other.  As
such, it is EXACTLY the OPPOSITE of a marketplace model in which
everything has its price.  Just as we don't give priceless gifts away
promiscuously, so we don't give away ourselves to every Tom, Dick, or
Harry (or Sue, Jane, or Mary).

Egan might get off his high horse for a second and do some hard thinking
about what mature male and female sex and love are all about.  At
bottom, in the best loving relationships, each partner is most concerned
about giving pleasure to the OTHER.  And the body is the gift that
allows the other to experience this pleasure.  Neither partner misses
out because each knows that pleasing the other is the paramount aim.

A free gift freely given to another is capitalism turned on its head.
The expectation of a free gift in turn is capitalism turned twice on its
head.  (Not that I disapprove of capitalism-it has its place in the
hierarchy of relationships, but it is not part of the act of love as
ideally defined.)

The clear intent of Carol's advice is not "careful trading (to keep the
price high)"; rather, it is not to trade at all because some things are
NOT subject to the marketplace but between two people whose value (to
each other) goes beyond notions of money and price.

Having vented, I want to end by agreeing with Egan that MM is about "the
sexual marketplace."  And it is highly possible that "Shakespeare had
doubts about the whole capitalist patriarchy." Such doubts appear in
other plays, and they appear in MM as well.  Why else would the play
emphasize "coining" and "stamping"?  Why else would it suggest, rather
disgustingly, that for (some) of the characters, one head [maidenhead]
will do just as well as another head [maidenhead]?

If you think this response is tough, Gabriel, wait until Carol answers
you!

--Ed Taft

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa D. Aaron <
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Date:           Friday, 19 May 2000 23:16:12 -0700
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Re:  The issue of what sort of rhetorical tools a young woman ought to
have
handy:

Many years ago, the then head of the department in which I was trained,
the formidable Helen C. White, supposedly received a letter from the
mother of a young woman.  Fearful that her daughter would be corrupted
in the big city (Madison, Wisconsin), she asked for advice.

Helen C. White's advice was to give the young person a copy of Marvell's
"To His Coy Mistress," and advise her not to succumb to the advances of
a gentleman who was less eloquent.

Melissa D. Aaron
http://www.csupomona.edu/~maaron/index.html
Department of English and Foreign Languages
California Polytechnic State University at Pomona

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Saturday, 20 May 2000 20:59:32 -0400
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        RE: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

I emphatically agree, and I would add that we should not overlook as
sources the ubiquitous seduction theme throughout the literature: Venus
and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Lover's Complaint, Hero and
Leander, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, ad infinitum.  In the last, for
instance, the roles are shuffled a bit: the girl is told that to save
the life of this great and good man (Troilus), she must submit to his
lust for her, but the moral issues, as well as the rhetoric, are
strikingly similar.

> By departing from his source materials, Shakespeare complicates this
> legal/moral/divine "frame" in various other ways. Stephen Greenblatt
> once described the study of Shakespeare's sources as the elephants'
> graveyard of Shakespeare criticism. I think such study can show how our
> "interpretations" too often work to simplify what Shakespeare worked to
> complicate.
> Graham Bradshaw

Clifford Stetner
CUNY Graduate Center
http://phoenix.liu.edu/~cstetner/cds.htm

[9]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Sunday, 21 May 2000 20:00:24 -0400
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Even after counting to ten, I can't resist adding my two cents to the
likely flood of responses to Graham Bradshaw's wonderfully suggestive
remarks on Measure for Measure.

What exactly are the intractably different conceptions of justice? Is it
moral vs legal vs divine justice? What would that mean? Is "Judge not"
one conception of justice? Which one? Why is the movement from "Judge
not" to "justice" a fall? Is "Judge not" a more elevated conception of
justice, or a more elevated moral response? Not judging gets linked
somehow-how?--to measure for measure, not to mention strict respect for
the law, in the Sermon on the Mount.  Maybe there's one spectrum that
runs from "Judge not" through merciful judging, through punishing crime,
with pity for those who' ll be harmed if you don't, through personally,
interestedly, demanding "justice", through seeking "revenges". Where do
you draw the line between distinct conceptions of justice here?

The final "orgy of mercy" seems to me more than mercy. It brings about
three marriages that have been improperly deferred. The mutually loving
relation of Claudio and Juliet isn't condemned, is it? It's their
fornication that's condemned, then set right. Angelo, when he still
thinks he's guilty of Claudio's death, asks for death out of
"penitence", not a desire never to have sex again.

Where does the doubt in "real or alleged mess" come from? How do you
understand the play if you don't accept that Vienna, at the moment, is a
mess?

The Duke's test seems modeled, as Florence Amit says, on God's
experiment with Job. The comedic signals, including the Duke's
omnipresence, let us feel the outcome is preordained. The experiment
puts the Duke on a better footing to be strict with mercy-after Angelo
has, in effect, scared Vienna straight. But I'd stop short of simply
assigning that motive to the Duke.  Angelo might speak for the Duke's
dilemma, in the beginning, when he says, "when once our grace we have
forgot,/Nothing goes right-we would, and we would not."

I wonder if the fourteen, or nineteen, years of misrule symbolically
corresponds to the age of Isabella. Her fanatical purity may be a
implicit reaction against the state of Vienna. Marriage to the Duke
seems to cap the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure of the play.

David

[10]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Sunday, 21 May 2000 11:22:23 -0700
Subject: 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1068 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Hi, all.

I've been away for a little while, and am just catching up now.  I
should warn any readers that this message is fairly long, and ask Hardy
to put it at the end of a digest, so as to be more easily skipped past.

In the latest digest on the subject of Isabella's chastity, whether she
should defend it, and what it means, Graham Bradshaw complains that we
tend, in spite of all protestations of historical relativism, to judge
characters from within our own position, and proposes a reading based
more on problems of skepticism.  In his critique, he seems to echo
Michael Skovmand's argument, posted on Thursday, against character
criticism.

I would like to argue that the issue of the play which we've all been
dancing around is neither characterological, nor simply a matter of our
own visceral (and dehistoricized) responses to the play, but a
philosophical issue, worked over in a number of Shakespeare's plays.
Ann Carrigan has pointed out that "Isabella [is] only one in a line of
likeable but misguided zealots in the canon" and draws a comparison with
the young men of Love's Labours Lost.  All such characters try to avoid
the fact of fallenness, of having to operate in an imperfect world,
because they themselves are imperfect.  L. Swilley's nicely phrased
"salvation in humanity" seems - to me at least - to imply the salvation
of a sinner rather than of an immaculate saint (the central paradox of
Christianity, according to Luther) and this begins with an acceptance of
one's own and the world's fallen state, a movement away from a
divinely-ordered world picture towards the heartache and the thousand
natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

To return briefly to Dr. Bradshaw's complaint about historicists not
historicizing their own position, the play, insofar as it stages the
fall of man, seems to allow historicism to itself be historicized.
"History", the world of negotiations and trade-offs, is not merely a
given.  On the contrary, the historicity of being is itself the product
of a process, a fall, dramatized in the failure of 'precise' characters
to maintain their own unreal standards.  And since history is entered
into, its trades and trade-offs do not become a totalizing logic of
their own, ultimately melting into the nihilism of the marketplace.

Ros King argues that "Honesty and decency and a salvation in humanity
are perhaps not possible in certain political and religious systems".  I
would like to reverse the argument (or perhaps extend it), and say that
no political or religious system, qua system or qua politics, can remove
the need for honesty and decency and salvation in humanity.  Gandhi said
that the problem with political science is that it seeks to create a
system so good that people don't have to be any good.  Utopias fail,
throughout the Shakespearean canon.  One cannot hope to escape human
imperfection into a convent or a community of study or a personal armour
of righteousness.

Such efforts at escape aren't only - in Shakespeare's play, at least -
examples of sexual repression, but also represent a positive failure of
responsibility and engagement in the world.  In trying to be good, the
characters fail to do good.  Of course, doing anything in the world
opens one to charges of corruption and to a totalizing materialist
analysis in terms of power and economics, but perhaps that is only the
price of engagement.  In any case, in the plays, one doesn't just engage
by default in history.  One is called upon to engage, by the needs of
other people or by the failure of one's own ideals (the brother on death
row, for instance).  And the call (we might say, the 'ethical
motivation') is transcendent to the negotiations in which it is worked
out.

The issue really isn't (with apologies to Annalisa and Ros) whether
Angelo would carry through his side of the bargain, but whether a
woman's body should be an item in a bargain in the first place, whether
the world is ineluctably one of negotiation and exchange, uninformed by
anything standing over and against a world so corrupt and basely
material that bargaining over lives and bodies becomes thinkable, even
becomes the only way to think, the only sort of thought which counts.
The play asks us to be skeptical towards the usual means by which we
know the world, but not merely in order to crumble into the sort of
cynicism which would subvert or demystify all beliefs and values that
raise a person above an item of exchange, and leave us more or less
agreeing with Lucio in his trivialization of the sex trade.  We must
leave aside the knowing that reduces people to things, and to items of
exchange, in favour of acknowledging people.

This leads me back to Gabriel's most recent message to Carol Barton.
Despite the debate, I think (with respect) that the two of you actually
aren't that far apart.  Barton's advice doesn't strike me as an instance
of commodification; she doesn't hold to a totalizing ontology in which
everything is, at least in principle, interchangeable.  On the contrary,
it proclaims a particular thing to be a 'gift', not an item of exchange
(perhaps it isn't even a thing; Jean-Luc Marion has argued that the gift
is not simply a being available to the hand).  It provides, in other
words, an alternative rhetoric to "the commodification of women," which
I'm positive that you both abhor.

Cheers,
Se

 

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