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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Isabella's Chastity
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1105  Monday, 29 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Gabriel Egan <
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        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 13:29:26 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[2]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 09:50:47 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[3]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 09:51:00 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[4]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 10:20:03 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1090 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[5]     From:   Florence Amit <
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        Date:   Sunday, 28 May 2000 12:52:02 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[6]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Sun, 28 May 2000 10:03:37 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gabriel Egan <
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Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 13:29:26 +0100
Subject: 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Carol Barton wrote

>I (pointedly) referred you to the dictionary, not so that
>you could confirm my exposition, but so that you could
>look up the term "comptroller," which people who
>don't spend their time ferreting out the subversive
>subtexts of cute little blue trains and funny looking
>purple Teletubbies know refers to finance -- and
>not locomotion.

"Comptroller" is a mis-spelling of "controller". You received the
benefit of the doubt.

Gabriel Egan

[Editor's Note: I think it is about time to take this aspect of the
discussion off-line.  -Hardy]

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 09:50:47 +0100
Subject: 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Sean Larence writes:

>Producing an inhuman, even fascist, social organization is all too easy,
>as Angelo shows.  Similarly, the Duke shows that random acts of kindness
>and punishment are also easy to implement, though they make his power
>all the more arbitrary and his rule closer to totalitarian.  The
>question (I think) is one of how to include generosity in the economy of
>social organization without betraying both.

Indeed, and agreed.  Which is why I find pertinent both the space given
to Escalus (the third justice figure in the play) and to the contrast
between Isabella's two appeals for mercy (on which, see below).  I'd
very much echo Sean's final sentence.

Jack Heller writes:

>I am not ready to enter into the discussion of Isabella's chastity, not
>having read the play lately. However, I want to suggest that the
>topicality of Measure for Measure might be related might be found by
>looking to similar "disguised ruler" plays, The Phoenix and The
>Malcontent among them.

And especially Ben Jonson's figure of the disguised Justice Overdo in
+Bartholomew Fair+, which may be a parody of Vincentio.  But rather than
the figure of the disguised justice, +Measure for Measure+ seems to me,
in Shakespeare's own works, to link with other figures who *abdicate*
power -- Lear and Prospero, for instance.

David Bishop writes:

>Maybe the personal interest that comes from being a man leads me to see
>the Duke in a more favorable light than Robin.

The ambiguity of my name may have misled David here -- I share my sex
(if not my clan) with the notorious Scottish reiver Robin Roy McGregor
Campbell, a.k.a. Rob Roy McGregor.

>His condemning Lucio for
>slandering a Duke, for example, seems ok to me, especially since
>Shakespeare makes a point of the outrageousness of the slander. Dukes do
>have to make such judgments sometimes. Here the Duke seems justified.
>Besides, he doesn't even punish Lucio for this as he might.

There are two issues here, I think.  One is how far the slander is as
heinous as the Duke pretends.  It isn't perhaps that outrageous, as the
Duke enters scene three of the play protesting to his father confessor
that he isn't off for a dirty weekend in Brighton, so Lucio can't be
seen as the only figure in the play to harbour doubts over the Duke's
morals.

But I was thinking more, at this point, of how the Duke is judge and
jury (and indeed witness!) in his own case.  The closest parallel I can
think of is Hal at the beginning of +Henry V+, and there, the facts are
presented to Henry V by others, and the traitors when confronted by
their actions immediately (unlike Lucio) confess their guilt.  "I'll be
judge, I'll be jury, / Said cunning old Fury."

>I'm not sure exactly what is unreasoned in Isabella's plea to Angelo, in
>contrast to what is reasoned in her plea to the Duke. But it does seem
>clear that at the end she is correct in treating Angelo as both
>penitent--he says he's so penitent he wants to die--and not guilty of
>murder.

Her first plea is for unrestrained mercy regardless of the nature and
circumstances of the crime.  Her later plea to the Duke for mercy on
Angelo takes account of circumstance, and doesn't challenge the law
itself -- "His act did not o'ertake his bad intent" (etc.).  In this,
the later Isabella stands with Escalus and against Angelo and the Duke.

>Isabella as "helpless, female" in contrast with her male judges makes me
>wonder. Exactly in what way is she more helpless than a male in the same
>position?

I wasn't thinking of anything particularly general, so much as the image
of Isabella (in dramatic terms, assertively female) confronting Angelo,
and later the Duke ...

>It seems to me that Angelo and Lucio, being guilty, are at the
>end more helpless.

... but it could be argued (though I'm not sure that I'd want to) that
Angelo, particularly, is indulging in the (usually male) topos of The
Repentant Traitor [cf. +Henry V+ (above) and elsewhere].

>Seeing the Duke's proposal as something like rape seems to me to overdo
>it.>

I was (metaphorically) suggesting that Vincentio commits an act of rape
on the laws of Venice rather than the body of Isabella -- but the point
isn't, perhaps, irrelevant.  The Duke, after all, proposes to two
figures.  His proposition to Barnardine that he allow himself to be
hanged is turned down unequivocally.  This may be a directive as two how
his (two -- sic!) proposals of marriage to Isabella at the end of the
play are treated.  Interestingly, from the moment when the Duke divests
himself of his guise of Friar, Isabella is quite silent.

>The end could be seen as too neat, and the proposal may seem
>disturbing, and dramatically unsatisfying. But I at least think that
>Shakespeare didn't intend to make the Duke, at the end, seem at all
>villainous.

I'd partly agree, though the ending seems to me quite consonant with a
dramatic presentation of the Duke as an inept blunderer.

Robin Hamilton

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 09:51:00 +0100
Subject: 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

From:           Graham Bradshaw <
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>The assumption, here and in various other contributions, is that Angelo
>condemns Claudio to death "for fornication". <SNIP> Claudio is NOT
>sentenced to death "for fornication", although we keep being told that he
>is, and that assumption may by now be impossible to shake  <SNIP> As we are
>twice told, early on in
>the play, Claudio is sentenced to death "for getting a maid with child."
>That is a very different matter, and one which "all European legal codes"
>take seriously.

The law of Venice is, at the least, blurred in the play.  On the side of
fornication, I.ii ...

LUCIO: What, is't murder?
CLADIO:                           No.
LUCIO:                                    Lechery?
CLAUDIO:                                               Call it so.

II,1 Escalus to Angelo ...

"your own affections,/ Had time coher'd with place, or place with
wishing,/ ... you had not sometime in your life / Err'd in this
point..." -- an act of (mere) fornication would seem to fit better than
an act of conception, to these words of Esacalus'.

Later in II,i, where Pompey says:

"If you head and hang all that offend that way but for ten year
together, you'll be glad to give out a commission for more heads."
Again, lechery rather than procreation would seem to be in question.

I'll leave it to Graham to make the opposite case (for which, I'd agree,
there is a case to be made).  Graham is certainly right to draw
attention to the element of conception in the play, and that it's a
little glib to present, without argument, the undefined law as applying
to fornication.

>In legal terms, Angelo does not commit the same crime as Claudio when he
>fornicates. In moral terms, abandoning Mariana when she could not
>deliver the promised dowry is horribly callous, but not a legal crime in
>Elizabethan law (although it would have been if Angelo had slept with
>Mariana--hemce the Duke's machinations).

My understanding is that in sleeping with Mariana, Angelo isn't
committing a crime (in terms of either Elizabethan or 'Venetian' law) at
all, but consumating a marriage and rendering it legally valid.  What he
THINKS he has done -- slept with Isabella and executed Claudio) is
another matter ...

>These two case involve DOWRIES.

I do think Graham's quite right to emphasise this point.

>In legal terms, Lucio does commit the same crime as Claudio when he
>fathers an illegitimate child by Kate Keepdown. In moral terms, Lucio's
>is far worse: he doesn't love Kate, and refuses to support the child,
>and even contrives to set the law against the woman who has looked after
>his infant bastard (one of this play's rare gleams of human kindness,
>which comes from the "lower depths"). These two cases involve
>ILLEGITIMATE CHILDREN.

In legal terms, perhaps, but (especially in Jacobean times) moral?  I
suspect this turns on just how one sees Kate Keepdown.  Her name
suggests that she is one of Mistress Overdone's employees (and Lucio,
if, admittedly, no one else, defines her as an whore).  This being so,
where is the evidence that it is Lucio rather than anyone else (Froth?)
who is the father of her child?

>Shakespeare challenges his audience to think about how these three cases
>overlap, and differ. He also invents a Duke who can't even begin to see
>how the three cases bear on each other, and who declares that Lucio
>deserves what he gets, not for violating the "strict statutes", but for
>"slandering a prince".

This, I entirely agree with.

Robin Hamilton

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 10:20:03 +0100
Subject: 11.1090 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1090 Re: Isabella's Chastity

> From:           Gabriel Egan <
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> Forgive my teasing jest of ignorance. Actually, OED offers:
>
> D.C. (Music) = da capo (q.v.);
> D.C., d.c., direct current;
> D.C., District Commissioner;
>
> and nothing for the city. For my part, I forgive as unintentional the
> gravely offensive label of "cosmopolitan Brit" (OED Brit n. 3).

Having looked up the OED1, I cannot find any reference to (OED Brit n.
3) -- is Dr. Egan thinking, perhaps of "berk", and its rhyming-slang
etymology?

Robin Hamilton

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Florence Amit <
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Date:           Sunday, 28 May 2000 12:52:02 +0000
Subject: 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

David Bishop wonders in beautiful detail how far from every day humanity
one may dare remove the Duke. I have wondered too.  But what ever that
may be, it is clear that the kind of decision put before Isabella is of
the hardest in literature, as the source from Job indicates. Here are
some similar examples: There is Catherine Sloper in Henry James'
"Washington Square", who must promise to dismiss from her unrequited
dreams of marriage, her vanquished lover, Morris Townsend:

"He has grown fat and bald, and he has not made his fortune. But I can't
trust those facts alone to steel your heart against him, and that's why
I ask you to promise."

"Fat and bald;" these words presented a strange image to Catherine's
mind, out of which the memory of the most beautiful young man in the
world had never faded. "I don't think you understand," she said. "I very
seldom think of Mr. Townsend."

"It will be very easy for you to go on, then. Promise me, after my
death, to do the same."

Again, for some moments, Catherine was silent; her father's request
deeply amazed her; it opened an old wound and made it ache afresh. "I
don't think I can promise that," she answered.

"It would be a great satisfaction," said her father.

"You don't understand. I can't promise that."

The Doctor was silent a minute. "I ask you for a particular reason. I am
altering my will."

This reason failed to strike Catherine; and indeed she scarcely
understood it. All her feelings were merged in the sense that he was
trying to treat her as he had treated her years before. She had suffered
from it then; and now all her experience, all her acquired tranquility
and rigidity, protested.  She had been so humble in her youth that she
could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this
request, and in her father's thinking himself so free to make it, that
seemed an injury to her dignity.  Poor Catherine's dignity was not
aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you
could find it. Her father had pushed very far.

"I can't promise," she simply repeated.

"You are very obstinate," said the Doctor.

"I don't think you understand."

"Please explain, then."

"I can't explain," said Catherine. "And I can't promise"

Another example is found in Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey". Catherine
Morland  refuses her brother's desire for her participation in an outing
and succeeds all alone to neutralizes the manipulation of his friend
Thorpe. "She had not been withstanding them on selfish principles alone,
she had not consulted merely her own gratification; ... no, she had
attended to what was due to others, and to her own character in their
opinion"

Or closer by far, Cordelia. Why does she not oblige her father with a
few nice words?  Why does not Juliet acquiesce to her father's wishes
and marry the County Paris? Or Desdemona - why so arbitrarily to wed
Othello? What can a passive person do when confronting tyranny? How is
it that so many women in literature, although, more cruelly, whole
communities in life, will refuse to be compromised or be a party to what
for them is a falsehood?  Why are there martyrs in the name of
integrity? Is it not because the collective responds harshly to a
manifestation that it does not want to understand?  God's martyrs one
must call them for they are so utterly alone, as this forum clearly
illustrates. Isabella stands alone in her integrity except for her God.
Yes, except for Anyone's God who in a similar situation becomes the only
succor. So perhaps here there is a germ of an answer for David Bishop's
quandary. The Duke is divine to the degree that the individual is
isolated.  And the contrary is also true: the critics of such an
individual are base according to their willingness to allow she or he to
be compromised. It is not Isabella that should be weakened, women at
least should know, but Angelo.

Florence Amit

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Sun, 28 May 2000 10:03:37 -0700
Subject: 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1100 Re: Isabella's Chastity

I'd like to respond to Graham Bradshaw's note by broadly agreeing with
it:

> Claudio is NOT sentenced to death "for fornication", although we keep
> being told that he is, and that assumption may by now be impossible to
> shake (like the assumption that Hamlet's Mousetrap MUST be a success, or
> that Othello and Desdemona MUST have consummated their marriage on the
> first night in Cyprus.) Fornication is a necessary but not a sufficient
> condition for the crime in question. As we are twice told, early on in
> the play, Claudio is sentenced to death "for getting a maid with child."
> That is a very different matter, and one which "all European legal
> codes" take seriously.

I'd like to add that, from my dim memories of reading about the
proceedings of ordinary (i.e., not ordinary, but canonical) courts, the
overriding concern of the magistrates was to ensure child support.
Being forced to marry (as Lucio is) is therefore a reasonable
punishment, since one has to care for one's spouse and child.  Paying
support of some sort or other is another possible response.  Death seems
like an extraordinary punishment, but early modern justice, unable to
actually capture even a representative sampling of criminals, made up
for the shortcoming by publicly destroying those that they did.  I don't
think it would be pushing this logic too far to say that the law alluded
to in the play is a sort of extreme deterrence against stubbornly
deadbeat dads.

What's interesting is not only how critics have misread the law (and I
think that Graham's corrective is absolutely to the point here), but
also how the characters within the play misread the law.  "Let him marry
her" is an adequate response to Claudio's crime, for everyone but
Angelo, who sees the difficulty in Puritanical terms, as one of out of
control sexuality.  In fact, he's not alone in seeing the law as gelding
and splaying the whole of Vienna's youth.  Irresponsible sex has become
inseparable from sex per se in the public discourse of Vienna, and the
world becomes divided between those, like Lucio, who want irresponsible
sex, and those who want no sex at all, with further complications as
Angelo becomes corrupt and the Duke tries to marry.  By the end, of
course, Lucio, who the law was really aimed at in the first place, is
forced to marry Kate Keepdown, but as a more or less arbitrary
punishment for insubordination, not in order to ensure that he supports
their child.

The law is transformed, in its applications, from an effort at providing
child support and forcing responsibility for one's actions, to an
instrument of arbitrary state power, and passes through Puritanism on
the way.  Not only do different legal assumptions apply to the different
cases, but the laws themselves change in the course of application.

Cheers,
Se

 

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