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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Isabella's Chastity
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1112  Tuesday, 30 May 2000.

From:           Edmund M. Taft <
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Date:           Monday, 29 May 2000 22:31:11 +0000
Subject:        Isabella

In many productions of Measure for Measure, the two most visually
arresting moments in the play are (1) Juliet's first appearance, where
we SEE for the first time the visual evidence that she is with child;
and (2) the end of the play, where many directors decide to include
prominently in the crowd Kate Keepdown and her young child, which was
fathered by Lucio.

I mention these two instances because, whether or not Graham Bradshaw is
right about the precise nature of the law that has been violated, he is
surely right in a higher ethical and moral sense.  There are children
involved here, and their welfare must be taken into account.

Think of how this fact might cause us to re-examine some parts of the
play, for example, 2.1.23FF:

                'Tis very PREGNANT (emphasis added!)
    The jewel that we find, we stoop and take't
    Because we see it; but what we do not see
    We tred upon and never think of it.

These words are spoken by Angelo, of course, after the good Escalus has
pleaded for a lighter sentence for Claudio.  What has Angelo completely
missed?  As the obvious pun makes clear, he has neglected to consider
the fact that Juliet is pregnant.  WHAT SENSE DOES IT MAKE TO KILL
CLAUDIO AND THUS INSURE THAT CLAUDIO's CHILD WILL BE NOT ONLY CONCEIVED
OUTSIDE OF FORMAL MARRIAGE BUT ALSO HAVE NO FATHER?

It makes no sense ethically, morally, or, it seems to me, legally.  Now
let's turn to the Duke. Right after having met Juliet for the first time
(2.3) and upbraiding her for being selfish, the Duke goes to Claudio and
lectures him on his need to "[b]e absolute for death"!  Just like
Angelo, the Duke can't see what is right in front of his nose!  Be
absolute for death when a child needs a father!  What rubbish!

Finally, consider Isabella's pleas to Angelo, and ask yourself this
question: What argument does she leave out? The answer should be clear
by now: she leaves out the most important argument of all-that Claudio
has a duty to help bring up his soon-to-be-born child.

All three of these characters-Angelo, the Duke, and Isabella-suffer from
the same malady. It's not that they are vile persons; it's that they
are-and have been-far too isolated from common humanity to be able to
recognize what true justice is or how to properly implement it.  This
observation lets us see the fundamental connection between MM and "judge
not, lest ye be judged."  Unlike Angelo, the Duke, and Isabella, Christ
spent his time among the poor.  If he were in Vienna, he would not be in
Angelo's palace or in the Duke's study or isolated with a bunch of
Monks. No, he would have been IN THE STEWS, for THERE IS WHERE THE
PROBLEM IS.

There's a lot more to say on this subject, especially on the idea of
justice abstractly conceived. But I'll address it later in another post.
For now, I want to end by connecting up my earlier posts about raising a
child nowadays to this last post.  The problem of children-in
Shakespeare's time and ours-is still with us.  In MM Shakespeare
suggests that isolation of elites and selfish concern for our own
pleasure can lead to child neglect. Well, isn't that just as true now as
it was 400 years ago?  Stephen Greenblatt argues that we can only
understand Shakespeare now because his time is so different from our
own. I would suggest that the opposite is ALSO true: we understand him
because-in different ways-the problems of his time are PRECISELY the
concerns of our own!

--Ed Taft
 

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