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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: June ::
Re: Isabella's Chastity
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1226  Friday, 15 June 2000.

[1]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jun 2000 11:27:53 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1213 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[2]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jun 2000 12:16:30 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1222 Re: Isabella's Chastity

[3]     From:   Philip Tomposki <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jun 2000 16:11:36 EDT
        Subj:   Re: Isabella's Chastity


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Jun 2000 11:27:53 -0700
Subject: 11.1213 Re: Isabella's Chastity
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1213 Re: Isabella's Chastity

Ed Taft has rather kind things to say about my and Ian Munro's comments
on this list, and I feel that I ought to respond.

Ian suggests that we might frame Angelo's malfeasance "as political
instead of moral (not that the two are completely separable)".  I'd
agree that it's certainly possible to do this, but I'd further argue
that a framing of issues politically rather than morally, or turning
moral issues into political issues, seems to be the direction of the
play.  From Angelo's decision to execute Claudio, to his own desire in
the last few lines to be punished by death, almost all of the characters
show a tendency to turn moral or ethical issues into political issues,
resting within the demesne of the state.  Rather than limiting itself to
such thoughts as treason, the Viennese state of the play and the
Elizabethan state which informs it, were both extending the competence
of the state widely, and far beyond what would be necessary to maintain
the earthly city.  The Duke claims (appallingly, in my humble opinion)
that he has confessed Isabella, for instance, and Marlowe was prosecuted
(at least in part) for atheism.

Sins (of the will, to borrow Ed's distinction) are prosecuted as crimes,
and conversely, crimes are forgiven like sins.  Or rather, almost, but
not quite, like sins.  Most of the various acts of forgiveness in the
final scene work themselves out in a series of exchanges, restoring
social order, and ultimately leaving the Duke in control.  Rather than
forgiveness being really generous, and serving as a rupture in the
political 'game', it merely becomes another element in a set of
self-interested exchanges in the fallen world.  The political shows a
lamentable tendency towards totalization, not only in the tendency of
critics to find political motivations for the characters's acts (which,
after all, there are), but also in the tendency of the political game to
co-opt and reduce what stands over and against it.  Rather than serving
as a rupture to the network of quid-pro-quo exchanges which make up
fallen existence, forgiveness just becomes another element in such
exchanges.

But does the political entirely succeed in reducing the ethical to
itself?  Is there the possibility of viewing the political from without,
and therefore judging it?  I think that at two points, politics fails.

First, as David Lindley has convincingly shown in a 1996 article in
Shakespeare Yearbook, the Duke's unwillingness to execute Barnardine
shows more than Barnardine's resistance:  it shows that conscientious
considerations can be overriding. (I'm sure, David, that you'll be kind
enough to correct me if I'm recalling the article incorrectly).

Secondly, Isabella forgives Angelo without getting anything in
exchange.  She does so, moreover, because solicited by another person,
Mariana.  One might argue that she's being manipulated by the Duke in
order to learn the value of forgiveness.  No matter. This does not
change her action, and its ethical import, in any substantive way.
She's still asking forgiveness for someone who wronged her, and not
doing it in hopes of any sort of reward.  It's not self-interested, and
therefore not a political act.  Nor, I think, can it be exhausted by
reference to a politics which frames it.  The Duke's plot, if its goal
to make her more amenable to his marriage proposal, is only equivocally
successful.  Moreover, the (false) situation which the Duke establishes
is only the occasion for Isabella's generosity, not its motive.

The final word is not that of Vincentio, plotting to re-establish order,
and leave himself in complete and even tyrannous control.  It is the
unspoken word of Isabella.  In some ways, this is far more effective
than the 'nothing' of Cordelia, since it does not enter into language,
and does not, therefore, become interpretable within a series of
exchanges, trades and trade-offs.

Cheers,
Se

 

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