The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1241  Monday, 19 June 2000.

From:           Edmund M. Taft <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, 19 Jun 2000 00:18:32 +0000
Subject:        Isabella's Chastity

Philip Tomposki believes that Angelo may be guilty of extortion or
blackmail.  He points out that threats and intimidation are punishable
by law.  I think that Philip is absolutely correct under current law,
but I'm not so sure if we project ourselves back to the Renaissance.  As
Ian pointed out, in those days, intent was not as fully recognized as
now, with the exception of extreme capital crimes such as treason, etc.
I've got Maus's book on order (thanks to the comments of Ian), and will
look up the issue Phil raises as soon as I receive her book.

In a thoughtful post, Sean Lawrence writes of MM that "almost all of the
characters show a tendency to turn moral or ethical issues into
political issues. . . ."  He also points to "a series of exhanges" that
seem to compromise at least some of the acts of forgiveness at the end
of the play.

I agree completely with Sean's second point, and suspect that all of the
acts of forgiveness are in some way compromised.  I would reformulate
Sean's first statement to read "almost all of the characters use ethical
and moral language to justify their own political and personal actions,
thus mystifying the real bases of their actions and consequently
misleading others and themselves as to what they are really doing and

One good example is the Duke's scheme to entrap Angelo via the
bed-trick.  Audiences are always uncomfortable with this plan, and well
they should be.

Among other things, it risks creating yet another child that will have
no father. Why, then, does Isabella so easily and quickly give her
assent to this scheme? -- she of the "precise" and "scrupulous"
conscience on other matters?  Well, one explanation is that she is told
the plan by a "holy father" whose authority she trusts.  Moreover, the
Duke uses seemingly moral and ethical arguments (I think they are
mumbo-jumbo) to "justify" his plan.  In short, Isabella is hoodwinked by
this hooded politician who looks like a friar/father but is not.  And
the same goes for the Duke himself. His language and high-sounding
motives hide from HIM the reality of what he is really doing.

And what is this reality?  Well, in plain language,  Vincentio uses the
bed-trick to get rid of a rival for Isabella's hand.  Remember that in
3.1, the Duke still thinks that Angelo is just testing Isabella and will
pardon Claudio when she proves "true."  What the Duke doesn't say but is
surely thinking is how grateful Isabella will be and, in retrospect, how
much this sexy novice will admire Angelo for his "test"!  Wedding bells
could be in the offing for Angelo and Isabella, right? Better take care
of that possibility!

Moreover, there is a "double benefit," but not the one the Duke explains
to Isabella.  The really neat part is that by "helping" Mariana,
Vincentio is laying the foundation for Angelo's political demise.  All
the Duke has to do is "go public" with Angelo's "act" of sex and he is
finished.  Again, I think that the Duke only dimly realizes what he is
actually doing.  Only Lucio guesses that Vincentio's mind is full of
"dark corners."

--Ed Taft

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