The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1929 Thursday, 19 September 2002
Date: Thursday, 19 Sep 2002 16:18:24 +1000
Subject: Isabella and the Quality of Debate
Reading George Geckle's recent anthology of _Measure for Measure_
criticism (as part of the "Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition" series)
I was surprised and pleased to find in Brian Vickers' general editor's
preface mention of SHAKSPER and a discussion that took place in 2000 on
the subject of Isabella's chastity. Unfortunately, I only joined
SHAKSPER this year, and so am a retrospective observer of the debate (I
feel very cheated at having missed it).
It was fascinating to read a critical assessment of the history of
critical assessment of a play, but there are a few points I would like
to bounce back to the group for opinions.
Vickers expresses disappointment at the level of debate, as "one that
could have taken place at any time in the preceding two hundred years",
and yet he dismisses criticism that employs relatively new approaches
(such as feminism, new historicism or cultural materialism) as
"reductive" and as imposing modern agendas on the play, "not recognizing
that Shakespeare's goals were different."
Criticizing the discussion as "ignoring all questions of Shakespeare's
intentions" seems reckless, as I thought it was pretty much accepted
these days that authorial intentions are unreclaimable, unless Vickers
is referring to a lack of acknowledgement of genre conventions. If this
is his point, then his reference to "the theory of genre" reading
Measure as a "problem play" seems to contradict his premise, since this
is a genre classification invented in the 19th century, that would not
have been recognized by Shakespeare.
I think Brian also misunderstands the purposes of feminist criticism in
calling it reductive. A primary aim of feminist criticism has always
been to redress an existing unacknowledged imbalance. Its point is not
that only aspects of a play that pertain to women are important, but
that discussions that ignore the role of women are inevitably
incomplete. It is not trying to tell the whole story, but to fill in
With regard to the assertion that few new ideas have emerged about the
play in recent times, I would like to canvass for opinions on a theme
which seems hopelessly neglected to me, that of "seeming". The word
"seem" and its variants is used even more often in Measure than in
Hamlet, and it is unique in its use of the word "seemers". All the
major characters "seem" at some point, and I believe the pivotal line
for Isabella's character is when she denounces Angelo with the unadorned
words: "Seeming. Seeming!"
You see, while the question of justice and mercy is obviously important,
I think the most significant change in the character of Isabella is a
move from faith in appearances to faith only in what is true
underneath. In both the major sources, Cinthio and Whetstone, the
heroine's concern about giving in to the judge is over her "honour".
Shakespeare's change to the word "chastity" shows a shift in emphasis
from public perception of virtue to private knowledge of it.
If this theme has been properly examined, who did it and why can't I
find them? Are there any responses Brian's sense of the level of
debate? And would anyone care to support or challenge me on the issue
Yours in juicy anticipation,
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.