The Virtuous Vanity of Isabella in Measure for Measure
Shakespeare's work, Measure for Measure, puts the "problem" in "problem play" as it, examines the difference between law and justice, virtue and goodness. It's a case study of abuse of power that has a particularly contemporary resonance. Isabella is a very intriguing Shakespearean female. She is one of the few intelligent females who are also innocent and holy. Measure for Measure focuses primarily on her moral dilemma. Does she save her brother and give up her valued chastity or does she save her own soul while allowing her brother to die? By playing on Elizabethan viewpoints concerning women, nuns, and chastity, Shakespeare uses Isabella in developing his plot and theme. While Isabella is chaste and merciful in all outward appearances, she is unwilling to give up her virginity to Angelo in exchange for Claudio's life, yet she is ready to sacrifice Mariana's chastity for the cause. Isabella is so virtuous that it becomes a vanity for her.
Sanctimonious, hypocritical, intelligent, beautiful, Isabella, who is a representative of restraint in the text. She actually goes overboard in her desire for strictness, as shown when she asks one of the nuns if she could not have more strict restraint as one of the sisters there. This recalls the theme of indulgence and restraint, but since Isabella is too much drawn to one of the poles, she will have to become more moderate in order to become truly human.
Isabella is immediately established as a rare female character when her brother describes her with the statement, "she has prosperous art/ when she will play with reason and discourse, and well she can persuade"(Shakespeare 1.2.161-163)." Women in Shakespeare's day were very recognized for neither their reasoning nor their speaking capabilities. In fact, women were not expected to voice their viewpoints; women who chose to do so were deemed a threat to social order. It is, therefore, questionable whether Shakespeare's audience would have approved of Isabella's skills at rhetoric. Although agreeing with her stance concerning Claudio (they, too, probably saw his punishment as excessive), they would not necessarily see Isabella as an entirely upright female.
The most significant aspect of Isabella's character is her desire to be a nun. This immediately establishes the importance of her chastity while at the same time aiding in characterizing the setting in Catholic Vienna. Her decision to enter into a convent is especially interesting considering the fact that Shakespeare's audience was predominantly Protestant. Reformation England abolished convents and monasteries and discontinued the practice of forcing celibacy on the clergy; however, there was still a certain reverence for the holiness of virginity. This respect for virginity was, to a certain extent, superficial. Elizabethans did not always make a distinction between chastity and virginity....