The True Character of Isabella in Measure for Measure
Some critics of Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, judge Isabella as "a narrow minded but passionate girl afflicted with an irrational terror of sex" (Barton, 546), "a young, immature woman" demonstrating "moral absurdity and cruelty" (Nicholls, 478), whose actions are scarcely defensible. A classmate of mine asked, "Why doesn't Isabella just sleep with Angelo? What's the big deal?" These statements reveal that these people have no understanding or sympathy for Isabella’s position: socially, morally or physically.
Perhaps I take the issue of Isabella’s character so seriously because I played the role of Isabella in our college’s production of the play. Preparing and playing a Shakespearean role onstage leads to a kind of understanding of that character that no other activity can match. When we professors encourage our Shakespeare students to work toward an interpretation of a play by imagining how they might play various roles, we are approaching that kind of understanding. When we ask them to view various productions, or read about the performances of different actors in the same role, we add to their sense of what the play means "from within." But especially when we ask them to read a scene aloud, or, even better, to prepare an in class performance, they learn something of what Shakespearean actors know: the full motivations and actions, thought, and feelings of an individual character. From those details, even amateur actors learn more about the conflicts and resolutions of the whole play.
Therefore, in order to balance the still frequent condemnation of Isabella's thoughts and actions, I want to share with you some of the discoveries I made by being Isabella for sixteen performances. Certainly Isabella is no saint (as Schlegel, Ruskin and Northrop Frye believe), nor need we call Shakespeare a feminist in his attitude toward her. Yet I found that the script does allow for an Isabella of greater richness than we usually see reflected in print. From within, I measured her differently.
We often hear that Isabella is a rigid absolutist, particularly in her attitude toward sexual activity outside marriage. But beginning at the beginning, I found that Isabella is a humorous, tolerant wit. Now I imagine that those adjectives surprise you, but let me move through her first scene, taking into account the choices our director Ronnie Larson, the other actors and I made. In Act I scene iv, I was blocked to enter quietly, head down, and then suddenly see the Duke (disguised in his monk's habit) who was still center stage after his soliloquy. I paused, while our Duke awkwardly and hesitantly blessed me with the sign of the cross. I smiled and shook my head slightly, amused at his evident bashfulness, thinking "Who is this strange brother?" This moment gave me a sense of calm certainty--I knew what I was doing in this convent and in a habit,...