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measure for measure

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Question: "The fault of Isabella is that she is excessively pious and too proud." "Isabella is a symbol for virtue and chastity and a champion of mercy." How do you respond to these different views of the play? What is your opinion of the way Shakespeare presents Isabella? Isabella is certainly presented as a double-edged character by Shakespeare, as she does seem to embody virtue and chastity and with these qualities should come mercy. However due to her rather extreme nature, she can appear "excessively pious and too proud", and through this excessive focus on her own chastity, the audience feel this sometimes compromises her "mercy". Thus these two views of Isabella seem inextricably linked. Shakespeare first introduces Isabella as a symbol for virtue and chastity through Lucio's description of her as " enskied and sainted", and as he softens his sexual talk with words such as "blossoming" to describe the nature of Claudio and Juliet's crime by getting pregnant. This certainly suggests Isabella to be a figure of chastity and virtue, as Lucio attempts to preserve this untainted innocence, a stark contrast to his previous sexual banter: "I have purchased as many diseases under her roof". ...read more.


It would now seem Isabella champions mercy, however when it comes to her own brother she does not show it in practice. This idea of "mercy" is inter-related to the claim that Isabella is "too pious and too proud", as we perceive the "fault" that arises from this extreme nature is a lack of "mercy". In Act Three, as Isabella goes to visit her brother, Claudio cries out to her from the depths of his soul: "let me live", "death is a fearful thing" and his fear is acutely enhanced by his dread of the "thrilling thick-ribbed region of ice" or hell after death. This is a plea of raw emotion and the audience are shocked by Isabella's harsh and cold reaction: "O you beast!" and she suggests he is not his father's son for his cowardice. She fails to understand and show mercy for Claudio's own human desire for life, and rebukes him very harshly, suggesting she is too pious and too proud. Furthermore, as Isabella asserts in her soliloquy that had Claudio "twenty heads" he would give them all up on "twenty bloody blocks", suggesting she is too pious and proud, encapsulated brilliantly in "more than our brother is our chastity"; her pride sacrifices her mercy and love for her brother. ...read more.


In Act Five a glimpse of her previous character returns, as she plays on Angelo's word "strange", using it to call him an "hypocrite" and a "virgin-violator"; thus we are reminded of her chaste and virtuous nature. Furthermore, her mercy is now evident as she begs for Angelo's life at Mariana's pleas: "good men are made out of faults" and has learnt to respond to this raw emotion, that previously in Act Three she showed no mercy for in Claudio. She asserts Angelo merely had "intents", pitying him and showing mercy. Yet with this new quality, her old quality of chastity seems to be sacrificed, as she will now marry the Duke, indicated by her silence. Shakespeare thus presents a change in Isabella, originally a symbol for chastity and virtue, but lacking mercy and often seeming excessively proud and pious. Yet as her dealings with other characters progress, most particularly the Duke's influence, her excessive qualities subside, and her virtue still evident, she has gained a merciful quality. Shakespeare thus presents Isabella in a journey of understanding, learning that the strict setting of the nunnery is not in fact the best moral learning ground, but actually she can exercise her morals in the real world of experience, without compromising her virtue. ...read more.

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