Measure for Measure is a play in which its ‘primary topic is sexuality.’ It promotes a mode of human sexuality, exercised within marriage and recognises that a denial of sexuality is damaging to the social order. It contains extremely limited roles for women, and all of them are focused around sexuality. ‘Sexual behaviour is the only act that is considered… Claudio, Juliet, Overdone… are accused of such acts. And accused is the word: sexuality itself is a crime. There is a divide of two worlds; the first being that of morality where people are virtuous; the other is sexuality, where prostitutes reside and people have sex out of wedlock.

The play focuses on the way sexual desire or the absence of it breaks off and postpones marriage, rather than promoting it, as it usually would; ‘its two crucial actions are bouts of sexual intercourse, one a premarital impregnation, the other a form of attempted rape. From beginning to end, the dominant motive is the need to convert lustful fornication into fruitful married sexuality.’ This is because a ‘fruitful married sexuality’ will not damage the social order, but reinstate it to a patriarchal order, where the men control the woman through marriage, and will be allowed to show their sexuality within the marriage under that control.

The drama is set in Vienna where, ‘Catholicism valued marriage highly, including it among the sacraments, but valued celibacy more,’ whereas in the audience the Anglican Church reminded people that marriage ‘is instituted by God to the intent that man and woman should live lawfully in a perpetual friendly fellowship, to bring forth fruit, and to avoid fornication.’ This meant that people in England were led to believe that marriage was the moral thing to do, as Queen Elizabeth reigned at the time the play was performed under Protestant rule, and the first step on the way to righteousness was to control the desires of the body; thus avoiding fornication.

In his article, “Measure for Measure: The Flesh Made Word,” Ronald Macdonald reveals that ‘the men in Shakespeare’s final comedies do tend to see women as an overmastering threat to their identities;’ hence, men need a way of controlling women. Women could be controlled through marriage, as this was a means to discipline their sexuality.  Once they were married they would follow literature such as housewifery texts, which instructed women on how to manage the household, and instructed the men on what the women should be doing; thus, the wife is under the subordination of her husband, and under his control. Literature was understood to be an aid to women, instructing them on how to conduct themselves, both in public and private spheres. The content of the literature is structured around particular features, which can be described as the ‘ideal feminine virtues: chastity, obedience, humility and silence.’ The ideology of the woman as chaste, silent and obedient was constructed within the Renaissance ideals of society. Valerie Traub affirms that:

The ideology of chastity, constraints against female speech, and women’s confinement within the domestic household are summed up by the phrase ‘the body enclosed’, which refers simultaneously to a woman’s closed genitals, closed mouth, and her enclosure within the home.

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This ‘body enclosed’ summarises the idea of patriarchal power in a society where men have control. This ideology was created through various ways within the society; religion, the law, education and literature.

         Isabella is the chaste female character at the start, as she is about to enter a nunnery. This means that she should be free from being controlled by the men in society as she is giving herself to God, however with this freedom also comes a forfeit, as ‘a woman’s control of her body is self-castrating, so that her chastity is deprived of its social, political, and ...

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