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 psychological power through isolation and renunciation.’ Therefore, because a man cannot control her sexuality, as she is controlling it herself through the nunnery, she will not be allowed to participate in society, and will live in seclusion. However, Isabella is then given a choice between losing her chastity or her brother's life, when Angelo offers her brother freedom under the condition that she sleeps with him. Angelo places ‘sexual licence under penalty of death and then, provoked into desire by the total virtue of Isabella, he shifts from his role of legislator into that of vice;’ nonetheless, he can do this because he has the authority to do so as a man.
In her second talk with Angelo, Isabella pronounces:
Ignomy in ransom and free pardon
Are of two houses: lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption
However, when their talk continues, and it is made even more apparent that Angelo wants her to sleep with him; she resorts in some extent to a form of blackmail:
I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for’t!
Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
Or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud
What man thou art (II.iv.151-54)
This shows a side to Isabella that has not been seen before, and Macdonald in his article “Measure for Measure: The Flesh Made Word”, remarks that ‘this kind of hardness at the core is not to convict Isabella of hypocrisy, but only to realize, as in the case of Angelo, that there is more to her than she is willing to admit.’ Conversely, it is my opinion that Isabella should be convicted of hypocrisy, as blackmail is not a virtuous trait to enter into a nunnery with. She can also be convicted of hypocrisy as she is being false on human sexuality; she is denying her own sexual feelings and simultaneously provoking the same feelings in Angelo.
Angelo’s character is loathsome more for his hypocrisy than for anything else, as he is a man who is lorded for his sexuality; however, because he is in denial of it turns him into a sex maniac. In his ‘coldly precise remark to Isabella, “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother” (II.ii.80), we are perhaps justified in hearing a very different assertion: “It is the law not- I condemn your brother.”’ This would fit in the script, and also with the way Angelo could be feeling regardless of the laws, as Claudio has been using his sexuality and Angelo may be jealous of that and want to condemn him for it, as his:
rigour in sentencing Claudio seems as much the enactment of a private ritual as it does the performance of a public duty. It is perhaps best understood as his displaced attack on his own sexuality, a symbolic attempt to purge his own nature of the sensuality it is irrevocably saddled with.’
In addition, it is Angelo who states, “Be that you are,/ That is, a woman; if you be more, you’re none.” He is mocking Isabella by using ‘you’re none’, instead of ‘nun.’ He is declaring that she is acting unnatural; as she has been given this opportunity and will not succumb to it. This is ironic as he is in the same position and damaging to the social order in various ways. It is a difficult situation for Isabella to endure, as if she complies with Angelo’s request she will be selling her virginity, which is comparable to the whore; however, if she denies Angelo then it can be assumed by the audience that a woman’s only asset is her chastity. In a soliloquy Isabella says: “Then, Isabel live chaste, and brother, die: More than our brother is our chastity,” (II.iv.183-4) here, she is ranking her chastity compared to the life of her brother, hence she is ‘assessing herself by the world’s standards’. She is debating whether she can be the chaste, silent and obedient Renaissance woman, which would mean that she would be conforming to the patriarchal society, whilst simultaneously deciding what biological function she would fulfil of maid, wife, widow or whore.
The biological functions that were assigned to women in early modern society were maid, wife, widow and whore. These positions are ‘specifically erotic positions locating women, via an erotic sphere of activity and signification, within the economy of patriarchal heterosexuality.’ Therefore, the woman is there for the pleasure of the man, the dominant character in society that can control the woman. The composition of womanhood in the early modern era was based upon two fundamental beliefs; ‘the Hebraic-Christian tradition of equating Eve with the Fall and the Galenic- Aristotelian account of her ‘nature’- that is her physiology and biological function.’ The essentialist explanations about women’s identity are frequently used in most writings about women and ‘form the base upon which her place and function in society was described.’ Therefore, not a lot had changed over the years, as the women in Shakespeare were described in the terms of their biological function, whilst the men were likely to be characterised beyond this function. For the moment, Isabella can be defined as a maid, as she is acting chaste, as a maid should.
Contrary to this, Mariana has been judged by the society around her as she does not fit into a defined biological function; therefore, she does not fit into the society as no man can control her. The Duke confronts Mariana in Act 5, asking her to define herself:
Duke Vincentio: What, are you married?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke Vincentio: Are you a maid?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke Vincentio: A widow, then?
Mariana: Neither, my lord.
Duke Vincentio: Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife? (V. i. 177-83)
Each time he questions who she is, he is trying to define her by ways of a marital or sexual role. However, Lucio then reminds the Duke that she may be a whore; “My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife.” (V. i. 184) This is ‘a reading that places pressure on the conventional system and can superimpose upon the Duke’s tripartite measure of marital status a parallel and more problematic measure of sexuality. This would mean that she is defying the feminine ideals of a Renaissance woman, yet she is still being defined through a sexual role. Conversely, she acts as a challenge to the patriarchal society, as she still manages to succeed in the play. The bed-trick means that Mariana has gained certain rights over Angelo that she would not have without it: ‘in the denouement she is given an instant marriage, title to all Angelo’s worldly possessions, and the power to determine whether he lives or dies.’ In the eyes of the Duke, and therefore the society, as the Duke is in charge of the society; Mariana has been given back her chasteness, as the Duke says, “He is your husband on a precontract;/ To bring you thus together, ‘tis no sin.” (IV. i. 68-69) This means that Mariana has the control; however, by begging the Duke not to punish Angelo she then restores him with the control, as she takes on the position of the wife, and thus they become an image of the ideal Renaissance married couple, as he is now in control of her.
Juliet is Claudio’s lover, pregnant with his baby, an unmarried mother and in reality is one of the most powerless members of society. Juliet represents a threat to the social order, as she is pregnant out of wedlock and ‘marked with the prints of sexual intercourse, Juliet’s excessive body, is appropriately, read cumulatively: male judgements of what her belly reveals- sexual appetite.’ Her pregnant belly shows the audience that she has used her sexuality; however, she has been condemned for doing so as it was out of wedlock. She appears in only two scenes, and speaks in just one, and that is only because the Duke is asking her questions. This silence and absence represents the patriarchal society at the time. Juliet did not fit in as an unmarried mother; therefore she has little part in the play. However, Lisa Jardine notes that due to the absence of contraception, ‘sex and pregnancy went hand in hand with the Renaissance imagination;’ therefore, ‘the pregnant woman is the Renaissance image of female sexuality.’ This is not the message that is being bestowed to the audience, as she is being portrayed as a whore, a threat to the order in society; nonetheless ‘both Duke Vincentio and Juliet accept the ideology which posits a woman’s chastity as her essential virtue:’
Duke: Then was your sin of heavier kind than his.
Juliet: I do confess it and repent it, Father.
(II. iv. 29-30)
Here is Juliet recognising that she is damaging the social order, as she has expressed her sexuality outside the barriers of society’s norms.
Traub highlights the fact that ‘early modern England was a culture of contradictions, with official ideology often challenged by actual social practice.’ This is represented by Juliet. Traub also maintains that the ‘dramatic action in Shakespeare depends on conflict; his plays are more focused on the disruption of the social order.’ Therefore, if events such as Juliet’s pregnancy did not happen, his plays would not be as powerful as they are. Although Shakespeare’s plays ‘frequently resisted the ideal of Renaissance femininity; the woman never had equal status to the men, for that would have been too much variance with their genuine social position to be credible.’
In the final act, Isabella is engaged to Duke Vincentio, without asking her or considering her feelings about the matter, as there is no dialogue or actions otherwise to prove this. The unresolved outcome of this play does not necessarily imply that Shakespeare could not settle the ending; but rather, the dramatist can through this device emphasise Isabella’s powerlessness, showing her as being controlled. In addition, ‘none of the couples which crystallize at the end demonstrate mutual affection and commitment, they are no more the heralds of a renewed, redeemed society than Elbow and his wife.’ Not one couple portrays a companionate marriage; therefore reinforces the idea that marriage is a disciplinary institution. Now the main characters are married off sexuality no longer has to be denied, as it can be exercised within the marriage, hence is no longer threatening society.
Word count: 2632
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Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience. (London: Cape, 1982) 187
Ivo Kamps and Karen Raber (Eds.) Measure for Measure: Texts and Contexts. (London; Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). 185
Kamps and Raber, 185.
Ronald Macdonald, “Measure for Measure: The Flesh Made Word”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 30 (1990) 268
Kate Aughterson, Renaissance Woman: a sourcebook: constructions of femininity in England. (London; New York: Routledge, 1995) 68.
Valerie Traub, “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare”. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. (Eds.) Margreta de Grazia & Stanley Wells. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). 131
Barbara J. Baines, “Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. 30:2 (1990), 287.
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Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. (London; New York: Routledge, 1992) 26
Mario Digangi, “Pleasure and Danger: Measuring Female Sexuality in Measure for Measure.” English Literary History, 60. (1993) 591
Kamps and Raber, 204.
Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 130
Traub, “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare”. 131
Traub, “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare”. 133
Angela Pitt, Shakespeare’s Women. (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1981) 33