The True Character of Isabella in Measure for Measure

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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 discov...

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...ines. London: Bell, 1879.

Kathleen McLuskie. "The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure" in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimor and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985, 88-108.

Graham Nicholls. Measure for Measure: Text and Performance. Houdmills: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1986.

Carol Rutter. Clamorous Voices. Shakespeare's Women Today. New York: Routledge, 1989.

William Shakespeare. Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

__________. Measure for Measure, ed. N. W. Bawcutt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

__________. Measure for Measure (The Arden Shakespeare), ed. J. W. Lever. London & New York: Routledge, 1965.

Cedric Watts. Measure for Measure. London: Penguin, 1986.
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