Isabella's only power could be in saying 'no', her 'no' to Angelo that she would not leave the world despoiled and soulless, 'no' to Claudio that she would sacrifice herself, 'no' to the nunnery that she had wished to enter or 'no' to the Duke's offer of marriage. Isabella's role ability to be self-determining was quite different from Portia's advocacy in The Merchant of Venice, for Isabella was the tool of the Duke, fulfilling his scripting. Her nun's garb should have ensured a neuter role, and she intended her pity and love for her brother to involve her in this world only so far as to counsel him in honour. Despite her self concept, two men of the world with power over her saw her as a beautiful sexual object to be acquired. Against this, Isabella's strength was in theological purity, going straight to the sense of the Gospels. We cannot cast the first stone. We must have mercy for others, because "he which is the top of judgement" had mercy on us. Because the censors usually eliminated the word 'God', references were oblique, but there could be no real substitution of 'Jove' or 'the gods' here where the sense was so very New Testament. Isabella was preaching to a society which had gone far in condemnation and execution in the name of religion; she was a beacon of clear light.
Portia actively sought mercy as the greatest response and carefully gave Shylock every option to release the bond which held him when she stage-managed the last-minute dramatic revelation, showing that he too could be forfeit. Significantly, the advocacy of both Portia and Isabella was the same: mercy must be applied to the law. Could a Duke's one gateway denouement be...
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...d expanded, and the whole prospered on the servitude and devotion of women. Petruchio did his bit, as did Isabella's Duke, so that protectionism was the right end and repository for women's identity and role. Yet in the next section Benedick will meet his match, and that paragon, Portia, will tactfully remain within the rhetorical framework of male supremacy, costuming her more able endeavours....
i Jill Bavin-Mizzi, Ravished (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1995).
ii Margaret Thornton, "Women as fringe dwellers of the jurisprudential community", in Sex, Power and Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 190.
iii Charlotte Lennox (née Ramsay), 1729 -1804, actress and poet,
Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900, An anthology of criticism, ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), pp. 17-18.
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