Feminist Performance and the Silence of Isabella in Measure for Measure

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Feminist Performance and the Silence of Isabella in Measure for Measure In a chapter entitled “When Is a Character Not a Character?” Alan Sinfield presents the argument that the female figures in Shakespeare’s plays are not really “characters” at all, since they do not possess continuous and psychologically consistent interior lives. Although such roles as that of Desdemona, Olivia, and Lady Macbeth are written so as to suggest the presence of uninterrupted interior consciousness, this impression collapses under the pressure of the plot’s movement toward closure, which reveals the figures to represent nothing more than a “disjointed sequence of positions that women are conventionally supposed to occupy”(53). In order to preserve a textual organization that sustains a particular gender hierarchy, female characters abruptly shift from one stereotypical version of femininity to another without coherent linkages between them. For instance, despite their volubility throughout the early acts, at the conclusions of the plays, as Sinfield notes, Shakespeare’s women often “fall silent at moments when their speech could only undermine the play’s attempt at ideological coherence” (73). Thus, “the point at which the text falls silent is the point at which its ideological project is disclosed” (74). One of the most prominent of such silences appears at the end of Measure for Measure, where Isabella, “the bold woman silenced most spectacularly when marriage is proposed” (74), fails to react verbally to the Duke’s two offers of wedlock. According to Sinfield, this lack of response occurs because Isabella is suspended between two conventional female roles, and the disjunction between them makes manifest the agenda of the text’... ... middle of paper ... ... The Stratford Season, 1992.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 477-83. Riefer, Marcia. “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 157-69. Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 4th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. -----. Measure for Measure. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. J.W. Lever. London: Routledge, 1965. Sinfield, Alan. Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. Sundelson, David. “Misogyny and Rule in Measure for Measure.” Women’s Studies 9 (1981): 83-91. Weil, Herbert S., Jr. “Stratford Festival Canada.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 245-50. Williamson, Marilyn L. The Patriarchy of Shakespeare’s Comedies. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986.

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