As a political drama, Measure for Measure delves into the dangers of authority from the perspective of both those in authority and those under it. Throughout the performance, each character struggles with the power they wield, the power they desire, and the power they’re under, trying to strike an impossible balance in order to maintain their morals. At the center of the swirling politics and wayward beliefs stands Isabella, a young nun desperate to save her brother and preserve her oath.
Isabella is not only one of the few women in Measure for Measure, but she also occupies a large swath of space within the story. In Isabella, we find an incredibly complex character in a play where women are often silenced and objectified. As the outlier, she is our guide through this world as she strives to help Vienna regain its moral compass.
What drives Isabella? Many things, but perhaps the most consequential is her desire to become a nun. At the beginning of the play, we meet her just as she is about to join a convent so strict that in order to have a conversation with a man, the nuns must be watched over by prioress. Yet, Isabella asks for even more stringent rules within the convent.
And have you nuns no farther privileges?
Are not these large enough?
Yes, truly. I speak not as desiring more,
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare. (1.4)
Perhaps Isabella desires a closer relationship to God. Maybe she wishes for secure sanctuary from the immoral underbelly of Vienna. Or possibly something else unnamed.
Isabella’s inherent chastity becomes a bartering chip in Measure for Measure, as Angelo proposes either that she have sex with him to free her brother, Claudio, or her brother will die. Her virtuosity is so dear to her as she prepares for the convent that she even declares her virginity to be more valuable than her brother’s life at one point.
“Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die. / More than our brother is our chastity” (2.4)
Her morals are strong amid the chaos and turmoil of Vienna, yet she is the one chastised for her stringent disposition. On the one hand, she should adhere to her beliefs, but on the other, it seems impossible that she wouldn’t do anything to save her brother. Though Isabella is our touchstone, her predicament often leaves audiences unsettled with what choice they would make. Suddenly, the audience is complicit in a dillemma that expands far outside the world of the Measure for Measure. We empathize with Isabella, but we also despise her. We want her to succeed, but we see the vivid flaws in her logic. Whether or not we agree on what her faults are is another matter, but her complexity allows audiences to look inward and evaluate their own beliefs.
Isabella stands as a testament to brilliant writing, especially in a time when female characters often lacked substance. We see her struggle, love, and question the world she once knew. We see her fail and succeed. We see a woman trying to navigate around the authority of powerful men, grasping for the last bits of hope she can find. And for that, Isabella become a pinnacle of not only strength, but weakness as well.
Measure for Measure, from Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre, arrives in Boston this fall.
“The show moves like wildfire…This particular production certainly hits the bull’s-eye.” – The Chicago Tribune.
OCT 24-28 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic. Get tickets now!