To fully understand the character of Isabella, we need to know that Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. In one sense, it deserves to be considered as a drama of ideas.
Isabella, the heroine of this play, is a problematic character because she displays conflicting moral and legal notions through her attitude to sin, justice, celibacy, marriage, etc. She is a bundle of contradictions and as bright in her intellect as Portia. She is much colder, much less plausible as a real human being.
Shakespeare probably tasted some of his ideas through the character of Isabella and failed to some extent to make her a fully realized dramatic figure. Let’s see how.
The Character of Isabella in Respect to Her Brother Claudio
We first hear of Isabella from her brother Claudio in prison in Act-1, Scene-II. Claudio is arrested and sentenced to death by the over-righteous Angelo for having a maiden with a child. Claudio asked Lucio to go to Isabella and implore her to save his life by making a friend “with strict deputy.” We hear that Isabella is supposed to enter the cloister as a nun on that very day. The contrast between Claudio and his sister Isabella is established with a kind of dramatic irony. Claudio is going to die for violating a maiden’s chastity while his sister is about to take up the chaste life of a nun, which is itself a kind of physical death. We further hear of Isabella’s nature from the mouth of Claudio:
“For in her youth
There is a prone and speechless dialect besides she hath prosperous art
Such as move men;
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade.”
The Dilemma of Isabella
Isabella is put into an absurd situation. She is obliged to defend her brother who committed a sin that she most abhors. In fact, in Act-II, Scene-II, during the first meeting with Angelo, she begins with a dilemma in her own position as to the crime her brother committed.
“There is a vice that most I do abhor
And most desire should meet the blow of justice
For which I would not plead but that I must
For which I must not plead but that I am
At war twixt will and will not.”
The Strength of Isabella as A Character
Isabella’s strength of character, her persuasive power, and her willful obstinacy are revealed in her two encounters with Angelo. It is interesting to watch how Angelo’s puritanical self-righteousness falls down like a house of cards. She brings in religious as well as secular arguments in order to prove that mercy is a better principle than justice, and argues that Angelo, as a man like Claudio might also in similar circumstances commit the same sin. Moreover, she harps on the theme of authority and the harshness of tyranny that often goes with it;
“Oh; it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength;
But it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.”
Does Isabella Prioritize Her Chastity Over her Brother’s Life?
In her second meeting with Angelo, Isabella is given a moral choice either to surrender her chastity to Angelo and thus save her brother’s life or to keep her virginity and let her brother die. The scene reveals Angelo as a lustful, hypocritical imposter. But it puts Isabella also in a trying situation. Isabella refuses to save Claudio by submitting to Angelo’s demand. Her insistence on physical purity makes her inhumanely insensitive to her brother’s fate. Isabella tells herself-
“Then, Isabella, live chaste and brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.”
But there is an irony- she pleads for mercy from Angelo while she herself is incapable of showing any mercy to Claudio. Moreover, Isabella’s very virtue is made responsible for the temptation of Angelo. Claudio’s miseries are intensified by her outburst of vituperation that shocks and perplexes him. Isabella’s response to her brother’s misery falls short of the Christian ideal.
The Basic Flaw in Isabella’s Character
Another paradox of Isabella’s character is that although she angrily rejects the demand for sacrificing her virginity, she does not condemn the bed-trick in which Mariana should take her place in Angelo’s bed. The basic flaw in her character is thus self-contradiction. Her rejection of Claudio’s plea to save his life is valid and inevitable, but that does not seem to justify the storm of abuse which she unleashes on him.
Finally, we can call Isabella a dynamic character. Although she begins as a flawed character, she eventually learns wisdom and charity. Her acceptance of the bed-trick symbolizes a reversal of her previous values and marks new access to human understanding. Her marrying the Duke at the end is a culmination of this humanizing process.