Isabella who appears in Measure for Measure is one of the most famous and loveable characters by Shakespeare. She has been idealized and denigrated by others. Some of them have praised her nobility on the scene with her brother while some others charge her inhumanity towards her brother. It is also found that she wanted to be a nun; a proper analysis will clarify the fact.
Some critics look upon Isabella as a saintly character. Saintliness involves perfection and a saintly woman must be above all carnal desire and must be above all the temptations of the flesh. A woman’s chastity is her most prized possession; it is her most precious attribute; it is her glory. Early in the play, Lucio pays a tribute to Isabella by saying that he regards her as a thing “enskied and sainted by her renouncement”, as an “immortal spirit, to be talked with insincerity”. The saintliness of Isabella’s character is clearly seen in her decision to renounce a secular life and accepting the life of a nun.
Again, our impression of Isabella’s saintliness is reinforced by the manner in which she pleads on her brother’s behalf during her second interview with Angelo. In this scene, we find her bold by resisting the offer made by Angelo to pardon her brother’s life on the condition that she should surrender her virginity to him and satisfy his lustful desire by her. She in reply says that to her chastity is more valuable than the life of her brother. From this point, we may say that she is not prepared to sacrifice her chastity even to save the life of her brother.
Isabella’s saintliness is seen not only in her love of purity and chastity but also in her merciful and kind disposition. When she first meets with Angelo, mercy is the main theme of her speeches she earnestly requests Angelo to pardon her brother and says that if he pardons her brother; neither heaven nor man would grieve at the mercy which he would show. Then she makes a speech that is most moving art reminds us of Portia’s quality of mercy in The Merchant of Venice. In this speech, she says that neither the king’s crown, nor the mayor’s sword of justice, nor the military commander’s baton, nor the judge’s robe becomes any of these powerful men as much as mercy does.
Isabella is found more argumentative and stern to save her virginity and the life of her brother when she says to Angelo that mercy is considered a virtue in the ruler. She begs Angelo to remember that we must be merciful because God was merciful in redeeming the human souls through Christ’s martyrdom. She also reminds him to think of his own faults before condemning Claudio to death. So, we may say that Isabella is trying her best to save her brother’s life without surrendering her chastity to Angelo.
There is another ardent proof of saving her chastity. It is proved when she goes to her brother in prison. Here she informs him about her interview with Angelo and the outcome. At this time, Claudio requests her to save his life by accepting Angelo’s condition. At this proposal by Claudio, she becomes extremely furious and she is about to lose her very balance of mind and her self-control. Here we find her scolding him in an unusual manner. She tells her brother that she would now offer a thousand prayers for his death and not a single prayer for his survival. Though it is not a sisterly and womanly behavior, she does it only to save her chastity.
Some critics object that Isabella should have saved her brother even at the cost of her chastity surrendering to Angelo. These critics opine that human life is more important than a woman’s virginity, but it is also a fact that the chastity of a woman is her crown, a glory that can never be achieved if it is lost for one time. In this respect, Isabella is right at her stand. Her desire to become a nun can easily be appreciated.
Isabella, in spite of her cold and holy nature and her desire to enter a convent, is attractive to men. Like Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, Isabella is devoted and sincere but lacking in humor. Her arguments for mercy compare favorably with that Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Many critics call Isabella the most ponderous of Shakespeare’s genius women and therefore almost negligible.