Isabella is a character that modern audiences would have a hard time connecting to. Though her role in Measure for Measure is critical, a modern audience may wonder that she is simply a weak, selfish woman. Isabella strives to present herself as a godly woman but in the end can only be seen as a self righteous pawn used to further the Duke’s plans. Isabella believes she is a virtuous woman. She is not only about to enter a convent in which she will be restricted for interaction with men she obviously has no issue with.
Isabella longs to uphold Christian morality and religion. At the time this play was written the virtues that Isabella possessed seemed ideal. A virtuous woman was to uphold the rules of decency, remain a virgin, either remain a maid or become a wife. Modern audiences might read these virtues as prudishness or even possibly see her religion as a crutch, a loss of her own personality in exchange for a life of celibacy and protection from the outside world. Isabella wants to avoid the pressure that the world would require of her.
She would be expected to get married, have children, run a household, and submit her will to that of her husband, who may or may not be a virtuous person himself. If she once had any property it would become the property of her husband as soon as they were married. She would then become solely reliant upon the good will of her husband, something that the modern audience cannot comprehend. Once she joins the convent Isabella would be spared the need to go into the world outside with the responsibility of a husband, household, children, etc…
By avoiding the world outside she also avoids the persecution of her beliefs and the unappealing situations that could occur, such as attacks on her virginity. Isabella seems quite willing to submit her will to that of the Church, even to the point that the strictness of the sect she intends to join isn’t quite strict enough for her tastes as she says in 1. 4 lines 3-5, “I speak not as desiring , but rather wishing a more strict restraint upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare” (Shakespeare).
Isabella is choosing a lifestyle that requires little responsibility for her decisions since she would not need to make any. Daily her decisions would be made for her by the higher orders in her religion, and she would simply have to trust that they are making the right decisions for her. In the scene where the Duke is instructing her as to his plan for the bed trick, she says little other than to agree with him, submitting her will to his own, “I am directed by you” (Shakespeare 4. 1. 137). There is no argument and no protest. Isabella is perfectly contented to become an actor or even a puppet, if you will, in the Duke’s charade.
Isabel Isabella’s virginity is highly prized by her, and in the time she lived it was essential. A woman’s worth would be judged by her blamelessness in regard to sexual matters. In modern society however virginity is not viewed in the same light. Modern audiences are desensitized to the idea of sexual matters. For a mainstream audience member to have had sexual relations outside of marriage, even more than once, is not uncommon. At the time she lived she would seem right in her decision to retain her virginity even though it meant her brothers life, as she says about it in 2. lines 105-108 “Better it were a brother died at once than that a sister, by redeeming him, should die forever” (Shakespeare).
Premarital sex was a mortal sin, one that could condemn your soul to hell in the afterlife, something that Isabella valued more that human life itself, “Then Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die” (Shakespeare 3. 1. 183) . However idealistic this may seem the modern audiences would view her refusal to save his life as selfishness. Claudio’s life, his very human existence, is at stake and the only thing Isabella must do to save it is to sleep one time with Angelo.
The act seems simple enough but for Isabella she would much rather die in place of her brother than allow her virtue to be compromised, “O, were it but my life, I’d throw it down for your deliverance… ” (Shakespeare 3. 1. 103-105). It is difficult for a society that doesn’t view premarital virginity as essential to the salvation of the soul to comprehend her unwillingness to save her brothers life. Modern audiences might also seem confused as to why other female characters in the play give their virginity to men that they love but Isabella refused to give up her virginity to a brother who she loves.
To the modern eye Isabella is a self righteous frigid prude with nothing better to do than to tell her brother that he must die. She says angrily in 3. 1 lines 137-139, “Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice? Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life from thine own sister’s shame? ” (Shakespeare). A modern audience wouldn’t be able to understand how she can advocate the Friar (the Duke)’s plan to have Mariana give her virginity in the place of Isabella’s.
She, supposedly a virtuous woman, is supposed to become a nun to help others follow in the footsteps of Christ, is advocating that another woman commit a mortal sin so that her own brother Claudio may live. It could be argued that she is doing her duty as a nun would to a friar, but as a good Christian her conscious should tell her otherwise. To cause another to stumble in place of you is a sin in itself, and the strong woman of God would stand up to the Friar and refuse to participate in his scheme.
Although Shakespeare’s intent may not have been to create a frigid ice queen a modern eye cannot help but wonder that Isabella is a woman only able to stand on her own two feet with the proper crutch of religious dogma under one arm and self-righteousness under the other. Though she puts on the disguise of piousness, quite possibly it may be that her choice to join the convent may be less about a passionate desire to be Christ like and more about hiding the undeniable fact that she cannot function in her society on her own.