“Measure for Measure” is in some ways a modern play in the issues it deals with. Women’s issues are explored throughout the play in many different ways. Sexuality and the independence of women are seen through both the eyes of men and women in this play. Women are portrayed with many strengths and weaknesses in “Measure for Measure”. The job roles portrayed in this play as prostitutes, nuns and housewives make our responses to these women alter. Women got married very young and often died in childbirth, thus family life being all they knew.
Isabella is seen as a very strong character who is not afraid to voice her own opinions about things. Mistress overdone brings much of the humour to the play with her small role that she plays. She runs a brothel and therefore with Angelo’s plans to abolish fornication in Vienna, her career is under threat. Mariana is seen as a more submissive character. When asked to sleep with Angelo, which is seen as a bad by the eyes of others, she obliges for fear that she will be seen as a bad person if she does not.
However, she does not see it as wrong that she should sleep with Angelo as the couple were once betrothed to be married and she is desperately in love with him. Because Mariana is such an obliging character, she is a very good contrast to Isabella, who prefers to do what she wants. It was commonplace in Shakespeare’s comedies to have a strong female character, for instance in “Much Ado about Nothing” we see this strong role taken by Beatrice. The audience has many different responses to the separate female characters.
At times as an audience, the dramatic irony we feel leads us to feel a lot of sympathy towards the characters. When we know what Isabella and the Duke are planning for Mariana and she does not, we take pity on her feeling that it is unfair. However at other points in the story, we want to encourage the characters to stick up for themselves and to think for themselves. To look at audience perception of this play, we have to consider both a 17th century audience and also that of modern day society.
Women were seen very differently 400 years ago than they are today or maybe, as some parts of this play show, not so different after all. Before we even meet Isabella we discover what sort of person she is as Claudio talks of her to Lucio. Although he is her brother, and therefore has biased views towards her, he speaks of her as though she has some sort of authority over men, “for in her youth there is prone and speechless dialect such as love men”. Without giving the audience the chance to meet Isabella and discover what sort of person she is for ourselves, Shakespeare influences our views through the feelings of others.
On our first view of Isabella she seems very virtuous, asking for “a more strict restraint” from the nunnery, and we are therefore encouraged further by this and Claudio’s views of this woman. We believe at this point that she is a truly religious and moral person. Right up until the end of the play, she is trying to do what is right by God. At times we see her trying too hard, which makes her turn out looking not so pure, for instance when she condemns her brother and tells him he “must prepare yourself for death”.
She wants Vienna to be a clean and pure city, much like the Duke does, “there is a vice that most I do abhor, and most desire should meet the blow of justice”. The Duke and Isabella become closer throughout the play, maybe due to the similarities in character of the two, this being one of them. At the beginnings of her arguments with Angelo, Isabella only says what she needs to say, and no more. With encouragement from Lucio, “Give’t not o’er so. – To him again, entreat him,” her argument seems more assertive. As the argument develops so does the power she has concerning the issue.
She begins to act with authority telling him that he is committing a sin by killing her brother. As the argument continues, less and less encouragement is needed from Lucio and Isabella’s speeches becoming longer showing that she is becoming in control of the situation. “Pray you be gone”, he sees Isabella as a nuisance due to her consistence and desire to speak her mind. Her religious argument is one that would affect many people of the time, and we see it affecting Angelo to the point that his view of Isabella certainly changes, “well: come to me tomorrow”.
The audience has many different opinions on Isabella’s actions as they show us different sides of her very three-dimensional character. Many of the moves she makes do not show us a bad person but a person who is very real. However, Isabella wants to be more than a normal person, and I find it hard as a female to warm to this character created by Shakespeare. When Angelo asks Isabella to “give up your body to such sweet uncleanness as she that he hath stained”, we feel as outraged as Isabella herself and can see the tough decision she is faced with.
At this point of the play, we do feel sympathy towards Isabella. However, her response to this offer leaves us feeling no pity at all for the woman. She is a virtuous, religious and chaste woman. Shakespeare seems to present Isabella in a way that represents the whole of Christianity in the play. It is this exact purity that Angelo so lusts after in Isabella, “dost thou desire her foully for those things that make her good? ” This almost makes Angelo sound jealous of Isabella’s innocence and we again feel sympathy towards her as we believe there to be no escaping this evil dilemma she is stuck in.
Better it were a brother died at once that that a sister, by redeeming him should die forever”, she seems more concerned with her own salvation than with her brothers life at this point and we lose any sympathy we once had. The spiteful comments she makes at her brother, “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death”, show a woman who is not as kindly as we once assumed. We have to wonder at this point however, if her defensive attitude is anything to do with guilt.
To save her chastity, Isabella is sacrificing her brother. She is clearly unsure, which is the worse crime to God. At this point of the play, we can see where the attitudes of a 21st century audience and those of a 17th century audience would oppose each other. Today, an audience would find it hard to understand giving up a brother in order to save their virginity. As religion was much more important in everyday life in the 17th century, this audience could probably understand the decision made by Isabella a lot more.