Quick hit: I’m seeing a complete absence of female empowerment in Measure for Measure. If there was such a thing as emasculation of the female, this play might be evidence Exhibit A. Let’s take a look at the women in the play, from least to most powerful…
She’s unable to even answer the door to her cloister. As a votarist of Saint Clare, she
But in the presence of the Prioress.
Then, if you speak, you must not show your face;
Or if you show your face, you must not speak.
She is a business owner (illicit as it may be), but that business is being put out of business by the time we meet her. She has lost customers through war, disease, hanging and economics (“what with the war, what with the sweats, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, [she is] custom-shrunk” [I.ii.80-2]), and this is before she learns that her house of ill repute is to be “pulled down” (I.ii.101). She wonders, “What shall become of me?” (I.ii.104), and the answer is prison, where we next see her, bemoaning “Lucio’s information” (III.ii.189) that sent her there.
As the piece of evidence that convicts Claudio of fornication (her pregnancy “with character too gross is writ on Juliet” [I.ii.154]), she plays a crucial, but powerless role. She appears on stage just three times (going to prison, in prison, and released from prison), but speaks in only one of those scenes, and then has only ten lines in but seven speeches, speaking only with the fruke (friar/duke). She truly does “bear the shame most patiently” (II.iii.20). In the other two on-stage appearances, she shares the stage with her husband, but the two never converse.
After five years of isolation on “the moated grange” (III.i.262), she is allowed to marry her former fiancé. But to do it, she must submit herself to the Bed Trick, and then only as part of the fruke’s plot. Even when married, she is nearly “mock(ed) … with a husband” (V.i.415) when the duke calls for Angelo’s execution after the wedding. Isabella does argue and beg for mercy in his case, but it is the duke who grants that mercy (and I’d argue that Isabella’s argument is all part of the fruke’s plan–why else to hide Claudio’s non-execution from her?).
and finally, Isabella:
In the first half of the play, she appears to be the agent of change, as it is she who must go and convince Angelo to show mercy. Her failure and his proposition are the crux of the play’s narrative. Yes, she does finally see her abuser Angelo punished, but it only happens because of the plot of the everlovin’ fruke.
She is given the opportunity to marry the duke at the end of the play: he tells her, “Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline, // What’s mine in yours, and what is yours is mine” (V.i.534-5); interesting that he grants her the ability to listen, but not of speech, as she doesn’t speak again after her request for mercy in the case of Angelo some 80 lines earlier.
By the end of the play, she is silenced and silent before men, much like our most powerless woman. So how then, exactly, is Isabella any more powerful than the Sister Francisca?