Yesterday, I looked at Angelo’s righteousness in Measure for Measure. Today, let’s take a look at that other righteous hard-liner: Isabella.
When we first meet Isabella, she is entering the cloister. She doesn’t strain at all against the rules and regulations she will have to face; in fact, she’s not sure they are strong enough, “wishing a more strict restraint // Upon the sisterhood” (I.iv.4-5). Not only does she not want more freedom for herself, she wants sharper rules for herself and the other sisters. Given that once she’s in the sisterhood she won’t be able to show her face to a man if she speaks nor speak if she shows her face, this is quite the wish. So, going into her meeting with the precise Angelo, we know she’s unafraid to demand “divine law or accepted standards of morality” (“righteous, adj., n., adv., and int.; A.1.a, and 3.a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 1 November 2015.) from others.
That divine law, however, is not just strictness but mercy as well, as she tells Angelo:
No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.
If he had been as you, and you as he,
You would have slipped like him; but he, like you,
Would not have been so stern.
A couple of things of note here. She front-loads that speech with five human examples, all of which apply to Angelo (“great one,” “king” [he is the ruler now], “the deputed” [as the duke’s deputy] “marshal” [bringing law], and “judge” [obviously]), but she appeals not to the power of his position but to the divine “grace” of mercy. And with that point, she pauses; it’s a short poetic line. It’s as if she wants Angelo to respond, but when he doesn’t, she drives forward, moving beyond generalities and straight into specifics, linking Angelo to her brother. Her brother would have been merciful, she argues; thus, Angelo should be the same in return. It’s the moral thing to do.
When Angelo refuses, however, she abandons discussions (even praiseworthy ones) of mercy to lambast the abuse of power:
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would never be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder,
Nothing but thunder. Merciful heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak,
Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep, who with our spleens
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
- II.ii.107-9, 110-23
In the first section, she seems to speak of Angelo as his superhuman figure (“giant”), but it becomes clear that she is contrasting that inhuman power to mere men. Men will “thunder” but it’s nothing but sound, whereas “merciful heaven” is the true power, able to split the tree that is “unwedgeable.” Man is “petty,” “proud,” “ignorant,” and “like an angry ape”; he is “dressed in little brief authority,” an earthly power that not only is little and short-lived, but can be stripped at any moment. It’s enough, she says, to make the angels die laughing (“laugh themselves mortal”). She is relentless in the speech, coming back to divine law time and time again, referencing “heaven” three times, “Jove” twice, and “angels” once. And as we know from our discussion of Angelo’s righteousness, these appeals to the angel in Angelo, to righteous heaven, are what has an effect on the devil in the duke’s deputy (and that effect is as shocking to him as it is to us).
When she hears Angelo’s proposition, her indignation is righteous as expected. She proclaims,
That is, were I under the terms of death,
Th’ impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.
She is willing to suffer torture and death rather than succumb to his “sick” desires. Of course, the language she uses is subconsciously filled with phrases that fire Angelo’s “longing(s)” even more (“wear as rubies,” “strip myself,” “to a bed,” “my body up to shame”). Naively, she believes that the world is righteous as well, as she tells Angelo that she will “tell the world aloud // What man thou art” (II.iv.152-3). Angelo, no longer righteous but rather realistic, knows better.
When Isabella, defeated, goes to talk with her brother, she is no longer under any illusion of the world’s righteousness, either. That doesn’t make it any easier, however, when her brother begs that she do the deed to spare his life. She responds,
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? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother played my father fair,
For such a warpèd slip of wilderness
Ne’er issued from his blood. Take my defiance;
Die, perish. Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.
I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee.
In this moment, she sounds shockingly like Angelo from early in the play, railing against the sin in the world, and proclaiming the only just punishment is death. She will show him no mercy, only “prayers for (his) death.”
Only she is different than Angelo. Or at least the duke/friar reveals her merciful nature to herself. By play’s end, she will show mercy.