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Measure for Measure apparently one of the many comedies of Shakespeare has been labelled by various critics as a problem play due to its duality of genre. Although it happens to contain many common elements of comedy, one cannot overlook the dark and cynical undercurrents throughout the play which are mostly associated with Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare has been often claimed to be ahead of his times. His representation of women on stage is comparatively grander and elaborate than the contemporary playwrights. Isabella and Mariana are the two female characters from the concerned play. Isabella is portrayed as a chaste and virtuous young woman who wants to become a nun but is put into a complicated web of difficult choices. Pivotal to the play being the choice between her brother's mortal life, at the cost of losing her immortal soul by trading her virginity. Mariana on the other hand plays a minor but significant role as she turns out to be a part of the Duke's scheme in setting things right.
The paper attempts to look at the typicality of the adjustments and submissiveness of the female characters in this play. Isabella at the end is offered by a male character Duke, the so-called privilege of a marital life. Mariana again more by patriarchal dominance than her own free will is sent to Angelo, who had formerly abandoned her, in place of Isabella. All the major comedies of Shakespeare present one single solution to all the tangles. Does the phrase "All's well that ends well" hold true for Isabella and Mariana? Isabella's silence at the proposition of marriage forces the readers to re-think if it at all is the solution or just a compromise with the given times.
Stereotypical Compromise by Women in Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure (1604) appears to reveal the falsity of romance and exposes the morbid reality of life. It falls into the category of sombre plays by Shakespeare where the comical elements remain intact but the tone is cynical, grave and tragic. The play is often referred to as a 'bitter comedy' or as a 'problem play'. The other plays which fall under the same category are Troilus and Cressida (1602) and All's Well that Ends Well (1602-1604). These plays raise issues and questions in the minds of the readers who keep contemplating if the offered resolution of the play could have been different. Is that which appears to be a happy ending (except for Troilus and Cressida) at all the reality of the fates of the different characters? At the end of the concerned play there is a radical disposition to loose ends when the Duke enforces the marriages of Angelo with Mariana; Lucio with a bawd; and finally proposes to marry Isabella. Though Mariana, bawd and the Duke apparently seems to be satisfied with the forced marriages but Isabella's silence puts the audience or the readers into a dilemma so as how to interpret her reaction or rather no reaction. Again, is Juliet's marriage to Claudio the only way her so called sin can be transformed into the blessing of owing a legitimate progeny? Is Mariana's marriage with Angelo a suitable and compatible one? All of these questions exhibit clearly one aspect of the women of this particular play: crude adjustments and a compromising attitude which is both stereotypical and commonplace. Solution to all entanglements offered is marriage. Peter Barry while discussing feminism and feminist criticism writes that the focus of interest is mostly on the '[â€¦] heroine's choice of marriage partner, which will decide her ultimate social position and exclusively determine her happiness and fulfillment in life, or her lack of these.'(Barry, 117) This paper attempts to highlight all the expressed and unexpressed compromises displayed by the female characters in different situations.
We first hear of Isabella from Claudio when he asks Lucio to approach Isabella so that she pleads on his behalf for his safety. We learn that she was to join the convent that very day as a nun. Claudio has been sentenced to death for having premarital sexual relationship with his fiancée. He displays an absolute trust in his sister's capability in communicating with the deputy and reversing the situation. Claudio tells Lucio: 'For in her youth/ There is a prone and speechless dialect/ Such as move men; beside, she hath prosperous art/ when she will play with reason and discourse,/And well she can persuade.'(I.ii.163-67)These gifts of persuasive speech and cogent reasoning as described by Claudio are in stark contrast to Isabella's silence at the end. Although the proposal comes forty eight lines before the play comes to an end, Isabella's silence
remains. For her brother's sake she reasons with Angelo and asks him for forgiveness and the safety of Claudio's life but she is thoroughly shocked when Angelo wants to trade her virginity for her brother's life. He wanted to enjoy the 'treasures' of her body, exactly the same thing which has been labelled as an offence in case of her brother. She replies sharply that she would never yield to any man's embraces and her proclamation makes it clear that her chastity is of utmost importance to her.
ISABELLA: As much for my poor brother as myself:
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.
ANGELO: Then must your brother die.
ISABELLA: And twere the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister by redeeming him
Should die for ever.
This conversation establishes Isabella's determination in not surrendering her virginity. She is taken aback when Claudio expresses his desperation to be saved moreover he does not even mind if his sister has to sacrifice her chastity for him. She is disgusted and does not mind offering a thousand prayers for his death. Duke's plan of substitution of one girl for another in the bed of the seducer is a device Shakespeare had already used in All's Well that Ends Well. This keeps the heroine chaste throughout. Mariana who was earlier betrothed to Angelo and was consequently abandoned by him for lack of dowry is persuaded by the Duke in disguise of a friar to partake in the accomplishment of his plan. A kind of hypocrisy prevails in the male characters attitude towards sexual interludes. It is an offence in case of Claudio; sin for Juliet: sadistic lust for Angelo; death for Isabella and in words of Duke 'no sin' for Mariana as Angelo was her 'husband on a pre-contact'. It is also expected from her that she should have no scruples at all in spending the dark hours of the night in disguise with a man who has behaved in the most villainous of manner. Juliet on the other hand is advised by the duke to feel repentant genuinely as her sin is of the 'heavier kind' for being impregnated by Claudio as her 'fast wife'. Her protruding belly is taken as an index for her social and spiritual degeneration. Mariana's ordeal
in having to gratify Angelo's sexual desire is overlooked and she finally gives in to the male authority.
The sole way Mariana, Juliet and his unborn can get social acceptance is through marriage. Like at the end of Twelfth Night Olivia agrees to marry Sebastian who is only a look alike of the person she has fallen in love with, only to do away with the various knots at the end of the play. Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, feeding on the 'food of love' in grief of Olivia quite easily gives up on her and falls for Viola at his free will. All's Well that Ends Well revolves around Helen's curing of the King and her reward in obtaining a suitable husband of her choice. There is also the story of the abandoned wife trying to get back her husband desperately by substituting herself in the bed of his mistress. Everywhere the women make the necessary adjustments and compromises to suit the patriarchal structure. The position of a woman is equated in terms of her chastity and her submissiveness and readiness to adhere to the male principles. The religion decides less assertively. The society confirms and hence everyone should adhere to its principles. Sita in the epic Ramayana undergoes a trial by fire in order to prove her chastity to her husband Ram. In the matter of chastity the colour white is very significant, it denotes purity. The nun's dress is white in colour and in Christianity white is also the colour of the bride's wedding dress. Hence the yardstick to judge a woman is by the virtue of her chastity on male terms. Charles R. Lyons in the essay 'Silent Women and Shrew: Eroticism and convention in Epicoene and Measure for Measure' talks about Robert Egan's production at the Mark Taper Forum in 1985 where Isabella's final act was to place her crucifix downstage center and follow others who had already exited. This filled in the gap created by her silence and also signifies her surrender to the authority of the Duke. There is a compromising exchange in matters of money for sexual pleasure; legally in case of a marriage and illegally in case of Mistress Overdone, who is portrayed in antithesis to Isabella. The Duke proposes to distribute his wealth to Isabella if she agrees. He tells her: 'If you'll a willing ear incline,/ What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine' (V.i.528-29). Ironically the statement is meant only for Isabella's listening and not voicing her opinion. In exchange for social respect and status Isabella has to surrender her most precious chastity to the Duke through the marriage. Mistress Overdone has married nine times and hence the proposed resolution of rushed marriages appears here, interestingly, as unsure and fictive.
Marcia Riefer presents us with a reading of Isabella's silence:
'She remains speechless, a baffled actress who has run out of lines. The gradual loss of her personal voice during the course of the play has become, finally, a literal loss of voice. In this sense, Measure for Measure is Isabella's tragedy. Like Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, the eloquent Isabella is left with no tongue.' (Riefer Pg-167)
Her silence is an empty book for every reader and spectator to fill it with one's own interpretation.
Although the women in this play submit to the male authority one cannot deny the fact that the male patriarchal dominance is also dependent on the alternative female submission. Isabella chooses to turn a nun and then not give up her virginity whereas Mistress Overdone runs a successful trade based on the commercialized physical exchange between the male and the female. Isabella's seemingly mute approval to the proposition of Duke gives his authority the power over her chastity. The open-ended ambiguous silent choice is not just about Isabella's own predicament. It is also about whether she should follow the path of Mariana for whose guilty husband she herself kneels to plead or Juliet's path of accepting a man spineless enough to bring shame on to his beloved and not minding if his sister gets dishonored in the course of saving him or take up legal prostitution in the form of marriage and give up her wish to be the bride of Jesus.