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Shakespeare's Characters: Isabella (Measure for Measure)


From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 7. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co. (1901), Public Domain

The humorous scenes would be altogether repulsive were it not that they are needed to present, without disguise or extenuation, the worst of moral license and corruption out of and above which rise the virginal strength and severity and beauty of Isabella. At the entrance to the dark and dangerous tragic world into which Shakspere was now about to pass stand the figures of Isabella and of Helena one the embodiment of conscience, the other the embodiment of will. Isabella is the only one of Shakspere's women whose heart and eyes are fixed upon an impersonal ideal, to whom something abstract is more, in the ardor and energy of her youth, than any human personality. Out of this Vienna, in which

"Corruption boils and bubbles
Till it o'errun the stew,"
emerges this pure zeal, this rectitude of will, this virgin sanctity. Isabella's saintliness is not of the passive, timorous, or merely meditative kind. It is an active pursuit of holiness through exercise and discipline. She knows nothing of a Manichaean hatred of the body; the life runs strongly and gladly in her veins; simply her soul is set upon things belonging to the soul, and uses the body for its own purposes. And that the life of the soul may be invigorated, she would bring every unruly thought into captivity, "having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience."...

Isabella does not return to the sisterhood of Saint Clare. Putting aside from her the dress of religion, and the strict conventual rule, she accepts her place as Duchess of Vienna. In this there is no dropping-away, through love of pleasure or through supineness, from her ideal; it is entirely meet and right. She has learned that in the world may be found a discipline more strict, more awful, than the discipline of the convent; she has learned that the world has need of her. Her life is still a consecrated life; the vital energy of her heart can exert and augment itself through glad and faithful wifehood, and through noble station, more fully than in seclusion. To preside over this polluted and feculent Vienna is the office and charge of Isabella, "a thing ensky'd and sainted."
Dowden: Shakespere.

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