Sex and power in a patriarchal society
‘Then Isabel live chaste, and brother die:/More than our brother is our chastity’ (Measure for Measure, II.4). This resounding couplet is a moment of enormous difficulty for the modern actress of Isabella, and for the audiences who are watching her. Is she a heroine, a prig, a hysteric, impossibly naive, or fiercely feminist? The play has been regarded as problematic since well before the term ‘problem play’ was invented in the early twentieth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries its subject matter was considered indecent (Anna Jameson wrote a whole chapter on Isabella in her Characteristics of Women (1836) without once specifying the nature of the bargain Angelo is offering her). After a mid-twentieth century period of mild interest in the play as an allegory of God’s mysterious but ultimately benevolent ways, it was perceived as increasingly relevant in the era of sexual liberation which began in the 1960s: sexuality, or its repression, was seen as the key to all the characters. Recent critical interest has shifted to the analysis of power structures in society; the relations between Isabella, the Duke, and his deputy, have become paradigmatic of the relation between the individual and authority.
Measure for Measure is, however, technically a comedy. It demonstrates the social disruptions of carnival in its low-life scenes; it centres on a redemptive female figure; and it ends with marriages. It even includes a song, ‘Take, O take those lips away’ (IV.1), which allows for the same somewhat satirical commentary on romantic despair as does ‘Come away, death’ in Twelfth Night. It is set, like Much Ado, in a ‘real place’, Vienna, which with its brothels and its provosts, its respectable people and its low life, must have felt very like contemporary London to its Jacobean audience. This realism combines with the theme of sexual licentiousness to produce a play