Isabella is a woman with a seemingly over pious regard to herself and her virginity, placing the same over an individual’s life and liberty. This is made evident in her statement “Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die: More than our brother is our chastity (Measure for measure 2.4.197-198).”
She thus relates how she finds her chastity to be worth more than her relations and certainly worth more than life itself. In the following words she further expresses what torment it would be to continue life with chastity and purity taken from her: “And ’twere the cheaper way: Better it were a brother died at once, than that a sister, by redeeming him, should die for ever (Measure for measure 2.4.114-117).”
She thus likens such life to dying each day that she woke up. However, she fails to take into account that this was the crime that her own brother was jailed for. Should she then beg for his freedom thinking he was not liable for his wrong when she would thus consider the act if committed to her to odorous to live with? Certainly, if her brother is to be justified on account of his love then she too would in the same way be absolved of any fault in acceding to Angelo’s request on account of her love for her own brother, her own flesh and blood.
Isabella’s decision is quite contrary to that of Hamlet’s. Hamlet having seen and heard of the unjust manner in which his father was slain puts aside his own self in order to take up the latter’s revenge. This is marked quite true in his words:
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and observation copied there; And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain. (Hamlet 1.5.104-108)
With a focus on the heinous crime that has been committed against his murdered father, Hamlet commits himself to right the same wrong at whatever cost it might bring upon himself. He throws aside the purity of a nephew bound to his uncle by kinship ties. He even discards the purity that is required of him as a prince and son, subservient to his King and Queen mother.
In both the cases of Isabella and Hamlet they are handed the power to decide the fate of persons they confess to love. Isabella and Hamlet both are left to release their brother and father respectively from chains that constrain them from freedom.
In Isabella’s case her brother was bound in jail and threatened with death while in Hamlet’s his father’s spirit was bound to earth given to unrest for the spell of eternity. With Angelo’s confession of lust he relinquished all wisdom in deciding the conviction of Isabella’s brother, “redeem thy brother by yielding up thy body to my will; or else he must not only die the death, but thy unkindness shall his death draw out to lingering sufferance (Measure for measure 2.4.177-180).”
Hamlet is given the same sole power to achieve his father’s freedom given that he was the only one to whom the ghost spoke regarding his murder.
Both were required to commit acts wrong in themselves in order to accomplish the freedoms spoken of – Isabella was required to submit to Angelo’s lust while Hamlet was required to commit murder. Whereas Hamlet readily acceded the fault that would be borne by his own hands, Isabella resolutely refused to do the same. Once again the conclusion that the loss of a woman’s chastity was more heinous an offense than the taking of a person’s life was communicated in Shakespeare’s words.
Shakespeare, W. (1997). Hamlet. In Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E., and Maus, K. E. (Ed.). The Norton Shakespeare Based On The Oxford Edition. New York: W. W. Norton.
Shakespeare, W. (1997). Measure for Measure. In Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E., and Maus, K. E. (Ed.). The Norton Shakespeare Based On The Oxford Edition. New York: W. W. Norton.