More Than Our Brother Is Our Chastity

Category: Virtue
Last Updated: 10 Jan 2022
Pages: 6 Views: 692

John 15:13 says: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. In the traditional Christian Elizabethan society; this sentiment would have been revered; Shakespeare’s Puritanical and Catholic audiences would have loved the ideas of self-sacrifice and the immediate ascension into heaven.

However, in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare manages to challenge this verse; he manipulates the situations and then causes the audience to digest the complexity of the verse, and causes the audience to question whether Isabella’s estimation that fornicating to save the life of another is not only morally wrong and a direct rebuttal of Jesus’ sentiment; but a damning sin.

Isabella’s introduction into the play arouses intrigue in audiences and readers, as she is described as having a “speechless dialect/Such as move men”; so it is expected that audiences and readers would be waiting with bated breath fro Isabella to meet Angelo; and Shakespeare does not disappoint. The scene is written in blank verse, with unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter; Isabella first line is not quite metrically even; the word honour cannot be properly stressed, and that falter changes the rhythm of her speech.

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Her second speech leaves a gap in which Angelo inserts a terse question; almost as if the incomplete pentameter forces Angelo to reply. That first break in rhythm changes the dynamics of Isabelle’s interaction with Angelo. Shakespeare purposefully does this in order to use language and rhythm to convey the intensity of the relationship instantly forged between them; in particular the way the metre swaps between the two speakers. Later in the scene, the roles are reversed.

On line 51, the position of the words in the pentameter undermines their stated meaning: while the words themselves speak of a certainty and finality, the rhythm is half-finished; in which Isabella can – metrically must- reopen the argument; although Angelo’s words say there is nor room for argument, he does not, at some level, want to dismiss the argument entirely; The language of the scene shows the extent to which they are aware of each other. So from the beginning of their interaction readers and audiences alike are left to question if this awareness is befitting of a novice nun.

Conversely, Isabella may be seen as a model of some aspects of Christian virtue in 'Measure for Measure', and her opposition to giving up her virginity an extension of her inherent virtue. For instance, in Act 2 Scene 2, Isabella's dialogue with Angelo expresses her quality of mercy, as although Claudio's sexual transgression is "a vice that I do most abhor", Isabella argues that Angelo "might pardon him, / And neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy. Furthermore she connects this value directly to God and her religion; "Why all the souls that were, were forfeit once/ And he that might the vantage best have took/ Found out the remedy. " This opposes Angelo's strict adherence to the secular laws of Vienna. His speeches in this scene make repeated references to his view of the law as immobile, such as "Your brother is a forfeit of the law/ And you but waste your words. He does not address the moral issues surrounding Claudio's crime, and the dry legal connotations of his language may seem to lack sympathy or mercy; this contrasts with Isabella's emotive language and religious allusions. This juxtaposition may have provided Shakespeare's original audiences with an interesting and current rhetorical debate, as the laws of the church and England's common laws were sometimes distinct and contradictory, causing moral and legal conflict.

Moreover, the laws at the time were concerned with principles of justice, but did not often consider mercy, which was thought to be a religious virtue. Therefore, the characters of Isabella and Angelo may be intended to represent the two sides of this debate. Similarly, in John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi” The Duchess is portrayed as character who breaks the traditional Elizabethan revenge plot by to speak and act with the freedom of normal, albeit impulsive human beings.

The Duchess is portrayed as sensual and aware of her sexuality, but is still able to become the embodiment of Christian virtue. In some ways Isabella and the Duchess are strikingly similar, but where The Duchess is overtly sexual, Isabella – like Angelo, has a moral compass that causes her to view situations as either Black or White, with no in-between {Insert quotation here} Isabella may therefore represent the difficulties of being a model of virtue, and of holding strict values of chastity and restraint whilst upholding sometimes contrasting principles of mercy and compassion.

These themes would have been relevant in Jacobean society, as puritan values – which Isabella's devotion may represent – were becoming increasingly influential politically and socially, for instance the theatres of the suburbs were at times closed by puritan intervening. Furthermore, the play's genre of problem play allows for moral dilemmas to be raised and viewed from both sides.

Therefore although seems to Isabella demonstrate a struggle to become ideally virtuous, it cannot be said definitively whether she succeeds as Angelo brings to light an equally challenging view “Is there no charity in sin? ” However, it could be argued that modern values make it difficult for todays’ audience and readers to full grasp the gravity of Isabella’s situation. A similar story to ‘Measure for Measure’ is outlined in the Elizabethan novella “Eptia and Juriste” by Giraldi Cintho; in which Juriste is appointed governor of Innsbruck.

He sentences a young man Vico to death; and like Angelo, Juriste propositions Epitia for sexual favours in exchange for her brother’s life, hinting that he might even marry her later. Epitia refuses indignantly “My brother’s life” she says with noble fierceness “is indeed very dear to me, but my honour is far dearer: my life I would willingly lose to save his, but I will not preserve him with my honour” so it could be argued that dilemma’s like this were popular and scintillating with Elizabethan audiences, as they understood the true depth of both women’s situations.

Unfortunately, the representation of Isabella's religious devotion may appear - to some readers and audiences; humorous in its extremes, such as when in Act 1 Scene 4 she wishes for "a more strict restraint" even than "the votarists of St Claire", a Catholic order that Shakespeare's audiences may have recognised as following rigorous rules of poverty. Furthermore, Isabella's devotion to chastity may place her on what seems like a moral highroad unachievable by most, and this may causes an audience to question or disapprove of her character.

However, although Isabella's resilient chastity may have therefore seemed virtuous, her direct language: "Better it were a brother died at once" could seem unsympathetic and her use of the pronoun “our” in her proclamation “more than our brother is our chastity” could be seen as unemotional and an attempt to depersonalise he situation; making it harder for audiences and readers alike to empathise with her.

Although, the argument of Isabella’s lack of sympathy for Claudio could be countered with her argument that Angelo should put himself in Claudio's place: "Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know/ That's like my brother's fault". ; the emphasis on the shifting pronouns enacts the level of syntax, the act of identification she seeks to prompt.

Also, it may be significant that Isabella sticks to her values of chastity even though it involves emotional upheaval, whereas Angelo, when he discovers he is not the legal and moral puritan he had previously thought himself to abandons his values completely and becomes a tyrant, exploiting both the law and the other characters for his own benefit, saying: "I have begun, /And now I give my sensual race the rein. "

So, while Angelo is portrayed as occupying the same if not higher moral ground that Isabella, his fall from grace is well documented and juxtaposed against Isabella - who sometimes unethical but never immoral, it shows that Isabella’s strength lies I her unwavering moral compass, and easily giving over her virtue would be untrue of her character. This is portrays especially well in Act 2 Scene 4, where Angelo asks "who would believe thee Isabel? ". Here Shakespeare's use of the rhetorical question emphasises Angelo's power over Isabella, in that he is relying on his "unsoiled name" to protect him from prosecution.

The imagery of the "unsoiled" name implies that Angelo's power stems from his past reputation, in that no one would believe that he would be capable of succumbing to the same weaknesses as other's. This point is mirrored in the "Duchess of Malfi" in which the Cardinal places his power in his reputation as no one expects him to be a fornicator as his position supposedly attests to his morality. In conclusion, Isabella's conflict in the play has a deep moral centre.

She wants to become a nun, but can only save her brother's life by surrendering her chastity to Angelo. When she says, "More than our brother is our chastity” I believe she is not being cruel or selfish, but trying very hard to adhere to an ingrained sense morality, and unlike many characters in the play, she sticks to her values and her faith; and this might seem foreign even to some Elizabethan audiences, as in some cases, representations of women of this time can be seen as being limited to idolised virgins, or sexual women who were often demonised as whores.

So, because Isabella is not a perfect religious ideal, but as a woman with flaws who is placed in a difficult situation, and tries to achieve the best outcome; it is easy to respect her.

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More Than Our Brother Is Our Chastity. (2017, Jul 31). Retrieved from

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