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Consider the Attitudes To Women Demonstrated In the Vienna of Measure For Measure

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I think most men have fooled themselves into thinking that they are the seat of power—because women have allowed them that dream. Women’s subtle power is to make men think that the man is in charge.

Eli Khamarov in America Explained!

Throughout the course of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare highlights subordination of the female characters by the males.

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In the Vienna represented in the play women have to suffer exploitation and derogation as their individualism and independence are undermined. Shakespeare uses this treatment of women to exemplify the corruption in the city of Vienna.

The two main female roles in Measure for Measure are Mariana and Isabella. Both these women are victims of the corrupt motives of the men who so strongly influence their lives. Isabella, the protagonist, is a nun. Her name means “consecrated to God”. Looking at the roles the other women in the play have adopted, as will be discussed in more depth during the course of this essay, it seems she is almost forced into the role by the bigoted society in Vienna. It appears that the only fate for women, unless they wish to join a convent, be a prostitute or alone, is to become a housewife. As a nun Isabella benefits from the education and relative independence (although whether this particular privilege can belong to a woman, in the Vienna Shakespeare writes about, is doubtful) she would not have if married. There are still certain restraints, in that she is not able to have the sexual freedom of women who are not so divinely consecrated and, once she has taken her vows, she is not allowed to entertain the company of men:

Nun: … When you have vowed, you must not speak with men

But in the presence of the prioress;

Then if you speak you must not show your face,

Or if you show your face you must not speak…

However, this is a small sacrifice to make for the standard of life she can expect to live but in spite of the advantages of being a nun, there significant drawbacks. Isabella is forced to abide by two laws: the chauvinistic law of the land and the androcentric dogma of the church. When they collide Isabella is forced to make a choice, not only between man and God, but also between her brother’s life and her soul. It is ultimately the social structure in Vienna that is responsible for her angst and consequent no-win situation.

Isabella: Then Isobel live chaste and brother die:

More than our brother is our chastity

Ultimately, for Isabella there is no escape. Even her brother does not understand her reasoning behind the choice to sacrifice his life for control of her own: “What sin you do to save a brother’s life, / Nature dispenses with the deed so far / That it becomes a virtue.” The contrast between “sin” and “virtue” accentuates the contrast between his perception of the predicament and Isabella’s. Claudio also overlooks that the church does not see nature as the overall decider of right and wrong. He fails to see that this is not only Isabella clinging onto her ‘eternal life’ but also that this is her bid for independence. The strength of her female character is indicated in Act II Scene iv where she delivers the only female soliloquy in the play:

Isabella: To whom should I complain? Did I tell this

Who would believe me?…

… had he twenty heads to tender down

On twenty blocks he’d yield them up

Before his sister should her body stoop

To such abhorred pollution.

Though she has just been offered a vicious ultimatum by Angelo, and seems at her wits end, she stands firm in the decision she has made. Her steadfast attitude towards the values she upholds is a contrast to those displayed by the three most significant male characters in the play:

Angelo: Who will believe thee, Isabel?

My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,

My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state,

Will so your accusation overweigh…

… redeem thy brother

By yielding up thy body to my will…

In this speech Angelo reveals a part of himself so contrasting with the person spoken about so highly in Act I Scene I: “There is a kind of character in thy life / That to th’observer doth thy history fully unfold.” This “well-seeming Angelo” is not the same person revealed in Act II Scene iv, and indeed throughout the play. His lack of consistency about his scruples hints at the weakness of his character, especially compared to that of Isabella. Unfortunately for her, no matter how much she can prove herself in the presence of men her femininity remains. Were women allowed more independence and choice, Isabella would not be faced with two conflicting laws; her situation would be entirely different. Her helplessness is highlighted by the fact that it is the subordination by men that has led to her no-win predicament, yet it is only a man who has sufficient authority to grant reprieve of either of the two fates. Bearing in mind the corrupt nature of most of the men in Measure for Measure’s Vienna, this can only mean Isabella will no doubt be exploited.

Mariana, in contrast to Isabella’s comparatively feminist existence as a nun, has found her entire life shattered by the cancellation of her betrothal to a revered Lord of the city. Not enough to lose her brother at sea, with all the family’s wealth, Lord Angelo shows his superficiality along with demonstrating the attitudes of men towards women in Vienna – that they are disposable – by calling off the engagement.

Duke: …her brother Frederick was wrecked at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister… she lost a noble and renowned brother, in his love toward her ever most kind and natural; with his the portion and sinew of her fortune, her marriage dowry; with both, her combinate husband, this well-seeming Angelo.

Isabella: Can this be so? Did Angelo so leave her?

Duke: Left her in tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort; swallowed his vows whole… a marble to her tears

Here the Duke reveals the sad truth of Mariana’s past which, as a woman, she is powerless to do anything about. The Duke says her brother loved her, Angelo clearly did not. In jilting her he demonstrates that his interests in her were based purely on the money she can access from her family. Kathleen McLuskie writes in The patriarchal bard: “There is evidence to suggest that marriage was regarded as just an instrument of social control…” The truth of this is slowly revealed throughout the play, though remains disguised until the final scene, especially in this scene. The accuracy of McLuskie’s statement resonates through this scene the significance of its fact is seen in Mariana’s daily life. The Duke’s second statement describes Angelo’s lack of interest in Mariana besides as a source of riches and probably business relations of some sort. Since the Duke describes Angelo as a model person, this appears to be accepted as some sort of norm amongst the aristocracy in Vienna. Through Mariana is shown the effect this self-interest has on the women in the society.

Mariana is now confined to a moated grange where she has little company and even less to occupy her time. Shakespeare uses Mariana’s character later in the play to exaggerate the forgiving nature of women, one of the few positive attributes he bestows upon the female characters in Measure for Measure.

Mariana: Oh, my dear lord,

I crave no other, nor better man.

Although the women in Vienna are stripped of their freedom and seem to have their sense of responsibility undermined, they retain their principles and live up to the roles they hope to be given. They remain steadfastly loyal: Isabella to the doctrines of the church and Mariana to Angelo, regardless of the price they have to pay. Their devotion is often presented as submission:

Isabella: (to Duke) I am directed by you.

What Isabella does not realise when she utters these words is the situation to follow. This may be a premonition (as frequently occur in Shakespeare’s plays) of the obedience the Duke of her in the final scene. Perhaps what Eli Khamarov claims in America Explained! is true also in Shakespeare’s Vienna, that women allow men power over them. Then the question needs to be asked, “What do women gain from permitting men to domineer them?” Sexual freedom is certainly not the answer. The sexual constriction of Isabella and Mariana’s lives is a stark contrast to that of the prostitutes, which make up a large Viennese sub-culture, in particular Mistress Overdone.

Lucio: Behold, behold, where Madam Mitigation comes. I have purchased as many diseases under her roof as come to [judge]

This brothel-owner is nicknamed Madam Mitigation by Lucio, since she ‘alleviates’ men’s sexual tension. Her liberalism is however still as much of a bane to her as Isabella’s chastity is to Claudio and Angelo alike when, on the promotion of Angelo to “acting duke”, the brothels are ordered to close.

Mistress Overdone: But shall all our houses of resort in the suburbs be pulled down?

Pompey: To the ground, mistress.

Mistress Overdone: … What shall become of me?

Caught in a vicious cycle, Mistress Overdone cannot marry, since no man wishes to marry her because she is a prostitute. If she cannot marry she must support herself; the only trade women are welcome in is prostitution hence she must remain a prostitute. But this in turn means no man will marry her. Mistress Overdone’s lack of choice in her own life is another example of the double standards adopted by the corrupt men in Viennese society. This is a culture where women are used for sex yet still expected to remain pure and chaste.

Their civil rights are abused, they are treated as second-class citizens, and their freedoms of speech and choice are taken from them. The comparison of the female characters suggested in the first paragraph of this essay when establishing Isabella’s choice of becoming a nun is a good starting point for this. Mistress Overdone has the most freedom of any woman, but she pays for this with any emotional security she could hope for. Isabella has emotional security within the constraints of religion, but no freedom. There is also the possibility she may have little companionship. Mariana has no emotional security or freedom. When Juliet exercised her freedom within her emotional security; she had both taken from her. Since, even though the women in Vienna are stripped of their freedom and seem to have their sense of responsibility undermined, when a man is sentenced to death for impregnating his fianc�e, the moral responsibility of the action is placed on the woman.

Duke: So then it seems your most offenceful act

Was mutually committed.

Juliet: Mutually.

Duke: Then was your sin of a heavier kind than his.

Juliet: I do confess it, and repent it, father.

Although the Duke is here posing as a friar, either he is adopting the attitude of the church he is representing, or he is following his own moral code. By going along with the church’s belief Shakespeare is using him to show the patriarchal set-up of the religion in Vienna. If the Duke is using his own ideals as a guide, this is similarly as worrying since he is the ruler of the city and has the superseding voice.

The exploitative nature of the men in Vienna is shown by the treatment of both Isabella and Mariana by Angelo and the Duke throughout the play. They are humiliated in public and subordinated in private.

Angelo: For that her reputation was disvalued

In levity. Since which time of five years

I never spake with her, saw her, nor heard from her

Angelo’s jilting of Mariana leads to a decline her self-esteem whilst the Duke’s manipulation of the two women results in his exultation and their continued lack of choice, as he marries Mariana to Angelo and demands Isabella’s own hand in marriage. This lack of respect for women’s own abilities to make choices renders them powerless over even their own lives.

What Shakespeare says about Vienna through the men’s treatment of women is evident. Men who do not respect others, and who strip the rights of women to save their own face not achieve their goals. Nonetheless Shakespeare does not show them suffering, especially not at the hands of the women. Angelo ends the play married to a woman who loves him dearly and will pander to his every want. Claudio, in his inability to understand Isabella’s decision to let him die, finds himself not having to. The Duke is still asking for Isabella’s hand right up to the end of the scene. Her name suggests she will not give in.

Yet it is not only on the account of oppression that men stand accused of maltreating females, Shakespeare strongly highlights issues including sexual double standards and general moral hypocrisy. Claiming that the Vienna in Measure for Measure was indicative of the London of his time, Shakespeare shows what little he thinks of the values adopted by his peers and contemporaries. The images he conjures up of dirty streets and lavish mansions are also historically accurate representations of life in London powerfully supporting the supposition that the city was the subject of Shakespeare’s criticism. Perhaps Shakespeare is offering a theory behind the state of London and what can be done to change it.

He also makes reference to what he feels women’s role is in society through the characters of Isabella, Mariana and Mistress Overdone in particular. These are three women who do not fit into the role of wife and each have different ways of life, yet still find their destinies have been handed over to men. It is possible that in this play Shakespeare is criticising the misogyny of 17th Century London and maybe even King James I (although the latter is highly unlikely he would get away with it). A counter-argument is offered by Linda Bambur’s Comic Women, Tragic Men: a Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare, that “the writer fails to attribute the opposite sex characters the privileges of the other” hints at Shakespeare’s own sexist attitude. She hints that the treatment of women in Measure for Measure is a parody for Shakespeare’s own attitude towards them. Truth be told, his subliminal messages in Measure for Measure may never be known, but one fact remains. Whether as a result of playwrights like Shakespeare, or simply because of a gradual change in attitudes, two centuries after this play and its highlighting of deep-rooted patriarchy, the first feminist movement sprang up. London has never been the same.

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