How Do You Solve A Problem Like Isabella?

Measure for Measure might be my least favorite Shakespeare play. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not being performed more often these days: it’s so perfectly in keeping with the black-and-grey, sexually obsessed moral flavor of so many popular prestige television shows.

One of the show’s key difficulties in my experience lies with the ostensible protagonist, the novice Isabella. Isabella goes to Angelo, standing in as leader while the Duke of Vienna is mysteriously absent, to plead for her brother’s life. Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornication under Angelo’s draconian new morality laws, and Isabella hopes to convince him that Claudio should be spared. Angelo, fastidiously morally upright, makes a shocking offer: he’ll free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. For Isabella, this is a no-brainer. But Claudio is shocked that she would choose her chastity over her brother’s life– and in my experience, modern audiences and readers tend to agree.

The fact that we don’t generally see this potential encounter as rape points to the shortcomings of popular understandings of consent. But it’s also a great example of a place where the gap between Shakespeare’s culture and ours tips the moral scales of his writing out of balance. We cannot conceive of weighting a woman’s virginity– even a nun’s– in equal balance with a man’s life. In the play itself, Claudio also represents this point of view, but it seems clear we’re meant to view Isabella’s dilemma as far more difficult than Claudio is right and Isabella is being a prude. I’ve read so many reviews that eagerly describe the chemistry between Angelo and Isabella– or condemn the lack thereof, as if the play clearly requires that Isabella share some form of Angelo’s attraction.

Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails, an adaptation of Measure for Measure making its world premier at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes close to resolving this dilemma for a modern audience. Reinholz sets the action in late 19th century Nebraska, in a tiny wild west town that lies at the end of the railroad line, with one saloon, one jail cell, and an Indian boarding school. The ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ philosophy that formed the heart of the era’s forced assimilation policy for Native Americans becomes a central moral conflict of the play. Isabella (now Isabel) has converted to Christianity, graduated from her boarding school and is studying to become a teacher there. Her younger brother Momaday (the Claudio role) is rebellious and unwilling to renounce their Pawnee culture. When he impregnates an Irish servant in town, Angelo’s anger is as much racial as moral.

When Momaday criticizes Isabel for her refusal to sleep with Angelo to save his life, he turns the argument into a condemnation of her assimilation: she has chosen Christian morality, and the value it places on chastity, over her brother– and, by extension, their family and their culture.

Off the Rails does provide a more explicit outside defense of Isabel’s decision than Shakespeare, in the form of Madame Overdone, transformed from a bawdy, comic-relief bit part into the formidable proprietor who takes over the Duke’s role as orchestrator of the play’s resolution. To her, Isabel explains that she can’t bear the thought of bearing Angelo’s bastard, a position Madame Overdone sympathizes with, and one the program, if not quite the production, hammers home with its detailing of the characters’ mixed parentage: Lakota and French, Choctaw and Scottish.

But this grounds Isabel’s emotional and moral objection in practical reality, thus suggesting that these reasons– to not want to be coerced into sex, to think that chastity is important, to genuinely believe in her adopted Christian faith– are not enough. The racial politics of the situation (not to mention the utterly reprehensible Angelo of this production, who, despite hiding his violent religious fervor beneath a genial demeanor that’s honestly sort of charming, is established as a brutal hypocrite from the moment he’s introduced as the superintendent of the boarding school) helps weight the scales in Isabel’s favor, but Momaday’s castigation of her decision as a cowardly surrender to white, Christian morality swiftly unbalances them again. The physical practicality (one that you’d think a madame like Overdone would know how to avoid) is what allows Isabel to carry the day, not any respect for her ideological standpoint.

It’s enough for the purposes of the play. But it points to our enduring difficulty with granting a woman true autonomy over her body, with recognizing that violation can take place without violence. In Shakespeare’s day and Shakespeare’s play, there are troubling patriarchal mores that lend weight to Isabella’s obsessive defense of her virginity, and those are best lost. But even without them, there’s power in her refusal. I don’t know that we’re meant to think Isabella is wholly right– but nor should we think that Claudio is.

It’s ironic that we find Isabella’s lack of lines to accept or reject the Duke’s ending proposal so troubling, but often argue that her staunch unwillingness to take up Angelo’s offer is slightly absurd, or proof of her flawed character. Reinholz finds a workable dramatic solution, but not one that truly respects the simple fact of Isabella’s right to choose.

 

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