I recently taught Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to a group of undergraduates. The play’s action is set in motion when a duke puts the power of governance into the hands of a man he thinks is more virtuous than himself, who will reinstitute laws that he has allowed to lapse. But the new leader, Angelo, soon shows himself to be corrupt and hypocritical. He condemns a man to death for fornication, but when the man’s chaste sister, Isabella, comes to plead for her brother’s life, Angelo finds himself consumed with lust for her. He offers to spare her brother if she will give herself to him. Isabella, is steadfast in her refusal: “Greater than our brother is our chastity,” she proclaims.
Measure for Measure has been labeled a “problem play”—and this line should demonstrate why. Isabella is the play’s heroine and yet she utters the chastity statement with unswerving conviction. Only a highly contrived set of circumstances allows for a happy ending (she maintains her virginity and her brother escapes execution). I felt sure that the class would be as appalled as I was by Isabella’s smug self-righteousness. Depraved as Angelo is in giving her this choice, how could she possibly put her virginity above her brother’s life?
My assumptions were wrong. Some women in the class saw Isabella as naive and frightened; they said they could understand, given her preparation for the nunnery, her unwillingness to sacrifice her virginity to Angelo under any circumstances. And three women sided with her completely. They agreed that even at the cost her brother’s life, she was right to withhold herself. All three had received a strict Catholic education, and acknowledged its influence on their thinking: their views on the sanctity of sex were different from that of the rest of the class. But they also argued that Isabella had a right to control her own body, and that no one and no cause, even saving her brother’s life, should intrude on that right. Virginity to them was sacred, a traditional-enough stance, but the right of the woman to control her body was part of their reasoning and seemed to be, if anything, more progressive than traditional.
The men in the class were initially unconflicted about the proposed exchange, finding it a “no-brainer,” as they put it: Isabella should sleep with Angelo in order to save her brother. But when someone raised the idea that, instead of thinking of Isabella, they should think of themselves being asked to sleep with Angelo, the tenor of their response changed. They seemed to grow more befuddled—and it wasn’t just the matter of homosexuality. One openly gay man in the class agreed that putting himself in Isabella’s position changed his mind. The women in the class, by contrast, had automatically placed themselves in Isabella’s position.
We never came to a clear conclusion—which is, of course, what makes the play so profound and problematic. But I certainly learned that my own preconceptions about my student’s responses could be reexamined.
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