Measure for Measure (Vol. 65)
Measure for Measure
For further information on the critical and stage history of Measure for Measure, see SC, Volumes 2, 23, 33, and 49.
Classified by modern scholars as one of Shakespeare's “problem plays,” Measure for Measure has fascinated and perplexed audiences and critics alike for centuries. Set in the corrupted world of Renaissance Vienna, Measure for Measure is principally concerned with the subject of sexual morality, and is driven by Shakespeare's depiction of harsh early modern Viennese laws regarding sexual intercourse outside of wedlock. Its principal figures are the seemingly ineffectual Duke Vincentio, his severe deputy Angelo, Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for fornication, and Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella. While Isabella's entreaties for her brother's pardon do prove successful, critics acknowledge that many of the tensions raised over the course of the play remain open, resulting in a largely unsatisfactory resolution. Critical disagreement over the often contradictory manner in which the play confronts the theme of justice has been ongoing, as has the problem of the drama's structural cohesiveness, reflected by its discordant shifts in tone from comic to tragic. Overall, the debate concerning its classification, the critical struggle over ambiguities in Shakespeare's characterization, and the potent dynamics of marriage, celibacy, lust, and love continue to dominate current evaluations of Measure for Measure.
Recent critical discussion of character in Measure for Measure has typically focused on Isabella and Duke Vincentio, or on one or more of the play's minor figures. Linda McFarlane (1993) discusses Isabella's no-win situation in the play and mentions the limited choices—matrimony or chaste monasticism—offered to her as a woman, possibilities that echo during her notorious silence after the Duke's proposal of marriage. Carolyn E. Brown (see Further Reading) studies Isabella and Duke Vincentio from the point of view of psychoanalysis, concentrating on repressed sexuality as a dominating element in their relationship. Although a relatively minor figure in Measure for Measure, Lucio is nevertheless considered a significant foil to others in the drama. Charles Swan (1987) associates Lucio’s essentially comic character with a number of the play's ambiguities, noticeably in his subversive critique of the authoritarian Duke. Similarly, Kaori Ashizu (1997) highlights the importance of Barnardine, an apparently inconsequential man imprisoned by the Duke years before the action of the play and then forgotten. Using Barnardine's example, Ashizu maintains that the Duke cannot be envisioned as a completely noble or godlike governor, as a number of earlier critics have claimed.
Productions of Measure for Measure at the close of the twentieth century illustrate the play's interesting, if irregular, stage career, which has seen it produced along a continuum from a serious drama concerned with a woman's struggle to preserve her chastity, to an irreverent comedy that mocks society's hypocritical attitude towards sexual morality. Libby Appel's 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the drama places itself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum by resonating with both hard-edged sexuality and bawdy eroticism. Commenting on the performance, critic Nancy Taylor (1999) observes the drama's potential to disrupt boundaries of identity between individual characters in the play, eliminate barriers between audience and stage, and even blur the distinction between spirituality and sexuality. Highlighting David Thacker's 1999 production of Measure for Measure for British television, reviewer Stephen J. Phillips (1999) examines the cuts, transpositions, and characterization decisions Thacker made for the televised medium, and contends that Thacker’s adaptation of the play to the “conventions of television realism” weakened the production.
While thematic studies of Measure for Measure confront a number of varied issues in the work, easily the most absorbing topic to contemporary critics has been that of sexuality. Materialist critic Jonathan Dollimore (1985) emphasizes the trangressive quality of human desire depicted in the drama, which threatens the social order and is exploited by the Duke to legitimate authoritarian repression. Disruption of sexual norms also figures prominently in Susan Carlson's (1989) analysis of a feminine-centered sexuality that pressures the conventional, male-dominated sexual hierarchy of Measure for Measure. Barbara J. Baines (1990) links alternative sexualities with power in her study of Isabella's chastity. In a parallel discussion, Alberto Cacicedo (1995) notes the use of marriage as a means of limiting feminine freedom and denying autonomy in the repressive and highly-gendered society of Shakespeare's Vienna. Maurice Charney (see Further Reading) clearly voices the proposition that Measure for Measure is fundamentally a drama about human sexuality, and examines the erotic, if not openly sexual, relationship between Isabella and Angelo. Describing the work as “sadopornographic,” David McCandless (1998) explores the psychological dynamics of sexuality as punishment in the play.
Other topics eliciting recent commentary have included law, spirituality, and the troublesome question of the play's genre. Ervene Gulley (1996) offers a legalistic and meta-theatrical analysis of Duke Vincentio's performance in Measure for Measure, which, she argues, is deeply embedded in Shakespeare's conception of law. Maurice Hunt (1987) comments on the motif of earthly versus otherworldly love that reverberates throughout the drama. Confronting prior accusations of inconsistency of genre in the work, Gregory W. Lanier (1987) acknowledges Measure for Measure's problematic division between the comic and tragic, but sees in Shakespeare's balanced juxtaposition of these dramatic modes a structural unity. Likewise, Gideon Rappaport (1987) argues that Shakespeare depicts a coherent theme of virtue in the drama that vindicates its supposedly inadequate conclusion. Finally, Kate Chedgzoy (2000) surveys the stage history of Measure for Measure in order to glean insights regarding the play's resistance to the ordinary dramatic categories of comedy and tragedy.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Lanier, Gregory W. “Physic That's Bitter to Sweet End: The Tragicomic Structure of Measure for Measure.” Essays in Literature 14, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 15-36.
[In the following essay, Lanier presents a structural analysis of Measure for Measure, seeing in its divided form “a juxtaposition of two dramatic modes, tragedy and comedy, carefully poised to create a cohesive, resonant unity.”]
In 1949 E. M. W. Tillyard bisected Measure for Measure into potentially tragic verse and dissolutely comic prose; some years earlier G. Wilson Knight asserted that the symbolic sequence of transgression, judgment, and redeeming mercy provides an innate structural integrity.1 This polarity in critical responses has proved to be nearly as enduring as the play itself. Cynthia Lewis provides a short summary of this division in her recent article:
Readers who, like Harriett Hawkins, find the play's ending “not only aesthetically and intellectually unsatisfying, but personally infuriating,” usually see Measure for Measure as split in tone, structure, and viewpoint. … On the other hand, many readers see Measure for Measure as unified. Arthur Kirsch, who sees Measure as a radically Christian play, concludes that the Duke's secret plotting represents the hidden workings of Providence. …2
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SOURCE: Rappaport, Gideon. “Measuring Measure for Measure.” Renascence 39, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 502-13.
[In the following essay, Rappaport responds to critics who view Measure for Measure as lacking unity, contending that there is sufficient thematic coherence in the drama's resolution.]
O place and greatness! millions of false eyes Are stuck upon thee. Volumes of report Run with these false, and most contrarious quest Upon thy doings; thousand escapes of wit Make thee the father of their idle dream, And rack thee in their fancies.
In her call for papers for the 1980 Shakespeare Association Convention's seminar on Measure for Measure, Barbara Hodgdon wrote the following sentence, which may stand as a representative postulate of problem-play criticism: “Because of its ambiguities, Measure for Measure resists cohesive treatment.” The assumption contained in this statement and the conclusion it comes to were seconded in some way by nearly all the participants in the seminar and seem to be almost universally subscribed to at the present time. Yet if the statement is true, the inevitable condition of the modern reader's relation to the play is antagonism. Our perception of ambiguity must interminably battle our longing for coherence, in our minds and in countless published skirmishes, with no peace in sight. Some critics, like...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Swann, Charles. “Lucio: Benefactor or Malefactor?” Critical Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 55-70.
[In the following essay, Swann examines the ambivalent ideological function of Lucio at the close of Measure for Measure, particularly in relation to the authoritarian figure of the Duke.]
… I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors.
(Measure for Measure, II.i. 48-50).
In a recent piece, ‘Transgression and surveillance in Measure for Measure’, Jonathan Dollimore dismissed the blandness of one kind of interpretation of the play adequately represented by J. W. Lever in the preface to his edition of the Arden Shakespeare:
‘Not only are the tensions and discords wrought up to an extreme pitch, threatening the dissolution of all human values, but a corresponding and extraordinary emphasis is laid upon the role of true authority, whose intervention alone supplies the equipoise needed to counter the forces of negation.’ … On this view then unruly desire is extremely subversive and has to be countered by ‘true’ and ‘supreme authority’, ‘age and wisdom’, all of which qualities are possessed by the Duke in Measure for Measure and used by him to redeem the State (pp. lx and lxxi). Only these virtues, this...
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SOURCE: MacFarlane, Linda. “Heads You Win, Tails I Lose.” Critical Survey 5, no. 1 (1993): 77-82.
[In the following essay, MacFarlane discusses the restrictions on Isabella's freedom as a woman in the Renaissance Vienna of Measure for Measure.]
Be that you are, That is a woman; if you be more you're none.
(Angelo, II. iv. 134-5)
In Measure For Measure Isabella is placed firmly in a no win situation. Even on the threshold of a convent, at the very moment of making a clear statement about her vocation, her desires and her sexuality, she is not safe. She is plucked back into the outside world to bear the responsibility for the sexual urges, misdemeanors and fantasies of four men.
As Lucio approaches to plead for Isabella's intervention in her brother's cause his greeting sexualises her: ‘Hail, virgin—if you be, as those cheek roses / Proclaim you are no less!’ Lucio clearly identifies Isabella by her sexuality and his subsequent encouragement of her in the face of her imminent failure to win over Angelo supposes she must use her sexuality if she is to succeed. He assumes that Isabella's assertion that she will ‘bribe’ Angelo is an offer of sex. He suggests that she ‘had marred all else!’ a statement which indicates at this...
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SOURCE: Ashizu, Kaori. “‘Pardon Me?’: Judging Barnardine's Judge.” English Studies 78, no. 5 (September 1997): 417-29.
[In the following essay, Ashizu examines Duke Vincentio’s poor treatment of the prisoner Barnardine in Measure for Measure, and argues against conceptions of the Duke as an ideal or godlike authority.]
Measure for Measure is certainly one of Shakespeare's most controversial works; it has elicited and continues to elicit a diversity of violently conflicting interpretations. However, no matter how various the elements and interests in these controversies, the arguments seem to converge after all on one subject—how to see Duke Vincentio. The critical commentary on the Duke falls, roughly speaking, into the following two schools. The first consists of the anti-Duke critics, including many early critics such as William Hazlitt1 and E. K. Chambers2 as well as recent ones like A. D. Nuttall:3 they regard the Duke as unpleasant or even repulsive, and find fault with his unmotivated plotting and his heartless manipulation of the others' actions and emotions. This critical view of the Duke was not staged until John Barton's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970.4 A second school of critics, who only started to appear in the 1930s, hold favorable views of the Duke, giving him a special dispensation which, in one...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Phillips, Stephen J. “‘Adapted for Television’: David Thacker's Measure for Measure.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 35, no. 1 (January 1999): 23-33.
[In the following review, Phillips examines David Thacker’s 1999 television adaptation of Measure for Measure for British broadcast, highlighting the cuts, transpositions, and characterization decisions that Thacker made for the televised medium.]
In the autumn of 1994 the British Broadcasting Corporation transmitted a series of programmes that explored the work of Shakespeare. This coincided with a major festival at the Royal Shakespeare Company's London base. The BBC offerings included an overview of the cultural impact of the Bard, documentaries showing directors Adrian Noble and Michael Bogdanov at work in very different contexts, classic Shakespearean films, and a new television production of Measure for Measure by David Thacker. This was the first major British production of a Shakespeare play for television since the BBC/Time-Life series ended in 1985.1
Desmond Davis had directed the BBC/Time-Life Measure for Measure which was transmitted in Britain in February 1979. The series had begun transmission in 1978 and met with charges of dullness. Davis' Measure for Measure, however, was acclaimed. Writing in Literature/Film Quarterly in 1984, H. R. Coursen judged that...
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SOURCE: Taylor, Nancy. Review of Measure for Measure. Theatre Journal 51, no. 1 (March 1999): 73-76.
[In the following review of the 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure directed by Libby Appel, Taylor comments on the performance's resistance to the boundaries of character and setting, as well as its highly eroticized atmosphere.]
Artistic Director, Libby Appel, created a series of boundary dissolutions in this production, an appropriate post-modern era approach to a play driven by stark and extreme contrasts. Her production of Uncle Vanya similarly highlighted the interdependence of presence and representation, spectator and spectacle inherent in the theatrical medium.
When I walked into the performance space, I saw larger-than-life erotica plastering the walls under the title “Sex Museum.” Scenic designer William Bloodgood's figures, inspired by the early 20th-century Viennese artist Egon Schiele, provoked a sense of the grotesque, of a potentially cruel and lonely sexuality. In the center of the playing space a square platform framed by iron works suggested the French Quarter. The floor was covered with tabloid newspapers, advertisements for phone sex, and fliers announcing Angelo's edict to shut down the bawdy houses. But on a support pillar near the back of the space was a painting of a crucifix. The juxtaposition of Christ's...
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SOURCE: Dollimore, Jonathan. “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 72-87. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Dollimore provides a materialist analysis of social transgression in Measure for Measure, which he sees as the result of “unregulated desire” responded to by “authoritarian repression.”]
In the Vienna of Measure for Measure unrestrained sexuality is ostensibly subverting social order; anarchy threatens to engulf the State unless sexuality is subjected to renewed and severe regulation. Such at least is the claim of those in power. Surprisingly critics have generally taken them at their word even while dissociating themselves from the punitive zeal of Angelo. There are those who have found in the play only a near tragic conflict between anarchy and order, averted in the end it is true, but unconvincingly so. Others, of a liberal persuasion and with a definite preference for humane rather than authoritarian restraint, have found at least in the play's ‘vision’ if not precisely its ending an ethical sense near enough to their own. But both kinds of critic have apparently accepted that sexual transgression in Measure for Measure—and in the world—represents a real force of social disorder...
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SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Comfort in Measure for Measure.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 27, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 213-32.
[In the following essay, Hunt investigates the theme of spiritual comfort and its complex relationship to the human capacity for love, primarily represented through the figures of Isabella, the Duke, and Mariana in Measure for Measure.]
“Pax vobiscum”—versions of the time-honored words of spiritual comfort repeatedly echo in Measure for Measure, especially in the language of Vincentio and Isabella, the disguised Friar Lodowick and the aspiring nun. “Peace be with you” Vincentio exclaims at the end of Act III, when Escalus announces that he will visit condemned Claudio, whom Vincentio has attempted to comfort through a vision of the hollowness of earthly life. Earlier in the play, Lucio travesties the familiar blessing when, upon entering the nunnery of Saint Clare, he presumptuously shouts, “Hoa! Peace be in this place!” (I.iv.6).1 “Peace and prosperity!” Isabella understandably replies; if comfort exists anywhere, it ought to live in a convent. These greetings of comfort help constitute the approximately twenty expressions of comfort in Measure for Measure, a total higher than that for any other appearance of the word or its derivatives in Shakespearean comedy. That fact alone suggests that comfort may be an...
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SOURCE: Carlson, Susan. “‘Fond Fathers’ and Sweet Sisters: Alternative Sexualities in Measure for Measure.” Essays in Literature 16, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 13-31.
[In the following essay, Carlson stresses non-traditional expressions of sexuality in Measure for Measure that stand against the male-dominated sexual order.]
Measure for Measure insists on defining its women in terms of their sexual relations to men. Such definition is clearest in the play's final scene when the Duke concludes Mariana must be “nothing” if she is not maid, widow, or wife (V.i.177-78).1 The definition is corroborated by Lucio with his addition of a more tawdry fourth alternative, “punk,” to the unchallenged list of female types. Many critics responding to the play in recent years have explored this seeming equation of a woman's worth with her sexuality to conclude that the play's sexual attitudes result from a persistent male fear of women.2 Their feminist connection between gynophobia and the play's restrictive sexual definitions has helped explain many of the ambiguities in the play's highly sexualized fabric. But although they call into question privileged, male-powered sexuality, none of them studies alternative sexualities in Measure for Measure. Other critics have begun to characterize the play's diversified sexualities, however, by combining a feminist...
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SOURCE: Baines, Barbara J. “Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 30, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 283-301.
[In the following essay, Baines studies Shakespeare's depiction of Isabella's sexual purity as a means of garnering social power in the world of Measure for Measure.]
For many readers of Measure for Measure, Isabella illustrates better than Angelo the paradox that “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (II.i.38).1 Critics have, in fact, argued that the primary question of the play is whether Isabella is an embodiment of Christian virtue or pagan pride.2 Recently Marcia Riefer has defended Isabella as a victim of sexual subjugation who changes in the course of the play “from an articulate, compassionate, woman during her first encounter with Angelo (II.ii) to a stunned, angry, defensive woman in her later confrontations with Angelo and with her imprisoned brother (II.iv and III.i), to, finally, a shadow of her former articulate self, on her knees before male authority in Act V.”3
This defense, however, is not altogether convincing because it is predicated upon a “powerlessness”4 that simply does not square with the language and actions of the character. Furthermore, Riefer's delineation of Isabella's defensive reactions does not account for the priority...
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SOURCE: Cacicedo, Alberto. “‘She Is Fast My Wife’: Sex, Marriage, and Ducal Authority in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Studies (1995): 187-209.
[In the following essay, Cacicedo contends that Measure for Measure dramatizes the repression of feminine freedom by state authority via the institution of marriage.]
Children who stand in little awe of their parents, and have even less fear of the wrath of God, readily set at defiance the authority of magistrates. … It is therefore impossible that a commonwealth should prosper while the families which are its foundations are ill-regulated.
—Jean Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth
Feminist thought regards the sexual/familial organization of society as integral to any conception of social structure or social change. And conversely, it sees the relation of the sexes as formed by both socioeconomic and sexual-familial structures in their systematic connectedness.
—Joan Kelly, “The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory”
In her introduction to Edmund Tilney's Flower of Friendship, Valerie Wayne argues that in early modern England female subjectivity is licensed only to the extent that it mirrors the male, who then acts to erase the...
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SOURCE: Gulley, Ervene. “‘Dressed in a Little Brief Authority’: Law as Theater in Measure for Measure.” In Law and Literature Perspectives, edited by Bruce L. Rockwood, pp. 53-80. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
[In the following essay, Gulley reads Measure for Measure as a play about law, scripted by a legalistic Duke Vincentio, who determines its outcome through his theatrical performance and political power.]
Few lawyers are among the significant characters in Shakespeare's plays, and one tipsy daydreamer is even allowed to suggest that reforming society might begin by killing all the lawyers. Yet Shakespeare's dramatic romance with the law itself is obvious. Reflecting familiarity with the language and procedures of law in his time and addressing a society for which the actions of courts and their officers provided both structure and entertainment, Shakespeare drew repeatedly on the legal world for imagery, characters, plot elements, and themes.1 The power and scope of law in combining the most lofty philosophical issues with the most mundane functional matters—the ideal with the real, the social with the individual—make it exceptionally resonant as a medium through which to explore the full range of human behaviors and concerns, from the lightly comic to the darkly tragic.
Although legal imagery and characters are present across the chronological...
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SOURCE: McCandless, David. “‘I'll Pray to Increase Your Bondage’: Power and Punishment in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespearean Power and Punishment: A Volume of Essays, edited by Gillian Murray Kendall, pp. 89-112. London: Associated University Presses, 1998.
[In the following essay, McCandless emphasizes the “sadopornographic” quality of Measure for Measure and the psychological and thematic effects of sexuality and punishment in the drama.]
The first and most striking instance of power and punishment in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is also the play's true beginning: At Angelo's command, Claudio is publicly disgraced, enchained, and paraded through the streets to prison. The preceding action—the Duke's inexplicable departure and hasty deputizing of Angelo, Lucio's scurrilous badinage about venereal disease—amounts to a prologue. The punishment of Claudio, which manifests Angelo's “mortal” power, is the incident upon which the play's entire action turns. It seems to me absolutely crucial that this scene be staged in such a way as to heighten Claudio's humiliation: Lucio and his scruffy cohorts disport themselves in some sort of tavern/gaming den/house of ill repute. They and other customers are hastily diverted from their disreputable amusements by a steadily increasing rumble portending the arrival of a rowdy crowd. Suddenly they find themselves spectators...
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SOURCE: Chedgzoy, Kate. “Tortured into a Comedy.” In William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, pp. 58-68. Tavistock: Northcote House, 2000.
[In the following essay, Chedgzoy explores Measure for Measure's status as a “problem play,” examining stagings of the drama, particularly its final scene, from the seventeenth to the late-twentieth century.]
Measure for Measure, along with some other Shakespeare plays that date from the first few years of the seventeenth century, is often referred to as a ‘problem play’: All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida are the other plays most often included in this curious category. At times, this designation seems to indicate little more than a desire to tidy away Shakespeare's plays into neatly classified and labelled boxes—a desire that is frustrated by the diversity of the plays, and by the complex and inventive ways in which Shakespeare experimented with dramatic genre. But it is also a label that can be very revealing about changing attitudes to this strange and fascinating play, and in particular about the shifts in readers' and audiences' responses to its handling of the central, controversial issues of power, justice, sexuality, and the relation between religious principle and social practice.
The term ‘problem play’ is a modern one, which would have been entirely unfamiliar to Shakespeare,...
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Bernthal, Craig A. “Staging Justice: James I and the Trial Scenes of Measure for Measure.” Studies in Literature: 1500-1900 32, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 247-69.
Observes the topical affinity of King James's acclaimed 1603 pardon of alleged anti-royal conspirators in relation to Duke Vincentio's merciful treatment of Angelo and others at the end of Measure for Measure.
Boose, Lynda. “The Priest, the Slanderer, the Historian, and the Feminist.” English Literary Renaissance 25, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 320-40.
Mentions the anti-feminist dynamics of the judicial scenes in Measure for Measure.
Brown, Carolyn E. “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 1 (Winter 1986): 139-65.
Highlights the “erotic subversion of religious practices” in Measure for Measure, viewing the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella as, respectively, a repressed observer, inflictor, and receiver of sexualized abuse.
———. “Measure for Measure: Isabella's Beating Fantasies.” American Imago 43, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 67-80.
Psychological understanding of Isabella that illuminates her repressed sexual desire and masochistic tendencies.
———. “The Wooing...
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