"Nothing is alive in Isabella" in Measure for Measure by Shakespeare.  Explore the validity of this assessment. 

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Measure for Measure is a very dark comedy, and there is, admittedly, something appalling in Isabella's rigid refusal to sleep with Angelo to save her brother's life. After all, it would be a short time of unpleasantness that would save her brother's life. What kind of person wouldn't make that sacrifice for a loved one?

It's a mistake, however, to interpret this to mean "nothing is alive" in Isabella. In fact, one could argue that the character in whom nothing is alive is Angelo. He, under a mask of false morality, is apparently dead to empathy or compassion or anything outside of his own desires.

Isabella is, in contrast, morally alive. Her morals may seem misplaced to a modern audience (or even an Elizabethan one) but she is in anguish, struggling with what to do. Unlike Angelo, she really, truly believes that sex outside of marriage is a sin. She really believes in an afterlife, and she really believes humans will be judged by God for how they lived on earth. Morality and religion are, for her, deeply felt. And because she is so deeply morally alive, she is a character who is able to learn and grow. As eNotes puts it:

She learns, as Angelo does not, to value mercy, and she is able at the end of the play to join Mariana on her knees to plead for the deputy’s life.

shakespeareguru eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As with many of Shakespeare's characters, there is much disagreement about the nature of Isabella's character.  Is she cold and unfeeling (having "nothing" in her "alive" as you suggest) for not assisting her brother in gaining his freedom?  Is her complete revulsion and disgust with Angelo's suggested alliance hypocritical, in light of her participation in deception and intrigue later in the play with Marianna?  Or is she simply a female pawn in a male dominated society?  It is possible to argue any one of these points of view.

These are all matters of critical opinion, and you are certainly free to form your own.  Whatever assessment you make of her character, structurally, she is the main character of the play, and, as such, assists in restoring order and harmony to her world by the conclusion.  At the play's end, she is pledged in marriage to the Duke and Angelo is restored to the woman to whom he has pledged himself in troth, Marianna.  This resolution is meant to be seen as satisfying and harmonious, since this is the structure of Comedy as Shakespeare understood the form.

For further consideration of Isabella's character, listed in the links below are some critical assessments for you to consider in arriving at your own opinion of her nature.


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Measure for Measure

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