I went to see Ophelia’s Zimmer at the Royal Court recently (a play set entirely inside Ophelia’s bedroom, exploring what her off-stage life is like and reducing Hamlet to a minor character). During a Q&A afterwards I wanted to ask a question someone else asked: if you could Ophelia’s Zimmer another Shakespearean woman, who would it be? Katie Mitchell replied that she wanted to (or was in the process of) writing something that explored Miranda’s life on the island prior to the events of the Tempest. Which is very slightly annoying since I submitted literally that exact idea to the RSC recently (a festival commission they were inviting applications for) and was rejected. Of course if it turns out Katie Mitchell also submitted her idea to them and won, all will be forgiven.
Anyway, my answer to that question would as always be Isabella, because I’m desperately curious to know more about her life outside of the play. We know her father is dead (his grave is explicitly referenced) and presumably her mother is dead also but is never mentioned.* Her brother’s common-law ‘wife’ goes through almost her entire pregnancy without Isabella knowing about it, so evidently she’s not living with him nor probably especially close to him. She doesn’t enter the nunnery until act 1. So where the hell has she been living? I’m seriously asking: I’m not a scholar by any means and I know I have a few followers who are Shakespearean scholars. What would Isabella’s life realistically have been like prior to the start of the play?
I’m always confused when people say Measure for Measure is a sexist play. I could make a lot of defences against that, but the one I’m interested in today is the idea that Shakespeare is critically examining the handful of narrow roles that were available to women in that era. Lucio makes this explicit: If you are a woman and are not a wife, widow or virgin, you are “nothing” (i.e. a whore, literally a vagina**). Isabella is a virgin, but virgin had specific meanings and roles attached to it. If you were a virgin, you were either pre-marriage, under the care of a male protector (even the wonderfully feminist Beatrice, who declares she will remain single forever, is able to do so only because she’s her uncle’s ward) or you were a nun. I’m not a historian but I can’t imagine it life as an unmarried independent women was an option for many people who were not queen of the country. It’s not like Isabella could get a flat and a job somewhere. The entire play, in my reading of it, is Isabella being pushed into the different boxes marked Women and not fitting into any of them.
It’s significant that the play starts on Isabella’s very first day at the convent. Shakespeare would not make this detail explicit if it wasn’t intentional. She could easily have been a long-term nun or novitiate who’d been living there for an unspecified period of time. Why her first day? What has happened prior that led to her deciding to become a nun on that day? I don’t get the impression she is extremely young. If she genuinely has a religious calling, why is she only now entering a nunnery? Practically the minute she enters the nunnery for the first time – Lucio interrupts literally in the middle of the “and here’s where you hang your coat up” tour – circumstances snatch her away again. Isabella has tried the box marked Nun, wanted it, but it did not fit.
The second thing that happens to her (and it’s significant that, while Isabella is a character with substantial agency, all the major changes in her life are caused by men entering uninvited and lobbing plot hand grenades at her) is Angelo’s demand that she prostitute herself to him by threatening to kill her brother. Isabella flatly rejects this and never wavers. The box marked Whore did not fit, either.
Then the Duke enters her life, again uninvited, and manipulates her into his going along with his convoluted and ultimately entirely pointless plan*** which results finally in his marriage proposal. The box marked Wife gapes open … and then the stage fades to black. The sheer fact that Isabella becomes mute at this point and until the end of the play (having been defined up to this point by how articulate she is) surely shows that the Wife box does not fit, but she’s on the last box, she’s out of options? She stops talking because she’s fallen down deep into the one remaining box, regardless of whether it fits or not.
*The grand Shakespearean tradition of invisible non-existent mothers. Maybe Ophelia, Isabella and Beatrice should form a club.
**The word “nothing” was a euphemism for vagina in Shakespeare’s day.
***The bed trick fails, the decision to accuse Angelo publicly fails. Ultimately the only thing that works is the Duke standing up going, “Because I’m the Duke and I say so,” something he could have done at literally any time.