Some of the most moving and powerful lines in Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure” are spoken by the chaste and virtuous subject of this character analysis, Isabella, who is attempting to save the life of her brother by pleading with Antonio to reverse the death sentence that has been handed down to him. Isabella is one of the most compelling and most worthy candidates for a character analysis in “Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare because of her depth and ability to communicate so effectively, thus she is one of the most intriguing of all in “Measure for Measure” for a character analysis.

The most effective speech that Isabella in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” makes occurs after she has exhausted her pleas with the cruel and rigid Antonio and after she has staved off his sexual advances as a bargain for her brother’s release. Isabella meditates on the nature of power and how utterly corrupting and abusive it can be when it is in the hands of an unreasonable tyrant. The speech represents not just Isabella’s thoughts about power, however; it also serves as the key the reader can use to understand who Isabella is, exactly, and how she is developing as a character. In short, this particular section in “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare broadens out her character and allows the reader to understand her both as an individual and as a character in the larger scheme of the play.

When the reader meets Isabella early on in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”, she is already complex simply as a result of her circumstances and decisions and thus a character analysis of Isabella in “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare could almost simply focus on the details of her situation. In terms of characterization, she is headstrong in her desire to live a quiet life of contemplation as she is about to enter a cloistered nunnery. Isabella in “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare is such a devoted Christian that she actually articulates a wish that the convent would be even more stringent in its requirements for an austere contemplative life. When she is approached by Lucio, who appeals to Isabella’s familial loyalty and begs that she approach Antonio and intercede on her brother Claudio’s behalf, Isabella demurs, expressing disbelief that she, a humble servant of God, could make a difference.

In her impassioned and rational power speech, however, she does indeed make a difference, if not the one that Lucio hoped for and expected. Isabella offers a compelling interpretation about the dangers of power, reaffirming her Christian devotion, but imbuing it with a depth and realism that she lacked until this point in the play. It is important to understand that Isabella does not condemn power wholesale; rather, she believes that in the wrong hands, power can be a corrupting force as is made clear in one of the important quotes from “Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare “O, it is excellent/To have a giant’s strength, “she says, “but it is tyrranous/To use it like a giant” (II.ii.107-109). Isabella seems to be alluding to a use of power that is Christ-like—authoritative but benevolent, rather than dogmatic, unbending, and used for one’s own pleasures and whims rather than the greater social good. This is a remarkable important passage in “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare and the themes she discusses here resonate throughout the remainder of the play, serving as an important moral and ethical compass to gauge other characters by.

Interestingly, even without an in-depth character analysis of Isabella in “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare the reader sees how Isabella gains power through her speech and her actions. By contesting the traditional understanding of power and by criticizing its misuses in articulate speech, Isabella demonstrates that it is she who is the most powerful and actualized character in “Measure for Measure”. Isabella has defended her beliefs, but she has also, albeit unconsciously, deepened them. She refuses to concede her integrity and her religious obligations, even if it means saving her brother.

Interestingly, in line with one of the major themes from “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare,  it is by exercising this subversive form of power that Isabella exerts her authority. Angelo finds himself strangely moved by Isabella, not emotionally, but sexually. This realization embroils him in psychological conflict, for this is the very “crime” of which he has accused Claudio. Isabella, through actions and through words, shows how powerful talking the talk and walking the walk can be. Isabella’s speech against absolute and corrupting power demonstrates a mature understanding of what power is and how it can and should be used.

Other essays and articles related to this topic in the Literature Archives include :  The Symbol of the Moon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare  •  A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Analysis of Lines 5-20 of the Epilogue   •  Renaissance Ideas as Reflected in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing  •   Appearances Versus Reality in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. In The Riverside Shakespeare: The

Complete Works. G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin, Eds. 579-621. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.