Feminist Performance and the Silence of Isabella in Measure for Measure

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Feminist Performance and the Silence of Isabella in Measure for Measure

In a chapter entitled “When Is a Character Not a Character?” Alan Sinfield presents the argument that the female figures in Shakespeare’s plays are not really “characters” at all, since they do not possess continuous and psychologically consistent interior lives. Although such roles as that of Desdemona, Olivia, and Lady Macbeth are written so as to suggest the presence of uninterrupted interior consciousness, this impression collapses under the pressure of the plot’s movement toward closure, which reveals the figures to represent nothing more than a “disjointed sequence of positions that women are conventionally supposed to occupy”(53). In order to
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Two options are suggested by Sinfield’s account of the way in which literary critics tend to respond to the interpretive problems created by such puzzling silences:

Some commentators will then seek to help the text into coherence…[by] supplying characters with feasible thoughts and motives to smooth over the difficulty. This has been the virtual raison d’être of traditional criticism. Other commentators may take the opportunity to address the ideological scope of the text—how its closures provoke collusion or questioning. (74)

When producing such a play, theatrical personnel may also choose either to gloss over or to expose the ideological agenda of the text as revealed by the silence of the female character. As an example of the first strategy, consider the moment in the final scene of Measure for Measure, immediately after Claudio ha been unmuffled, when the duke says to Isabella,

If he be like your brother, for his sake

Is he pardon’d; and for your lovely sake

Give me your hand and say you will be mine.

He is my brother too: but fitter time for that.

(5.1.488-491)1

Although the Duke asks the young novice to “say” she will be his, the text allots Isabella no verbal reply to this proposal. To provide a plausible reason for her silence, modern stagings, such as director Michael Langham’s 1992 production at

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