How Are Women Portrayed in Measure for Measure?

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Shakespeare’s play ‘Measure for Measure’ presents women as a reflection of the societal beliefs regarding their lower social status compared to men during that time. The play showcases three active female characters: Mistress Overdone, who faces arrest for her involvement in prostitution; Isabella, who aspires to become a nun; and Mariana, whose insufficient dowry leads to rejection by Angelo. Despite the prevailing norms of the 17th century, Mistress Overdone is depicted as a resilient and self-reliant figure.

Despite her ability to confidently respond to the first gentleman’s mockery with “Well, well; there’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all” (Act 1 sc 2 line 152), which proves her capability to stand up against men, her profession as a bawd diminishes her status. This occupation is considered disreputable and further reinforces the notion that women are merely objects of pleasure for men.

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Even though she acts as a voice of reason, she inquires Pompey about Claudio’s wrongdoing upon learning that he has had sexual relations with a woman, which is deemed illegal in Vienna. Nevertheless, this perspective may be regarded as logical only in present times where sex is widely accepted as ordinary behavior. In the 17th century, male actors portrayed female roles on stage, resulting in female characters being perceived as comedic regardless of their true role.

Mistriss Overdone is portrayed as a comedic character, thus her role may simply serve as a satirical portrayal of women, as implied by her name. While the term ‘Mistress’ originally referred to prostitutes, in contemporary society it denotes a woman who is involved in a sexual relationship with a married man and is often solely valued for her sexual companionship. Additionally, the name ‘Overdone’ carries various implications: It could be interpreted (as depicted on stage) as a mockery of women’s use of excessive makeup and clothing styles, typically employed to appeal to men.

The text implies that Isabella, the female character, may have had several sexual partners. This reinforces the idea of women being seen as objects for male enjoyment. In modern versions of the play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Isabella’s role is played by a comedian to highlight her vulnerability to ridicule. Despite aspiring to become a nun, Isabella occupies a significant position in the play. In the 17th century, it was expected for women to preserve their purity until marriage and they were regarded as symbols of innocence.

When Isabella first appears in the play, she is at the sisterhood and asks a nun about any extra privileges for nuns. When questioned about why she believes there are not enough, her response indicates that she does not seek additional privileges but desires stricter restraint instead. This can be interpreted as a woman comprehending her position and acknowledging the absence of privileges for women. As their encounters progress, it becomes evident that Isabella can challenge Angelo’s authority and potentially even surpass it.

Initially, it may seem that the woman holds more authority than the man as seen in Angelo’s agitated and lengthy responses to her arguments (Act 2 Sc 3 Lines 863-72). However, this power dynamic quickly shifts when Angelo proposes that she can save her brother by sleeping with him (Act 2 Sc 4 Lines 1091-94), though she fails to fully grasp his intention. Her innocence and lack of understanding in this matter could illustrate men’s power over women due to their possession of knowledge women lack. Alternatively, it might also signify women’s influence over men.

Isabella responds to Angelo’s ‘hypothetical’ proposition by stating “impressions of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.” (Act 2 Sc 4 Lines 1138-41). This use of sexual language could indicate Isabella employing her wits to further tempt Angelo, ultimately gaining more influence over him. However, considering her presumed innocence and purity, it may be devoid of significance and merely contribute to her lack of understanding.

Angelo’s statement in Shakespeare’s play degrades women, as he asserts that their sole purpose is to sleep with and please men. He emphasizes that women should adhere to societal expectations and fulfill their destiny by submitting to men’s desires. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance, Angelo forcefully grabs Isabella and violates her boundaries, highlighting the physical dominance of men in a disturbing manner.

Isabella is depicted as scheming when she and the Duke, disguised as a friar, conspire to have Mariana sleep with Angelo in Isabella’s stead. This portrayal may present women in a negative light by suggesting they are manipulative. Isabella’s willingness to sacrifice her own virtue for her benefit, at the suggestion of a man, implies that women are dependent on men in challenging circumstances and can be unpredictable. However, it could also demonstrate Isabella’s resourcefulness and assertiveness, thus presenting women in a positive manner.

At the conclusion of the play, Isabella is presented with the option to spare Angelo’s life. This once again illustrates a woman holding power over a man, including the authority to determine life and death. Despite going against the Duke’s orders and possibly defying the audience’s expectations, she chooses to let him live. This demonstrates the resilience and compassion of women, as well as their ability to surpass societal expectations with a favorable outcome. Mariana, abandoned by Angelo due to the loss of her dowry at sea, resides in solitude within a moated grange.

When the Duke initially describes her, we gain further insight into Angelo’s true nature as he “Left her in her tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort; swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonour.” (Act 3 Sc 1 Lines 1468-70). This indicates that a woman’s value is solely based on her material possessions, implying that a woman’s wealth is the only thing she is valued for by men. Additionally, her residence in a moated grange implies that she is socially isolated, suggesting that a woman who lacks wealth or a male figure (whether through family or marriage) has no place in society.

During the play’s finale, Mariana approaches the Duke and Angelo, and when the Duke requests her to reveal her face, she replies, “Pardon, my lord; I will not show my face Until my husband bid me” (Act 5 Sc 1 Lines 2584-5). This incident exemplifies the influence of a husband over his wife, as she refuses to unveil herself without her husband’s consent. Additionally, Mariana and Isabella both kneel before the Duke, pleading for him to spare Angelo’s life. This further reinforces the notion of male superiority over women.

At the conclusion of the play, the Duke compels Lucio to marry the prostitute with whom he fathered a child. Similarly, Angelo is obliged to marry Mariana. This portrayal seems to suggest that Shakespeare views marriage as a form of punishment for men. Overall, in Measure for Measure, women are depicted as inferior to men. Even Isabella, although she displays strength at times, is mostly portrayed negatively, although there are moments of positivity. Mariana, Isabella, and Mistress Overdone are all subjected to exploitation by men.

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How Are Women Portrayed in Measure for Measure?. (2016, Nov 23). Retrieved from

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