In ‘Measure for Measure,’ Shakespeare portrays women as a reflection of the opinion of women in society at the time - that opinion being that women are lesser in society than men. The three women with active roles in Measure for Measure are: Mistress Overdone, a bawd who is arrested for her occupation; Isabella, whose ambition is to become a nun; and Mariana, who was jilted by Angelo for not having a large enough dowry. Mistress Overdone is presented as a strong, independent character, which contrasts the societal views of women during the 17th century.
This can be seen when she retorts to the first gentleman who attempts to mock her “Well, well; there’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all,” (Act 1 sc 2 line 152) showing her ability to hold her own comfortably against men. However, her occupation as a bawd immediately brings her down, as such an occupation is not respectable and reinforces the idea of women being objects of pleasure for men.
She is also a somewhat voice of reason; for instance when she is informed by Pompey that claudio has ‘done,’ woman (Act 1 Sc 2 lines 179-80) which is considered a crime in Vienna, she simply replies “But what’s his offense? ” (Act 1 Sc 2 line 181). However, the aforementioned example may only really portray her as a voice of reason to a modern audience, where sex is accepted as a normal act. In performances in the 17th century, the roles of women were often played by men as women could not work on stage. This meant that female characters were often seen as comical whether or not they were actually a comical role.
Mistress Overdone is seen as a comical character, and so her role could simply be a mockery of women, which can also be entailed by her name. Though ‘Mistress,’ was a title given to bawds, to a modern audience a ‘mistress,’ is the title given to a woman who is a sexual partner to, usually, a married man - who is often simply used for sex by the man. ‘Overdone,’ has multiple connotations: It could (as she is presented on stage) be mocking the use of makeup and dress styles of women, typically, to impress men.
It may also suggest that she has had more than a fair share of sexual partners, again, fortifying the idea of women merely being objects for male pleasure. Also, in modern adaptations of this play by the Royal Shakespeare Company, her role is still played by a man for comical reasons, which reinforces the idea of the character simply a symbol for mockery. Isabella is a central character to the play. She is a young, chaste woman who aspires to be a nun. Women during the 17th century were supposed to remain chaste until they were married, and so were seen as pure.
When Isabella first appears in the play she is at the sisterhood, and asks a nun whether nuns have any “farther privileges,” (Act 1 Sc 4 Line 349) and when questioned on why she does not think there are enough she replies “I speak not as desiring more; But rather wishing a more strict restraint. ” (Act 1 Sc 4 Lines 352-53) This could be interpreted as a woman ‘knowing,’ her place, that really, there are no privileges for women. During her multiple confrontations with Angelo she is seen to be a match for his authority, if not initially, more so.
At first it seems as though a woman holds more power than a man, which can be seen with Angelo’s flustered and long winded retorts at her reasoning, i. e Act 2 Sc 3 Lines 863-72. However, that power is quickly reversed. When Angelo hints that she may save her brother by sleeping with him ( Act 2 Sc 4 Lines 1091-94) she does not fully understand what he means. Her innocence, and as such, ignorance of such a subject may show the power men have over women, as they are not as ignorant. However, conversely, it may in fact show the power women have over men.
Isabella, in response to Angelo’s ‘hypothetical,’ proposition says “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). The use of sexual language here could show a woman using her cunning to further entice Angelo, thus gaining more power over him. Though, it may be without meaning, given her supposed innocence and purity, and thus simply be a continuation of her ignorance.
There is further degradation of women when Angelo says “Be that you are, That is a woman; if you be more, you’re none; If you be one, as you are well express’d By all external warrants, show it now, by putting on the destined livery. ” Essentially, Angelo is saying that it is the destiny of women to sleep with, and thus, pleasure a man, at his beck and call. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance, during this speech, Angelo grabs Isabella and forces his hands onto her private parts. This presents the physical superiority of men in a dark way.
Isabella is also presented as scheming, when she and the Duke (whilst disguised as the friar) plot to have Mariana sleep with Angelo in place of herself, portraying women negatively. The fact that she holds such morals, and would rather die than give up her virginity to Angelo, yet would happily allow another woman to act in sin for her gain (at the suggestion of the Duke, a man) could show women as fickle and require a man to help them in difficult situations. This, however, could also show the cunning and initiative of Isabella, and present women in a positive way.
At the end of the play, Isabella is given the choice of whether or not to allow Angelo to live. This again shows a woman having authority over a man, and the authority over life and death is no small feat. She makes the decision to allow him to live, against what the Duke has ordered, and against the likely wishes of the audience - showing the strength and mercy of women, and how they can defy expectation with a positive outcome. Mariana is a woman who was Jilted by Angelo due to her dowry being perished at sea, who lives alone in a moated grange.
When the Duke first describes her we learn even more of Angelo’s true character 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). Here we see how a woman is valued only upon her material worth; suggesting that a womans wealth is all she is worth to men, and no more. Furthermore, the fact she lives in a moated grange suggests that she is isolated from society, which could suppose that a woman, without wealth or a man (be it family or through marriage) has no place in society.
Towards the end of the play, when Mariana steps forward to the Duke and Angelo and the Duke asks her to show her face she says “Pardon, my lord; I will not show my face Until my husband bid me. ” (Act 5 Sc 1 Lines 2584-5) This shows the power of the husband over the wife; she won’t show her face until her husband tells her to. She and Isabella also kneel down to the Duke in order to beg for him to allow Angelo to live, which further cements the idea of the superiority of man over woman.
At the end of the play the Duke forces Lucio him to marry the prostitute he had a child with. Angelo too, is forced to marry Mariana. Here, it is almost as if Shakespeare is presenting marriage to a woman as punishment for a man. Ultimately, in Measure for Measure, women are presented as lesser than men. Even Isabella, who at times is a force to be reckoned with is presented mainly negatively, though positively at times. Mariana, Isabella and Mistress Overdone are all subject to exploitation from men.