When words fail: A possible interpretation of Isabella’s silence in Measure for Measure

Isabella and the Duke in Measure for Measure
Karen Peakes (Isabella) and Mark Zeisler (Duke), Measure for Measure, directed by Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre, 2006. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Shakespeare’s comedies have a winning formula: In the end, nobody dies and people get married! Measure for Measure is technically a comedy. At the end of the play, the Duke asks Isabella to marry him. She then delivers one of Shakespeare’s most memorable responses: silence. Later, the Duke restates his proposal to Isabella, and again, Shakespeare gives her no words to express herself. To a modern audience, Isabella’s silence is deafening.

There’s no real way to know for sure what Shakespeare intended when he wrote Measure for Measure. However, an argument can be made that Isabella is unhappy about the proposal, and the likely upcoming marriage to the Duke.

One of the first things that Shakespeare tells us about Isabella is that she is about to become a nun. Claudio, her brother, says to Lucio in Act 1, Scene 3, “This day my sister should the cloister enter and there receive her approbation.”

Shakespeare even goes as far as to name the order that Isabella has selected. Isabella wants to be a nun of the Order of Saint Clare, also known as the Poor Clares. This is a real order of nuns, and Shakespeare would have been at least somewhat aware of what type of religious order they were.

The Poor Clares are a strict order of women who withdraw from the outside world and live their days in quiet introspection, away from men. Francisca, the only nun Isabella interacts with onstage, even briefly goes through some of the rules that are expected of the nuns of Saint Clare in Act 1, Scene 4, “When you have vowed, you must not speak with men / But in the presence of the Prioress, / Then, if you must speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak.”

Isabella doesn’t just want to be a nun; she wants to be a nun in a strict order that doesn’t allow interaction with men. She even wishes that the order were stricter, saying earlier on in the same scene, that she wishes there were “a more strict restraint upon the sisterhood.” It is reasonable to surmise that if Isabella doesn’t want to interact with men, she probably also doesn’t want to marry the Duke.

Isabella in the prison
Pen and ink drawing by Louis Rhead. Measure for Measure. Illustration designed for an edition of Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, 1918. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Isabella first meets the Duke while he is disguised as a friar, when she is at the prison to comfort her condemned brother, Claudio. Isabella is a wreck. She was propositioned by Angelo, and she just got into an emotionally charged fight with Claudio, right before he is scheduled to die.

The Duke convinces Isabella that instead of letting her brother die, she should participate in a rather convoluted scheme that involves accepting Angelo’s indecent proposal, and then participating in a bed trick: At the last minute, Mariana will sleep with Angelo instead, unbeknownst to Angelo. Later on, in Act 4, Scene 1, the Duke rationalizes this deception by saying to Mariana, “To bring you thus together ’tis no sin, | Sith that the justice of your title to him | Doth flourish the deceit.”

Until meeting the Duke, Isabella has been a pillar of morality and clearly lives by a strict code of ethics. A devoutly religious woman like Isabella could reasonably be aghast when she realizes that the Duke has been pretending to be a holy man, and that he has even heard confession of prisoners.

One of the Duke’s most deplorable actions towards Isabella occurs in Act 4, Scene 3. The Duke and the Provost have just conspired to secretly save Claudio. When the Duke hears Isabella coming, he decides that instead of telling her that Claudio is alive, he will tell her that Claudio is dead. His reasoning is that he should keep this information from her, “To make her heavenly comforts of despair | When it is least expected.” In the final scene, after the friar is revealed to be the Duke, he still doesn’t give up this charade. Instead, he remarks on how unfortunate it is that he wasn’t able to save Claudio. The Duke not only lies to Isabella, but does so repeatedly, clearly to manipulate her emotions.

Ultimately, Isabella doesn’t say yes to the Duke’s proposals. However, it is unlikely that she would feel that she could say no. The Duke is the highest authority in Vienna. His two proposals in Act 5, Scene 1 are not questions, but rather commands. He first says, “Give me your hand and say you will be mine.” When Isabella does not verbally accept his offer of marriage, the Duke later tries again, asserting, “What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.”

Even if the Duke thinks that he is asking Isabella to marry him, it is at least plausible that Isabella could feel that she has no other options due to their inherent power imbalance. In a way, the Duke propositions Isabella as Angelo does earlier in the play, and Isabella might recall her own line from Act 2, Scene 4: “To whom should I complain?”

3 Comments


  • Well argued! I never think of Measure for Measure as a comedy. It is just a problem play to me, yet I love seeing and hearing different actresses speaking Isabella’s lines. I rather like to think she reentered the order in the end.

  • Well written. I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about Measure for Measure right now. A man in power forcing a subordinate woman to have sex with him, and rendering her powerless to speak out against him? That is a plot all too recognizable in modern times, particularly in the past year. You offered such good insights on the Duke’s manipulation of Isabella, I hadn’t even realized how harsh and twisted it was.


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