Measure for Measure

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Isabella Character Analysis

One of the play's central characters, Isabella is a principled young woman in the process of becoming a nun. When her brother, Claudio, receives a death sentence from Angelo for engaging in premarital sex, she is forced to choose between her religious commitment and her familial love—she chooses religious commitment, a testament to her purity. Ultimately, she conspires with the Duke, while the latter is disguised as a friar, to rescue her brother from his unjust punishment by tricking Angelo.

Isabella Quotes in Measure for Measure

The Measure for Measure quotes below are all either spoken by Isabella or refer to Isabella. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Virtue Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Measure for Measure published in 2005.
Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself,
That skins the vice o’ th’ top. Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life.

Related Characters: Isabella (speaker), Claudio, Angelo
Page Number: 2.2.164-171
Explanation and Analysis:

As Isabella pleads her brother's case to Angelo, she begs Angelo to be merciful, but not always using wholly religious words such as mercy and forgiveness. Fittingly, she is the figure which reminds Angelo of his heart; she will again unintentionally do this when she unwittingly inspires Angelo to fall in love (or at least lust) with her. Though she is the individual with the most virtue, Isabella claims that Angelo also has a kind of virtue, a "kind of medicine" within himself. He can choose to refrain from making harsh choices. 

Isabella asks Angelo to recall his own "natural guiltiness" and past transgressions. She introduces the notions of human experience and emotion -- passion, frailty, and reality -- as she virtuously pleads for mercy in her brother's case.

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O cunning enemy, that to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 2.2.217-223
Explanation and Analysis:

After Isabella begs him to reconsider, and spare her brother's life, Angelo confronts his sudden passionate attraction to her. The tensions of the play begin to unravel; Angelo contemplates his lust "to sin in loving virtue" and claims that the "cunning enemy" uses "saints" to fulfill his aims. Sin and virtue become hopelessly entangled, as the "virtuous maid" incites him to the very acts which Claudio committed, and for which Angelo condemned him.

Another contrast, that between reason and human impulse, becomes a flawed binary as well. Angelo has been our character of the law, our strict dictator who seems to wholly lack human passion. Yet he is the character who becomes infatuated so immediately, in an event which any reasonable individual would think could "never" occur. 

Act 2, Scene 4 Quotes

Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel; heaven in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception. The state, whereon I studied,
Is like a good thing, being often read,
Grown sere and tedious; yea, my gravity,
Wherein (let no man hear me) I take pride,
Could I, with boot, change for an idle plume,
Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming!

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 2.4.2-15
Explanation and Analysis:

Struck by Isabel, Angelo's distracted, guilty prayers do not fulfill their function and connect him to heaven. In this soliloquy, which Angelo utters as he is alone on the stage, Angelo becomes curiously close to Claudius in Hamlet, whose prayers did not reach heaven as well. Angelo only intends to experience sexual intercourse with Isabel, and only intends to kill Claudio, yet Angelo's speech here links him to Claudius -- the character in Hamlet who did have sexual intercourse with Gertrude and did kill the former King of Denmark, all while lamenting his own guilt as Angelo does here. This alludes to the darker nature of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's final and darkest comedy. 

Angelo is now painfully aware of his heart -- but he is only aware of his impending vices, instead of his former transgressions (the acts which Isabella suggested that he should remember). He now must confront the central dualities of the play and decide whether he will act out his own impulses or act in service of his society's justice. He must decide whether he will maintain the pretense of a wholly reasonable and just individual or allow himself to reveal his newly emotional internal experiences.

Might there not be a charity in sin
To save this brother's life?

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella, Claudio
Page Number: 2.4.67-68
Explanation and Analysis:

As Angelo attempts to convince Isabella to commit herself to sexual intercourse with him, he suggests that he would spare her brother if Isabella offers herself to him in this way. Before, Angelo expressed in speech the new entanglements between good and evil, virtue and vice, and appearance and reality; now, his actions (in his attempts to convince Isabella to engage in sexual actions with him) attest to these as well. 

Angelo suggests that, as a virtuous woman, Isabella has much to offer. She could choose to selfishly preserve it, until she fully commits to the nunnery and offers it to God, or she could use it to save her brother. Isabella could condemn her own soul through intercourse outside of wedlock, or she could condemn herself in order to un-condemn her brother. This suggestion does not merely use female virginity as a bartering tool; it suggests that moral depravity and consequence is transferable between individuals more broadly. Virtue and vice is entrenched in social networks and exchanges, as well as custom and law. The significance of the title "Measure for Measure" begins to become clearer, even as the moral compass of the play grows more confused. 

Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die forever.

Related Characters: Isabella (speaker), Claudio
Page Number: 2.4.114-116
Explanation and Analysis:

To Isabella, moral consequences are not easily transferred among individuals, as Angelo now suggests they are. She is not merely entrenched in systems of circulation and exchange; she is also dedicated to particular religious tenants. According to her Christian beliefs, the life of one's soul is far more important than the life of one's physical body. Thus it would be better for her brother to physically die than for her to spiritually die, thus condemning herself to an eternity in Hell.

Isabella is repulsed to the suggestion that saving her brother's life would justify losing her virginity. Her sexual purity is an intrinsic aspect of herself which, lost, would alter her beyond measure. 

Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 2.4.184
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelo ends his conversation with Isabella by refusing to be intimidated by her threat to share his offer to her with the rest of society. Angels knows that, in this social context, appearance would trump reality; Angelo has built up a solid reputation as an honest and moral character over time, and after so long, this reputation for goodness would be enough evidence to disprove any charges Isabella might place against him. Character can accrue over time, and individual circumstances are always compared and measured against past histories and records. Furthermore, as a woman in this society, Isabella's word is automatically considered less important and reliable than the word of a man, particularly a well-known nobleman like Angelo.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

O, were it but my life,
I’d throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin.

Related Characters: Isabella (speaker), Claudio
Page Number: 3.1.117-119
Explanation and Analysis:

As Isabella speaks to Claudio in prison, she reveals that Angelo has offered to spare Claudio's life if Isabella will have sex with him. Claudio's immediate response is to state that Isabella will not "do't" -- she will not sacrifice her virginity for her brother's life. Isabella feelingly agrees, claiming that she would "throw it [life] down" "as frankly as a pin" in order to save her brother. Once again she values the soul far more than the body. Further, she only implies that she will not even consider saving her brother through having sex. This hesitancy to even speak directly about this topic suggests the layers of privacy and secrecy which surround female sexuality and religious chastity.

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

The tongue of Isabel. She’s come to know
If yet her brother’s pardon be come hither.
But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Isabella, Claudio
Page Number: 4.3.115-119
Explanation and Analysis:

The Duke makes this comment as his plan is rapidly developing. Although a fellow prisoner Barnadine is refusing to die in Claudio's stead, a pirate Ragozine, who has recently died, looked similar enough to Claudio that his head can be sent to Angelo instead of Claudio's. The Duke is relieved by this lucky event, but decides that he will allow Isabel to believe that her brother has truly died, keeping her "ignorant of her good," as God might keep an individual briefly unaware of a lucky turn of fate. This situation reveals the Duke's power; it emphasizes his omnipresence and ability to choose how he shares his knowledge with others.

Yet, his decision seems to derive more from a calculating will than from a beneficent spirit. He is intentionally allowing Isabella to suffer for the sake of his own whims. She might certainly draw closer to God from this situation, making "heavenly comforts of despair," but the Duke is also being duplicitous and manipulative. Yet again, his plan involves controlling a virtuous woman. It is left ambiguous whether the Duke is here acting more as a friar or as a friar-in-disguise -- he acts concerned with Isabella's spiritual life, but also seems to want to draw out the suspense of her ignorance in order to create more drama for his own enjoyment.

Act 4, Scene 4 Quotes

But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no,
For my authority bears of a credent bulk,
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have liv’d,
Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge,
By so receiving a dishonor’d life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had liv’d!
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right—we would, and we would not.

Related Characters: Angelo (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 4.4.25-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelo and Escalus discuss the Duke's letter, which, written as the Duke, asks them to meet him at the gates of Vienna and to order citizens with complaints to present petitions on the street of the city. At the street, the common crossing-place of nuns, dukes, prostitutes -- all individuals -- the play's events promise to reveal themselves.

After Escalus leaves, though, Angelo stops describing his confusion over the Duke's orders and instead provides this soliloquy about his own actions. His (supposed) sexual experience with Isabella weighs heavily on him; in his guilt, Angelo fears that Isabella might speak out against him (although he even thinks about this in a sexual way). Yet he placates himself convincingly, arguing that the solidity of his own reputation, gender, and social rank will protect him from any possible accusations she could present. He still has the appearance of a sinless man, although he believes he is merely another sinner -- like Claudio, the man he believes he condemned to death (and now regrets). Angelo is entrenched in misconceptions; he believes he has killed Claudio and taken Isabella's virginity, which gives deeper meaning to his statement "we would, and we would not."

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

By mine honesty,
If she be mad, as I believe no other,
Her madness hath the oddest frame of sense,
Such a dependancy of thing on thing,
As e’er I heard in madness.

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Isabella
Page Number: 5.1.68-72
Explanation and Analysis:

The play's final scene opens by the city gates, with Isabella accusing Angelo to the Duke Vicentio, as the Duke himself (disguised in friar form) earlier bid her. Angelo attempts to suggest that Isabella is mad, but Isabella relies upon this play's tension between appearance and reality to make clear her sanity (and Angelo's guilt): "even so may Angelo, / In all his dressings, characters, titles, forms, / Be an arch-villain." This explanation seems to satisfy the Duke, who is no stranger to deception, as he himself was in costume throughout the play (except for the very first and very last scenes).

Of course, the Duke does not actually need this explanation, as he has manufactured Isabella's petition and earlier told her what to say. In this scene, the Duke is engaging in a deception of his own once again here; his vow "by mine honesty" does not signify much.

For this new-married man approaching here,
Whose salt imagination yet hath wrong’d
Your well-defended honor, you must pardon
For Mariana’s sake; but as he adjudg’d your brother—
Being criminal, in double violation
Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach,
Thereon dependant, for your brother’s life—
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.
Then, Angelo, thy fault’s thus manifested;
Which though thou wouldst deny, denies thee vantage.
We do condemn thee to the very block
Where Claudio stoop’d to death, and with like haste.
Away with him!

Related Characters: The Duke (speaker), Isabella, Claudio, Angelo, Mariana
Related Symbols: “Measure for Measure”
Page Number: 5.1.455-475
Explanation and Analysis:

The irony of the play is fully revealed on stage, by the city gates; the Duke openly states that Angelo has indeed committed the same crime for which he sentenced Claudio to death. And so, according to the "eye for an eye" (or, "Measure still for Measure") notion of retributive justice, Angelo should be condemned to death as well, receiving the same judgment that he doled out to others. It is no accident that the Duke, who has manufactured the play's entire plot, here reveals its fundamental irony. The Duke also seems to advocate for its "Measure for Measure" brand of justice. According to the Duke, it is "the very mercy of the law" which cries of "Measure for Measure"; he even curiously associates the term mercy with retributive justice. As we know well, however, the Duke's words are not always what they may seem to be. He is not actually planning to kill Angelo for this "fault," but he can exercise his power and momentarily pretend that he will carry out this threat. 

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Isabella Character Timeline in Measure for Measure

The timeline below shows where the character Isabella appears in Measure for Measure. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, Scene 2
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...the Duke is nowhere to be found. Claudio then asks Lucio to alert Claudio’s sister, Isabella, in the hopes she may help him. Isabella has just joined a nunnery, and Claudio... (full context)
Act 1, Scene 4
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At the convent, Isabella learns the rules of her order and expresses her desire to live under "strict restraint."... (full context)
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Initially, Isabella tells Lucio to stop making fun of her with false stories. Lucio responds that while... (full context)
Act 2, Scene 2
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...A servant brings word that Claudio's sister, a "virtuous maid," has come to see Angelo. Isabella then enters with Lucio. She pleads before Angelo to spare her brother, though she confesses... (full context)
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...that every fault is condemned before it is committed. However, the actor must be punished. Isabella is distraught, but Lucio quietly counsels her to implore Angelo with more passion. Isabella and... (full context)
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Isabella tells Angelo that if Claudio were the one in the position of power, he would... (full context)
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This supplication seems to break through to Angelo, and he tells Isabella he will think about her request and bids her to come see him the next... (full context)
Act 2, Scene 4
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...desires: “Heaven hath my empty words; Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, Anchors on Isabel.” He lusts after Isabella, but concludes that he must appear to uphold his own moral... (full context)
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A servant tells Angelo that Isabella has come to speak with him. Angelo summons her. Before she enters, he remarks to... (full context)
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Isabella enters, and Angelo tells her that Claudio still must die. However, he sounds less adamant... (full context)
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Frustrated that Isabella misinterprets his innuendos, Angelo remarks to her, “either you are ignorant, Or seem so craftily;... (full context)
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Angelo then accuses Isabella, with her strict refusal to save her brother on religious grounds, of being just as... (full context)
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Finally, Angelo tells Isabella outright that he loves her. She is indignant that Claudio is facing execution for the... (full context)
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Now alone, Isabella wonders what she can do. She resolves to go to Claudio and explain her predicament.... (full context)
Act 3, Scene 1
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Isabella arrives to speak with Claudio. The Duke asks the Provost to take him to a... (full context)
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Claudio is scandalized to learn of Angelo’s designs, and tells Isabella that she should not sacrifice her virginity. She tells him that she would give up... (full context)
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...the Duke emerges from his hiding spot, still in disguise as a friar. He tells Isabella that he would like to speak with her. First, the Duke confers with Claudio and... (full context)
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...the disguised Duke asks the Provost to leave also so that he can speak with Isabella in private. When the two are alone, the Duke condemns Angelo’s misconduct and asks Isabella... (full context)
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The Duke tells Isabella that she will not succeed by denouncing Angelo publicly; instead, he proposes a solution that... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 1
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The Duke finds Mariana at her home, and Isabella arrives there soon after. Isabella relays that Angelo has given her two keys that she... (full context)
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The Duke introduces Mariana and Isabella and the two outline their plan off-stage. When the two return, Isabella tells the Duke... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 2
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...if anyone has visited that evening. The Provost answers that nobody has come, not even Isabella. The Duke replies that a message to pardon Claudio may yet arrive. (full context)
Act 4, Scene 3
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Isabella arrives and asks if Claudio’s pardon has been delivered. The Duke answers that Claudio’s head... (full context)
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Lucio enters and tells Isabella he is grieving for her brother. The Duke, Lucio claims, would not have executed him.... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 4
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...speaks to himself with concern about what might happen at the meeting. He hopes that Isabella will be too ashamed of having given up her virginity to reveal his misdeeds publicly.... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 6
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Near the city gates, Isabella and Mariana wait. Isabella says she is reluctant to speak her complaint against Angelo, but... (full context)
Act 5, Scene 1
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...Duke enters, greets Angelo and Escalus, and thanks them for their service. Friar Peter brings Isabella forward, and she asks the Duke for justice. He tells her to deliver her complaint... (full context)
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Isabella continues to protest. The Duke then remarks that Isabella’s madness seems strangely reasonable, and asks... (full context)
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Isabella sticks to her story, and the Duke orders her sent to prison. Before she is... (full context)
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Friar Peter comes forward and agrees with the Duke that Isabella is lying. The Duke inquires if he is familiar with Friar Lodowick, and Friar Peter... (full context)
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Isabella is taken away by guards, and Mariana comes forward as a witness. She wears a... (full context)
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...he had sex with her that Tuesday night. Angelo tells the Duke that Mariana and Isabella must be lying at the will of some unknown third party. The Duke denounces Friar... (full context)
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Escalus summons Isabella and, at Lucio’s suggestion, questions her in private. The Duke, back in his friar’s disguise,... (full context)
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The Duke asks that Friar Peter, Mariana, and Isabella be released from custody and requests that Lucio be restrained. He then asks whether Angelo... (full context)
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...the Duke to reconsider and says she does not desire any other husband. Mariana enlists Isabella to help beg the Duke to pardon Angelo. Isabella asks the Duke to let Angelo... (full context)
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...and Claudio is revealed. The Duke pardons Barnadine, Claudio, and Angelo; and then asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage. He then tells Lucio that, as punishment for slandering the Duke, he... (full context)