Although the play's characters are almost all plagued by a general lack of agency, the female characters are disproportionately constrained. While some men, like Claudio and Angelo, are able to flout social mores—albeit with varying degrees of success—it is difficult to find a woman who defies social proscriptions. Mariana, for example, appears to be coerced into complying with the Duke's ruse to seduce Angelo simply because she lacks any acceptable alternative. Betrothed but unmarried, she occupies a social gray area. Her most plausible motivation for sleeping with Angelo is to legitimize the relationship that he abandoned. After her would-be marriage to Angelo is consummated, Mariana is restored to a conventional role in society, instead of the uncertain and precarious position she occupied before.
Isabella, too, is constrained by societal expectations. She is paralyzed when her two roles—sister and nun—entail conflicting obligations. Tension mounts as it begins to seem increasingly inevitable that Isabel will subvert one of these sets of obligations, but Mariana's convenient cooperation neatly resolves the dilemma. In this way, Isabella, too, is unable to defy the station society has given to her. Even the play's ending suggests that she has little choice but to marry the Duke and continue operating very much within the strictures of society.
While the constraints faced by other female characters are not described in much detail, other characters' conduct makes it clear that Viennese women are similarly lacking in agency. Lucio's contemptuous attitude towards prostitutes, for example, indicates there is little, if any, room for women to deviate from the roles assigned to them by male-dominated society.
The Role of Women ThemeTracker
The Role of Women Quotes in Measure for Measure
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.
Look, here comes one; a gentlewoman of mine,
Who, falling in the flaws of her own youth,
Hath blister’d her report. She is with child,
And he that got it, sentenc’d; a young man
More fit to do another such offense
Than die for this.
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!
Might there not be a charity in sin
To save this brother's life?
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die forever.
Nor, gentle daughter, fear you not at all.
He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together ’tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit. Come, let us go,
Our corn’s to reap, for yet our tithe’s to sow.
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.
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.
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.
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!