Isabella’s character blossoms in debate, on a number of occasions throughout the play she can be perceived as being excessively pious and too proud. This perception of Isabella is evidenced in the play when she puts her virginity and spiritual life ahead of her brother’s life which hangs in the balance, this view is emphasised when she refuses Angelo’s proposal to save Claudio’s life. However it can also be argued that Isabella’s actions and decisions can also support the view that Isabella is a symbol for chastity and virtue.
Thus Isabella’s character is a perfect example of body versus soul as her actions and decisions can be debated and argued thoroughly. Isabella can also be seen as a champion of mercy by the way she begs for Angelo’s life in the final scene of the play. The view that Isabella is excessively pious is supported the instance we meet her character as she ‘rather wishes a more strict restraint on the sisterhood’. This gives the audience the idea that Isabella believes the sisterhood is too lenient and she believes there should be more rules and restrictions.
The use of ‘wishes’ is effective as it shows that Isabella hoped to have more rules and restraint posed on her as a nun; therefore supporting the view that Isabella is excessively pious. Isabella can also be seen as excessively pious when she puts her chastity ahead of her brother’s life ‘More than our brother is our chastity’. Isabella can be seen as too proud as a result of this decision as many of the audience will disagree with the view.
The use of ‘our brother’ is effective as Isabella is associating the view with all of the audience. However it can also be argued that Isabella’s decision to put her chastity ahead of her brother’s life shows that she is a symbol for virtue and chastity as she values her spiritual life more than her brother’s physical life. Isabella shows how serious her spiritual life is to her when she becomes distraught as a result of Claudio’s proposal to agree with Angelo’s demands. ‘O you beast!
O you faithless coward! O you dishonest wretch! ‘ This attack on Claudio will be seen as severe by the audience as Claudio fears death and the unknown, but ultimately he wants to live ‘O please sister let me live’. However Isabella appears to be ignorant of his desires and emotions ‘O, fie, fie, fie! ‘, therefore the audience will feel sympathetic for Claudio but will also view Isabella as single minded and inflexible as she only seems to consider the effect the illegitimate sex will have on her character.
Thus Isabella can easily be viewed as being too proud. Isabella’s devotion to her virginity is also measured by Angelo as he offers Isabella the chance to save her brother’s life if she ‘lays down the treasures of your body to this supposed or else let him suffer’. The use of ‘treasures’ is effective as Angelo knows Isabella’s virginity is everything to her, and hence it is her excessive piety and the fact she is proud that attracts Angelo to her.
Therefore this exposes Isabella’s flaw and hence fault as her virtue and piety attract Angelo. However Isabella bluntly refuses Angelo’s proposal ‘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 to shame’. The language is Isabella’s speech contrasts her philosophy the use of ‘strip myself to death as to a bed’ is effective as she is unknowingly attracting Angelo to her sexually but is ultimately refusing him.
Isabella believes her body will be put to ‘shame’ as a result of illegitimate sex with Angelo, and therefore gives no inclination of accepting the proposal for the sake of Claudio’s life. Indeed she again only continues to think about the affect the act will have on her character, therefore again supporting the view that she is too proud of her status and excessively pious. However her stern refusal of Angelo’s proposal ‘most pernicious purpose’ supports the view that she is a symbol for virtue and chastity as she decides to refuse the proposal without hesitation.
The audience will also empathise with Isabella’s decision and if anything will be sceptical of her status if she was to accept the proposal. Isabella can be seen as merciful when she begs with Mariana for Angelo’s life ‘Thoughts are no subjects, intents but merely thoughts’. The audience will disagree with Isabella’s mercy towards Angelo as he tried to take her virginity and hence her life away from her ‘virgin violator’, however she is pleading for his life to be saved.
Therefore Isabella’s actions agree with the view that she is a champion of mercy as she is willing to forgive Angelo’s intentions and thoughts. Isabella’s language again contradicts her philosophy and her status of being excessively pious. Christianity as a religion is based upon ideas of ideas and thoughts, however according to Isabella ‘thoughts are no subjects’. Therefore the audience will question Isabella’s status as a nun and if she devoted to the church as we have become accustomed to throughout the majority of the play.
There are many arguments to support both of these views. However I believe the arguments for the view that Isabella is a symbol for virtue and chastity outweigh the arguments supporting Isabella as being too proud and excessively pious. There is ambiguity in many of Isabella’s actions and decisions which bring Isabella’s character into debate. I believe Shakespeare presents Isabella as a symbol for virtue and chastity as she ultimately puts her spiritual life and virginity ahead of her brother’s life which hung in the balance.