Isabella’s Persuasion

Why does Isabella fail to persuade Angelo to spare Claudio’s life? Bernice Kliman, in her article, Isabella in Measure for Measure, states that it is because she fails to use the formulaic rhetoric established by ad Herennium, one of Shakespeare’s sources for Measure for Measure. But is Kliman’s characterization of Isabella true to the text or colored by the literary comparisons she chose to make? 

Kliman analyzes Isabella’s attempts to persuade Angelo to spare her brother’s life (2.2 & 2.4), in the context of Isabella’s other scenes in the play, as well as comparing them to the reasoning of Epitia and Cassandra in ad Herennium. Kliman uses ad Herennium (and minimally Aristotle) to outline how persuasion should be structured rhetorically to be most effective. Epitia and Cassandra structure arguments by first asking for mercy, then illuminating “exculpating circumstances,” and finally eliciting pity from the judge. Additionally, the arguments should be phrased positively rather than negatively, and should have a consistent objective. Part of Kliman’s argument, that is supposedly his explanation for why Shakespeare makes Isabella so ineffective rhetorically compared to to the source heroines, is that her ineptitude is meant to showcase the Duke’s importance in shaping the play. As such, Kliman remarks that modern day actresses should clearly convey Isabella’s ineptitude; however there is extremely minimal discussion about the performance of the play though Kliman characterizes her commentary as being for the purpose of informing performance.

Kliman is convinced that Isabella is an inadequate persuader, but how much does she actually deviate from the rhetorical formula laid out by the heroines of ad Herennium? In her pleas Isabella quickly asks Angelo for mercy for Claudio (2.2.50), even if this is not the very first aspect of her argument as Kliman would prefer. The next step of “exculpating circumstances” does seem to elude Isabella, as she does not manage to meaningfully shift the blame of the crime from Claudio. Isabella does however quite fervently plead for pity from Angelo (2.2.100). In terms of the guidelines for Isabella’s overall pleas she does not manage to keep a consistent goal in mind; Kliman highlights that she switches from arguing only for her brother’s life, to arguing for a full pardon, to ultimately asking for time to prepare his soul. This incongruity necessarily lessens her argument. As does her phrasing of all the benefits that Angelo could receive through mercy, in the negative sense of what he will not lose through mercy. Isabella does not manage all of the aspects of the traditional argument, but as she does cover a couple of the tenets, so she may not be as incompetent as Kliman frames her to be.

Kliman also addresses how Claudio, and Isabella herself, view her persuasive skills. Claudio trusts Isabella’s skills, not necessarily because of her verbal acuity, but because “There is a prone and speechless dialect,/such as move men…” (1.2.182-183). (Claudio does indicate that Isabella can reason well, but Kliman explains this as the result of Claudio’s own “weak” grasp of logic). Claudio’s certainty in the skill of Isabella’s body in persuading, seems similar to the discussion we had in class about the language that a woman’s body can express, even when the woman does not intentionally speak. Kliman seems to seriously undervalue what she calls Isabella’s “silent presence,” but that may be her most influential persuasive ability. Rhetorically Isabella may be largely inept, as Kliman argues, but she does manage to convince the Duke and Mariana to help her, even if her please to Angelo were not artfully sculpted.

Though Isabella fails rhetorically by Kliman’s standards, her involvement does convince the Duke to intervene, when he had previously planned to allow Angelo to deliver strict justice; which ultimately leads to Claudio remaining alive and marrying Juliet. So how ineffective can Isabella truly be if her pleas for Claudio’s life are ultimately answered, even if not by the man she pleading with.