Isabella’s response to Angelo’s sexual proposition in Act 2 Scene 4 of Measure for Measure displays Shakespeare’s true genius and lexical prowess. After reading this passage numerous times, I found myself rethinking the sexual state of women who “endure the livery of a nun” in “austerity and single life” (I.1.70/90), as Theseus described in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Critics claim that Isabella’s refusal of Angelo’s advances is a testament to her “pathological sexual repression.” One Shakespearian surmises, “beneath the habit of the nun there is a narrow-minded but passionate girl afflicted with an irrational terror of sex which she has never admitted to herself” (Barton, 580). However, I believe Isabella’s sexual desire is not repressed, but satisfied through alternative means with an unseen partner, the man she has devoted her body and soul to: Jesus Christ.
In the five lines of her response to Angelo, almost every word is le mot juste, packed with double-meanings that leave room for this provocative interpretation of Catholicism. Isabella’s religious exclamations carry sadomasochistic undertones that attribute positive, even libidinous, qualities to pain and violence. Take, for instance, the assertion: “the impression of keen whips i’d wear as rubies” (II.4.101). The adjective “keen” corresponding to “whip” denotes, having a sharp edge of point. However, keen in Old English is prominently defined as brave, bold, valiant, daring. So, she may be literally describing the whip’s ability to inflict agonizing pain, or strangely admiring its exquisite, stimulating danger. Similarly, “impression” can either mean to leave a mark through force, or to make a favorable or striking impression; to appear impressive. Is she dreading the crack of the whip, or “impressed” by its ability to exhilarate her senses? And of course, the dual purpose of “rubies” as a metaphor for blood and its literal signification of a valuable precious stone. The beads of blood the whip draws from her “strip[ped]” flesh are precious, the “treasures of her body” (II.4.96).
The rationale of “discipline” in religious settings has the sacred function of bringing the devout closer to God: “it works as an enlarging imitatio Christi: the female penitent gets to merge her flesh with the divine by remembering Christ’s passion and imitating his suffering” (Woods, 107). The rationale behind the practice of BDSM is “sexually arousing pain and sexually arousing pleasure often become indistinguishable to us during sex, since both release endorphins and serotonin in our brain” (Fincher, 3). Through pain, Isabella is able to satisfy both her sexual cravings and her religious commitments. Isabella also relishes in being deprived, restrained, as she divulges to Francisca, a nun in the Order of Saint Clare: “I speak not as desiring more [privileges],/ but rather wishing a more strict restraint/ upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare” (I.4.3-5). She also explicitly admits her willingness to “yield” her “body up to shame” (II.4.103-104). This language is in keeping with her “bottom,” submissive role in her sadomasochistic relationship with God.
Shakespeare’s characterization of Isabella as confounding religious self-mortification with amorous passion is not far off from historical evidence. In terms of the practice of flagellation, “sisters of the Order of Saint Clare were required to use [a whip] three times a week during Advent and Lent, and twice a week during the rest of the year” (Woods, 106). Furthermore, biographical writings from the thirteenth century about the original Saint Clare glorified her passion for Christ: “[Saint Clare] refused to marry, yearning for the nuptials of Christ her Spouse, whose loving delights she was already tasting. In Christ’s embrace and kisses, worthy of her virgin modesty, and by Christ’s honey-sweetened taste, suspending her mind, she languished with love” (Armstrong, 204).
Armstrong, Regis J. “The Brilliance of Her Life: Biographical Writings.” The Lady: Clare of Assisi, Early Documents. Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2005. P. 197-262. Print.
Barton, Anne, ‘Introduction: Measure for Measure,’ in William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edn, ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), pp. 579-83.
Fincher, Jonalyn. “Bondage and Domination.” Soulation. N.p., 17 July 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. <http://soulation.org/jonalynblog/2013/07/should-bondage-and-dominance-be-part-of-a-christians-sex-life.html>.
Shakespeare, William, and Stanley Wells. The Oxford Shakespeare: “Measure for Measure” N.p.: Oxford Paperbacks, 1991. Print.
Woods, Gillian. Shakespeare’s Unreformed Fictions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.