Character analysis: Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure

Focussing on the themes of virtue and morality, John Gordon considers how Shakespeare presents the characters of Isabella and Angelo in Act 2, Scene 2 of Measure for Measure.

Key quotation

Isabella 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.

Angelo [aside] She speaks, and ‘tis

Such a sense that my sense breeds with it. (2.2.136–42)

Setting the scene

In Act 2, Scene 2 of Measure for Measure Isabella has learnt that her brother Claudio will be executed the following day. Angelo, deputy to Duke Vincentio, judges that Claudio’s crime of ‘getting Madam Julietta with child’ (1.2.68) should be punishable by death as an example to the people of Vienna. Isabella visits Angelo’s house to persuade him to show mercy for her brother, pleading with him to change the punishment. Encouraged by Claudio’s friend Lucio , Isabella’s persstence persuades Angelo to grant her a second meeting the next morning. Once she leaves, Angelo describes his conflicting emotions for her, suggesting that both love and lust now cloud his judgement.

How does Shakespeare present Isabella and Angelo here?

From the moment that Isabella arrives we know that she is sister to Claudio, ‘a very virtuous maid’ soon to become a nun – ‘shortly of a sisterhood, / If not already’ (2.2.21–22). She begins her pleading to Angelo by recognising her own moral conflict, calling her brother’s sin ‘a vice that most I do abhor … For which I would not plead, but that I must’ (2.2.30–31). Initially, she is too ready to accept Angelo’s resistance to pardon, continuing only after Lucio’s coaxing to ‘entreat him’ (2.2.43). She gains confidence, imploring Angelo to consider how he might be judged (2.2.75). For a while he remains implacable, until Isabella flatters his status: ‘great men may jest with saints’ (2.2.127). When she suggests that he ask his ‘heart what it doth know’, he hesitates, and offers a second meeting. The subtlety of the negotiation is suggested as she leaves, offering him a ‘bribe’ (2.2.145) of ‘true prayers’ (2.2.151) for her brother’s pardon.

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines, illustrated by Robert Anning Bell

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines

Bell’s drawing shows Isabella wearing a nun’s habit, as part of the order of Poor Clares – the rigorous ‘holy sisterhood’ which she hopes to join at the start of Measure for Measure.

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Angelo resists the pardon for a long time: ‘I will not do’t’ (2.2.51). His resolve gradually weakens as he recognises she speaks with ‘Such sense that my sense breeds with it’ (2.2.142). In a soliloquy he acknowledges that her virtue persuades him too: ‘Can it be / That modesty may more betray our sense / Than woman’s lightness?’ (2.2.167–69). He is attracted to her but sees that she is no ‘tempter’ (2.2.163). Instead, he wonders if he may ‘desire her foully for those things / That make her good’ (2.2.173–74). In his confusion he asks ‘what, do I love her’, and concludes that ‘this virtuous maid / subdues me quite’ (2.2.184–85).


Virtue and morality

That Isabella represents virtue is clear – she is described as virtuous several times – yet it is she who seeks to distinguish between an individual and their morality. She begs Angelo to condemn her brother’s ‘fault’ (2.2.35) rather than his life, or as Angelo dismissively retorts, ‘Condemn the fault and not the actor of it!’ (2.2.37).

Both of these characters have to be flexible in their moral code. Isabella reflects on her brother’s sin and pleads for mercy, while Angelo appears to soften his harsh interpretation of Viennese law.

Language and imagery

Relationships between religion, power and justice permeate the scene, most strikingly in Isabella’s description of a ‘proud man, / Dress’d in a little brief authority’ (2.2.117–18). The behaviour of such a man may run contrary to civilised order, the simile ‘like an angry ape’ signalling a reversion to base instinct. That ‘such fantastic tricks before high heaven’ make ‘angels weep’ (2.2.122) demonstrates that these actions run counter to Christian justice accommodating forgiveness.

Angelo is conscious of his own inclination to behave in this way, considering his own impulse to violence: ‘Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary / And pitch our evils there?’ (2.2.170–71). The contrast of ‘sanctuary’ with ‘evils’ makes clear his dilemma, matched in a rhetorical question: ‘What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?’ (2.2.172). After posing this question, Angelo returns to reflect on the link between an individual and their conduct that he previously dismissed.

Form and structure

While the Provost and Servant in this scene speak in prose, most of Isabella’s speech is rendered in blank verse and iambic pentameter. This often conveys her eloquence and elevated moral argument, for example when she says:

No ceremony that to great ones ’longs,

Not the king’s crown nor the deputed sword,

The marshal’s truncheon nor the judge’s robe,

Become them with one half so good a grace

As mercy does. (2.2.59–63)

Disruptions to the meter are significant. Here, the final line breaks the pattern and isolates mercy as a humble, modest quality.

In Angelo’s speech disruptions to the meter suggest his confused morality and emotional turmoil. His soliloquy (2.2.161–86) is broken with interjections such as ‘Ha!’ and ‘O, fie’. It concludes with the common device of a rhyming couplet which marks the scene’s end, also signalling how the intense emotions he feels for Isabella are unfamiliar to him:

Ever till now,

When men were fond, I smil’d and wond’red how. (2.2.185–86)

The scene is structured around the conversation between Isabella and Angelo, which prefigures a similar exchange at their next meeting in Act 2, Scene 4. The exchanges before their conversation are not incidental. The Provost warns Angelo that he has seen instances when ‘judgment hath / Repented o’er his doom’ (2.2.11). Angelo’s response – ‘Go to; let that be mine’ (2.2.12) – consolidates the audience’s impression that he will not be persuaded, and contributes to our sense of Isabella’s achievement in finding even partial success in her plea.

Photographs of Mariah Gale and Kurt Egyiawan in Measure for Measure at Shakespeare's Globe, 2015

Photographs of Mariah Gale and Kurt Egyiawan

Isabella pleads with Angelo for mercy towards her brother, and the Duke is seduced by her virtue and eloquence. Act 2, Scene 4, Measure for Measure.

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Together, the Provost and Lucio are significant in guiding our response to the situation and Isabella’s task. The Provost exclaims ‘Heaven give thee moving graces!’ (2.2.36), supporting our association of Isabella with virtue in the face of Angelo’s perversion of natural justice. Lucio is more pragmatic, his frequent and candid interjections encouraging Isabella to persist: ‘you are too cold’ (2.2.56) and ‘to him, wench! He will relent!’ (2.2.124). In the exchange between Angelo and Isabella he is a commentator, guiding the sympathies of the audience and heightening our sense of what is at stake. Perhaps, too, he sustains our impression of Isabella’s humble humility. With this device Shakespeare can avoid Isabella seeming over-confident in her approach to Angelo.


The character of Isabella has been the focus of those critical readings of Measure for Measure that are interested in gender, morality and sexuality. She has been viewed as a problematic character, with early readings perceiving her as rigid and inflexible and ultimately adhering to social norms for the period. Critics such as Marcia Riefer (‘“Instruments of Some More Mightier Member”: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure’, 1984) focus instead on how the society of the time subjugated women in a patriarchal hierarchy, and particularly how the society created by the Duke’s rule ultimately erodes Isabella’s sense of self.
Other readings focus on the possibility that the play offers a commentary on kingship, and specifically the early reign of King James I. James I wrote two treatises on monarchy, including The True Law of Free Monarchies  which described the divine right of kings. Isabella’s speeches in this scene suggest a link between rule and religion. Given the reputation James I had for public reticence, the play’s exploration of the actions of a more zealous deputy during the absence of the Duke provides a plausible parallel and means to examine the connections between justice, mercy and law.

  • John Gordon
  • Dr John Gordon is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Previously a teacher of English, he researches English education and leads teacher training in the subject. His specialisms include literary reading, response to poetry and arts-based research. His publications include A Pedagogy of Poetry (2014) and Teaching English in Secondary Schools (2015). His current research includes Literature’s Lasting Impression investigating reading in class and its lifelong impact, and Akenfield Now in which young people improvise drama and make films in the tradition of Ronald Blythe’s book and Peter Hall’s film.