Isabella's Virginity In Bel-Imperia

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While in The Spanish Tragedy, Bel-Imperia’s autonomy stems from her willingness to exert her sexuality, Isabella’s independence in Measure for Measure arises from her strict celibacy. Just as Juliet’s growing womb identifies her as a “fornicatress,” Isabella’s outward appearance validates her virginity (2.2). Lucio addresses her as such: “Hail, virgin, if you be— as those cheek-roses / Proclaim you are no less” (1.4.16-17). Whereas the deceptiveness of appearances triggers much anxiety within the play, Isabella’s untarnished facade convinces the shrewd Lucio that she is indeed a virgin. This commitment to preserving her virginity threatens the honor of Angelo as it prevents him from claiming her as his own.
In practicing sexual autonomy,
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In fact, Isabella ironically draws upon patriarchal social expectations to slight their respective assaults on her sexuality, such as when she tells Claudio that their “father’s grave / Did utter forth a voice” — which expressed that he “must die: / Thou art too noble to conserve a life / In base appliances” (3). Moreover, instead of undermining female autonomy, the Duke shows signs of reinforcing it as he aids Isabella in her struggle to maintain her sexual freedom. He orchestrates a scenario in which Isabella partakes in a bed trick, thus preserving her sexual independence while also subverting Angelo’s autonomy. Here, both male and female characters demonstrate the ability to influence another’s honor; even the Duke, a male character, impedes upon Angelo’s honor, rather than remaining unified as would be typical of the patriarchy. Thus, the female is not merely an endangered object to men, for she is also endangers patriarchal control. The bed trick — or cuckoldry plot — empowers her, as her sexuality, which is powerful, attractive, and entirely under her control, is an imminent threat to her ‘lover.’ Her female potency gives rise to anxiety, and in turn, makes the once-phlegmatic Angelo hot-blooded and thus, effeminate — destroying his masculine persona and dishonoring
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