William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 4

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— 1.4 —

Isabella, Claudio’s sister, spoke to the nun Francisca in a nunnery of Saint Clare, the religious order that Isabella wished to join.

“Do you nuns have any farther privileges?” Isabella asked.

“Aren’t these privileges enough?” Francisca replied.

“Yes, they are,” Isabella said. “I don’t wish for more privileges; instead, I wish for fewer privileges. I wish that the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare, were under stricter restraints.”

Lucio called from outside the nunnery, “Hello! May peace be in this place!”

Isabella asked, “Who’s that person who is calling?”

“It is a man’s voice,” Francisca said. “Gentle Isabella, turn the key and open the door, and find out from him what he wants. You may talk to him; I may not. You are not yet a member of our religious order.

“When you have taken the vows, you must not speak with men except in the presence of the prioress. If you speak, you must not show your face. Or, if you show your face, you must not speak.”

Lucio shouted again.

Francisca said, “He calls again; please, talk to him.”

Francisca moved a short distance away.

Isabella opened the door and said, “Peace and prosperity to you! Who is it who is calling?”

Lucio entered the room and said, “Hail, virgin, if you are a virgin, as those cheek-roses of yours proclaim that you are no less! Can you help me by allowing me to see Isabella, who is a novice of this place and the fair sister of her unhappy brother Claudio?”

“Why is Claudio ‘her unhappy brother’?” Isabella replied. “Let me ask, and let me let you know that I am Isabella, Claudio’s sister.”

“Gentle and fair Isabella, your brother kindly greets you,” Lucio said. “To come straight to the point, he’s in prison.”

“That is bad news!” Isabella said. “Why is he in prison?”

“For something that, if I were his judge, his punishment ought to be thanks rather than something bad. He has gotten his lover pregnant.”

“Sir, don’t joke about such things,” Isabella said.

“It is true,” Lucio replied. “Although it is my familiar sin when I speak with maidens to make jokes and to act like the deceiving lapwing, a bird that deceives people and animals in order to lead them away from its nestlings, and to make my tongue say things that are not in my heart, I would not do such things to all virgins. You are a novice in a nunnery. I regard you as a virgin who is Heavenly and saintly. By renouncing the world, you have acquired a spirit that will be immortal in Heaven. Because of who you are, I must talk to you with complete sincerity, as if I were talking to a saint.”

“When you mock me by giving me good characteristics I do not deserve, you are blaspheming the truly good,” Isabella said.

“Do not believe it,” Lucio said. “You deserve the respect that I am giving to you.

“In few and truthful words, this is what has happened. Your brother and his lover have embraced. Just like those who eat grow full, just like blossoming time turns seeds in fallow ground to a bountiful harvest, even so her plenteous womb expresses your brother’s full tilling and husbandry. Your brother has planted his seed in her, and that seed is growing.”

“My brother has gotten someone pregnant? Is she my cousin Juliet?”

“Is she really your cousin?”

“Not literally,” Isabella said. “We are close friends — so close that we might as well be biologically related. We are like schoolgirls who call each other affectionate names — such things are silly but appropriate for schoolgirls.”

“She is the woman whom your brother made pregnant.”

“Then he should marry her.”

“This is the point,” Lucio said. “Duke Vincentio has very strangely gone from Vienna. He led many gentlemen, myself being one of them, to expect that there would soon be military action, but we have learned from those in the know that Duke Vincentio’s public utterances were an infinite distance away from what he really means to do.

“In his place, and with all of his power and authority, he allows Lord Angelo to govern Vienna. Lord Angelo is a man whose blood is composed only of snow-broth: melted snow. Lord Angelo is a man who never feels the wanton stings and urges of sexual desire. He reduces and blunts his natural keenness of sexual desire with two things that improve the mind: studying and fasting.

“Lord Angelo wants people to fear to use the liberty that we have had recently — liberty that has ignored the hideous law, much the way that a mouse ignores a nearby lion. To do that, he has picked out a law and decided to strictly enforce it. Your brother broke that law, the punishment for which is forfeiture of his life. Lord Angelo had your brother arrested for breaking that law, and now Lord Angelo will punish your brother; that way, your brother will serve as an example to others.

“All hope is gone, unless you have the grace by your fair appeal to soften Angelo and have him reduce the punishment. That is the essence of the errand that I have run between your brother and you.”

“Is Angelo really seeking to end my brother’s life?”

“He has already condemned your brother, and I have heard that the Provost has the order to execute your brother.”

“This is dreadful,” Isabella said. “Whatever abilities and talents I have are poor and unlikely to do my brother any good.”

“Gather together all the resources that are in you,” Lucio said.

“My resources? I doubt —”

“Our doubts are traitors, and they make us lose the good we often might win by making us afraid to make any attempt to do what good we can,” Lucio said. “Go to Lord Angelo, and let him learn that when maidens plead, men act like gods who have the power to grant them what they want — and let him learn that when maidens also weep and kneel as they plead, men give the maidens whatever they want and exactly the way the maidens want it. Maidens can be much more persuasive than you think when it comes to men.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good, but do it quickly.”

“I will get started right away,” Isabella said. “I will stay here no longer than it takes to give the Mother Superior notice of this affair. I humbly thank you. Commend me to my brother. Early this evening, I will send him news about the outcome of my pleading.”

“Farewell,” Lucio said. “I take my leave of you.”

“Good sir, adieu.”

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