Cho Sung-Won and Feminine Sexual Autonomy In Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure

William Shakespeare, alleged author of 'Measure For Measure'.

William Shakespeare, alleged author of ‘Measure For Measure’.

In her essay, “Renaissance Nun vs. Korean Gisaeng: Chastity and Female Celibacy in Measure for Measure and ‘Chun-Hyang Jeon’,” Cho Sung-Won argues that “women in patriarchal society, single, married, or widowed, can hardly enjoy full sexual autonomy” (Cho, 566) and that they are rather “driven to embrace the visions” (564) of sexuality dictated by the patriarchal system into which they are born.  In order to articulate this point, Cho does a comparative study of Isabella, of William Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, and Chun-Hynang Jeon, of the Korean folk story ‘Chun-Hyang Jeon’.  The issue at hand, however, is actual autonomy, so whilst Cho’s assessment may be correct, she seeks to examine fictive narratives to draw conclusions about actual social practices.  Cho draws an absolute conclusion about patriarchy but the two cultures which Cho compares share great “chronological and geographical distances” (565), as well as ideological differences, even if they are both patriarchal societies.  This is  a problem. Though Cho’s assessment that women cannot “enjoy full sexual autonomy” (566) in a patriarchal society may be correct, the manner in which she attempts to prove it is flawed.  Ultimately, even on terms set out by Cho, her thesis is not supported as the texts which Cho has selected fail to validate her assessment. It is perhaps Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure which undermines Cho’s thesis the most.


Adrienne Corri, who played Mistress Overdone in the 1979 film adaptation of 'Measure For Measure'.

Adrienne Corri, who played Mistress Overdone in the 1979 film adaptation of ‘Measure For Measure’.

In practicing sexual autonomy, Isabella determines that she wishes to remain a chaste virgin, a choice that Cho suggests is attacked by the patriarchal system.  Cho notes that Isabella, as a nun, is “exempt from the bond of marriage” but goes on to claim that “the contemporary reality of gender relations never actually seemed to allow [Isabella] to escape from it” (568).  Isabella’s brother, Claudio, is facing a death sentence, but the corrupt judge who sentenced Claudio offers a reprieve to Claudio on the condition that Isabella “yield her virginity to him” (568).  It is important to note here that this is not a usurpation of feminine sexual autonomy, but rather an attempt at usurpation.  Isabella still has a choice here and she invokes it, stating: “Better it were a brother died at once,/ Than that a sister, by redeeming him,/ Should die forever” (2.4.105-108).  Isabella also believes that the patriarchal society will support her when she asserts that she will, “with an outstretch’d throat… tell the world aloud” (2.4.152) about Angelo’s behaviour.  The implication is that Isabella recognizes that Angelo’s actions do not represent the patriarchal society, but rather his own personal agenda and that in exposing his behaviour in a social setting, the patriarchal system would support her, not undermine her.  While it is true that Angelo attempts to contest Isabella’s sexual autonomy, it is perhaps unfair to suggest that it is patriarchy that is serving to undermine her sexual autonomy as Angelo is undermining patriarchal standards in this instance with the hopes of serving his personal ends.  Cho seems to conflate men with patriarchy here, but even if conflating men with patriarchy were fair, Isabella asserts her sexual autonomy and preserves it in this instance, so it would be inaccurate to suggest that patriarchy usurped Isabella’s sexual autonomy.  Angelo is not the only man in the play who attempts to usurp Isabella’s sexual autonomy; her brother, Claudio, attempts to do the same as well.  Upon telling her brother of Angelo’s proposition, Claudio asks Isabella to “let [him] live” (3.2133) and defends his request by claiming that the sin Isabella would be indulging in would be dispensed by Nature as a virtue (3.1.135-136).  Claudio impels Isabella to rescind her sexual autonomy, but Isabella again invokes patriarchal custom to defend herself, calling him a “faithless coward” (3.2.136) and asking Claudio if he would be willing to “be made a man out of vice” (2.3.137), a vice that is defined as such by the patriarchal society in which they live.  She both insults him by calling him a coward, drawing on patriarchal definitions of masculinity to emasculate him for his request, then defines vice as outlined by patriarchy to affirm the validity of her autonomy.  While it is clear that no less than two men (Angelo and Claudio) attempt to appropriate Isabella’s sexual autonomy, neither is successful and neither can be said to represent patriarchy as Isabella, in both instances, draws upon patriarchal social expectations to defeat their respective assaults on her sexual autonomy.


Kate Nelligan, who played Isabella in the 1979 film adaptation of "Measure For Measure".

Kate Nelligan, who played Isabella in the 1979 film adaptation of “Measure For Measure”.

If one male character could be said to represent patriarchy in Measure For Measure, it would be the Duke, who is literally the head of the patriarchal system in the play.  The Duke, however, far from subverting the sexual autonomy of women in the play, actually facilitates it.  Isabella, who wishes to save her brother’s life while at the same time preserving her own virginity, seems to have little recourse.  She confides in the Duke (who is disguised as a friar) and it is the Duke who reaffirms her sexual autonomy by proposing a solution: Isabella should “answer [Angelo’s] requiring with… obedience” (3.1.244) and when Angelo is prepared to receive Isabella, a “wronged maid” will “stead up [Isabella’s] appointment” (3.1.250-251).  The scenario has Isabella switching places, in the dark, with a woman with whom Angelo was contracted to be married before retracting his commitment, thus preserving Isabella’s sexual sovereignty whilst also undermining Angelo’s autonomy.  That patriarchal system is not appropriating Isabella’s sexual autonomy, but rather reinforcing it while actually usurping the sexual autonomy of a male figure in Angelo.


While this instance suggests that the Duke, and by extension patriarchy, respects feminine sexual autonomy, the play’s final scene could be read to suggest otherwise.  The Duke, fully aware of Isabella’s promised chastity and desire to live as a nun, proposes marriage to her.  By even requesting marriage, it could be argued that the Duke is undermining Isabella’s wish to remain chaste, but his offer does come in a specific context.  Isabella had publically announced that she “did yield to [Angelo]” (4.1.104).  In the context of this admission, albeit a false admission, Isabella’s honour has been corrupted, at least as far as the public sphere is concerned; the Duke’s offer of marriage would serve to restore Isabella’s public honour.  Coupled with this, the rhetoric of the Duke’s proposal is supplicating.  He moves the proposal forward only if Isabella will a “willing ear incline” (5.1.533).  Neither does the Duke demand a response, but exits after the proposal to leave Isabella alone with her thoughts.  The play does not bring the usurpation of Isabella’s chastity to fruition, but rather the stage is left bereft of any male figures and in their place a lone woman in contemplation.  The fact that she is given time to contemplate implies that her sexual autonomy is still in place and that the patriarchal system has respected it.


A painting of Isabella by Francis William Topham.  (1888).

A painting of Isabella by Francis William Topham. (1888).

Instances of Isabella’s sexual autonomy aside, Cho fails to investigate how the other women of the play and their respective sexual autonomy is represented in a patriarchal context.  Juliet, the lover of Claudio, is made pregnant after engaging in sexual intercourse with Claudio outside of marriage as defined by the state.  Though both Claudio and Juliet are complacent in the sex act, it is only Claudio’s who is punished by the state.  Likewise, Mariana, who was betrothed to Angelo, secretly slips into a room with Angelo and has sexual intercourse with him, despite the fact that they have not been married.  Like Juliet, Mariana faces no consequences for her actions.  Instead it is only Angelo who is punished when the Duke orders him to “marry [Mariana] instantly” (5.1.375) once it has been confirmed that he was contracted to her.  It is the male sexual autonomy that is usurped here, whilst the female autonomy is made the priority.  There is even a third case of a strictly peripheral woman named Kate Keepdown, a sex worker, whose autonomy is recognized when the Duke forces Lucio to marry her upon confirmation that the two had begot a child.  It is implied that this is a match Keepdown wishes for, but one which Lucio vehemently opposes.  The Duke pays no heed when Lucio asks that the Duke not “marry [him] to a/ Whore” (5.1.512-513) and abruptly replies: “thou shalt marry her” (5.1.516).  Keepdown, like Juliet and Mariana, goes unpunished for her sexual conduct.  In each instance the female autonomy of the women is respected and goes unpunished while the men who exert their sexual autonomy must answer for their behaviour in court.

Jacqueline Pearce, who portrayed Mariana in the 1979 film adaptation of "Measure For Measure".

Jacqueline Pearce, who portrayed Mariana in the 1979 film adaptation of “Measure For Measure”.

Cho’s assertion that “woman in patriarchal society, single, married, or widowed, can hardly enjoy full sexual autonomy” (Cho, 566) is very likely true, but her method of proving is it flawed, in part because neither piece she explores actually demonstrates a patriarchal society that undermines feminine sexual autonomy.  Even in the folk narrative: ‘Chun-Hyang Jeon’, the protagonist’s sexual autonomy is ultimately respected as the checks and balances of the patriarchal system in which she lives serve to rescue her from a government official who is abusing his authority.   Even had the works discussed served to demonstrate Cho’s thesis, such analysis would prove nothing as Cho’s thesis makes an assertion regarding the real-world application of patriarchy while her evidence is comprised primarily of works of fiction.  Cho does speak to several instances of patriarchy’s practical, or rather, unpractical application, noting how “the ideal of married chastity became so exaggerated and even distorted that few [widowed] women dared to remarry, even when they had no economic means to survive; so the number of widows who let themselves and their children starve to death rapidly increased” (577) in Joseon Korea.  In response, “many widows killed themselves soon after their husbands passed” (577) as re-marrying was shamed despite the fact that the women were unable to provide for their children without re-marrying.  Other common occurrences saw women who had sex outside of marriage “secretly desert… their new born babies at night in fear of being discovered for adultery” (577).  These instances each serve to demonstrate how patriarchy served to undermined feminine sexual autonomy during Korea’s Joseon period, but they do not demonstrate how patriarchy did so during the Elizabethan period where widows were actually encouraged to re-marry.  Cho’s language also seems to ignore the fact that absolute ideals regarding sex and chastity also usurp masculine sexual autonomy.  Any absolute sexual ideal promoted by any system, be it a matriarchal or patriarchal system, is going to serve to limit the sexual autonomy of both sexes.  The statement that “woman in patriarchal society… can hardly enjoy full sexual autonomy” (Cho, 566) seems self-evident, but without the proper evidence to support it, Cho fails to offer evidence required to validate this self-evident proclamation.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind