Thursday, June 9, 2011

Too Good to be Liked

Earlier this week I caught a performance of Measure for Measure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in picturesque Ashland, Oregon. (Though I don't have any pictures to advertise the awesomeness of this little town because my camera battery died before I could document the picture-perfectness.)

The production was lively and fabulous (if you're ever in southern Oregon, I highly recommend grabbing a show). Measure for Measure is a lesson in conflict - chock full of characters being forced to make impossible choices or battering themselves against various definitions of justice, but it left me preoccupied with the same question that always bothers me about this play. The question of Isabella.

Is there a point at which virtue for its own sake becomes so virtuous that it ceases to be noble? At which a character is so good, they actually become unlikeable?

In Measure for Measure Isabella is forced to choose: give her pure, chaste self to Angelo or see her brother Claudio executed for the crime of fornication (which also leaves his fiance ruined and alone to raise his child which will be born a bastard because he was arrested before they could get married). Isabella refuses to sleep with Angelo - her view being that it is better for her brother to die once than for her soul to die eternally. In the argument with Angelo, I was wholly behind her. She was about to become a nun, clearly devout, and her virtue was her defining trait. But later when she was explaining her decision to Claudio, I started to hate her when she got mad at her brother (who initially agrees the price would be too high for her) when he wants to live and suggests that fornication is surely the least among the mortal sins.

That's when I started thinking, Hey, isn't Catholicism all about sin and forgiveness? If she couldn't confess and be made whole, then her brother would be going to hell for schtupping Juliet.

She continues to be pure and pious - and through the classic bed trick Angelo believes he has slept with her when really he has slept with his own ex-fiance. But then in the end, she lies (as instructed by the duke in disguise) and accuses Angelo of taking her virtue when he orders her brother executed anyway.

It was hard for me not to dislike Isabella. I feel like the moment she crossed the line from sacred to sanctimonious was in that moment with her brother - when she was so inconsiderate of his will to live. Her virtue started to feel like stubbornness. And selfishness.

I understood the stand Isabella was making, but I stopped liking her. Her intransigence felt like giving up to me. Fight for your brother! Come up with the bed trick yourself! Do something, you pious brat! Don't just tell your brother to resign himself to death.

She was so unremittingly good, I just couldn't stand her.

We've heard, as romance writers, that you have to make your heroines likeable. But not everyone is going to like the same thing in a heroine. I prefer survivors to saints. There are so many perfect Pollyanna heroines out there in Romancelandia, making my teeth ache because they're so sweet, but I like spicy. Give me a jalapeno heroine any day.

What about you? Would you find Isabella virtuous or vain of her own virtue?


Brenda Hyde said...

Perfect people make me grind my teeth. I think it's because I've experienced a couple things in life regarding "perfect". The first are people who APPEAR perfect and then I find they are actually hiding behind this appearance of perfection. In reality they are judgemental and bitter. Second, are experiences I've had with people who think I'm perfect- with no problems etc.-- and they are mad at me because of it. I don't try to give this impression, and I get frustrated when accused of living a "sheltered perfect life" when the person hasn't attempted to find out what I'm really all about.

A rambling answer to say I much prefer imperfect heroes and heroines. LOL

Vivi Andrews said...

I love a good rambling answer. :)

And yep, people making assumptions about anyone else's oh-so-perfect life makes me crazy too. But then, most assumptions make me crazy.

katediamond said...

Oh, how I love Ashland!

I've missed the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. My dear husband has stated that we're not allowed to go back until I finish my book and actually shop it around... devious, devious man.

Did you see any other plays while you were there? Where did you eat? (Always such an important question.)