The power relationship between Isabella and Angelo is almost equal when they first meet in Act 2 Scene 2. Angelo is a man who now rules Vienna and has power over her brother’s life. Isabella is a woman with the combined powers of youth, purity and persuasive speech. She challenges and unpicks Angelo’s arguments in increasingly strong ways in the scene and he is quickly overwhelmed by attraction and desire for her. It is not clear how consciously Isabella has achieved this but she leaves the scene feeling positive about their next meeting. Angelo is left wondering what’s hit him.
'Hark how I’ll bribe you: good my lord, turn back.' (Isabella, 2:2)
'never could the strumpet, / With all her double vigour, art and nature, / Once stir my temper, but this virtuous maid / Subdues me quite.' (Angelo, 2:2)
The relationship is completely unbalanced in Act 2 Scene 4 when Angelo abuses his power and gives Isabella a horrible and hopeless choice, to destroy her honour and give up her virginity and life choices or let her brother die. Angelo knows what he’s doing is wrong and when Isabella threatens to reveal him, he abuses his power even further and tells her she won’t be believed. Angelo knows that his role in society, both as a man and a public figure, means his words will be taken more seriously than hers and, when she is left alone, Isabella realises immediately that he is right. She has no witnesses and no one will believe her. Angelo leaves Isabella no choice but to let her brother die.
'Who will believe thee, Isabel? / My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life, / My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state, / Will so your accusation overweigh, / That you shall stifle in your own report / And smell of calumny.’ (Angelo, 2:4)
‘To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?’ (Isabella, 2:4)
The relationship remains unbalanced in Act 4 Scene 3, with Angelo showing total power over Isabella again. Isabella discovers that Angelo has broken his word to her and ordered Claudio’s execution anyway, despite believing she’s slept with him. She can do nothing but curse him and herself.
Later, in Act 4 Scene 4, Angelo admits in a soliloquy that he has abused his power as a respected public figure to steal a woman’s virginity and that he is relying on Isabella’s shame to keep her quiet.
'O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!' (Isabella, 4:3)
‘But that her tender shame / Will not proclaim against her maiden loss, / How might she tongue me? Yet reason dares her no, / For my authority bears of a credent bulk / That no particular scandal once can touch / But it confounds the breather.’ (Angelo, 4:4)
The relationship is given some balance when Isabella is allowed to accuse Angelo publicly in Act 5 Scene 1. She does this with passion and skill although he calls her a liar and says she’s gone mad with grief because her brother is dead. The duke, who is playing out the drama in order to punish Angelo, has Isabella arrested.
When the truth is revealed, Isabella shows an enormous amount of forgiveness towards Angelo by joining Mariana in begging for his life.
While this may seem that Isabella is being weak, the act of forgiving her abuser shows a much greater strength in her character.
As a woman, Isabella is of a much lower status than Angelo. She is also one of only two women in a scene full of men, but in this moment she shows everyone the greater power of understanding and mercy. Angelo can only be seen as weaker as a result.
‘My lord, her wits, I fear me, are not firm. / She hath been a suitor to me for her brother / Cut off by course of justice—‘ (Angelo, 5:1)
'A due sincerity governed his deeds, / Till he did look on me: since it is so, / Let him not die. My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died. / For Angelo, / His act did not o’ertake his bad intent' (Isabella, 5:1)