With just reading Act I, we can already tell that this is a play heavily based on sexuality, particularly character’s opinions on the matter. I noticed that there are a specific few characters that symbolize different beliefs about sexuality, and they can be seen as components of a sexuality spectrum.
I believe the spectrum is as follows (from liberal-> to conservative):
Mistress Overdone-> Claudio-> Angelo-> Isabella
Character: Mistress Overdone
Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 2 Liberal
Why does she belong in this spot?: Merely her name is a joke! Just by this title, Shakespeare makes it clear to the audience that her sexual prowess is too extreme (or too “overdone”) compared to the other characters. The fact that she runs a brothel adds to this of course, but her dialogue suggests that she knows no other existence when she hears about the proclamation in Act I, Scene II:
But shall all our houses of resort in the suburbs be
To the ground, mistress.
Why, here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth!
What shall become of me?
Her response isn’t “oh no, that’s awful” or something of that sort, its “what shall become of me?” Which could typically be seen as an extreme reaction, but in her case, its normal considering that sexuality is a big part of her life. Perhaps the only part of her life since her job incorporates a few key aspects of life: career, social status, and “leisure” activities.
Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 1 Liberal
Why does he belong in this spot?: As we know, Claudio faces punishment for impregnating Juliet out of wedlock. He wouldn’t be seen on the same level as Mistress Overdone since he isn’t involved with prostitution, but he DID have sex out of wedlock which is still seen as pretty scandalous for the time. Is he deserving of the punishment he will face? Of course not. Even though he couldn’t resist his sexual urges, he did have good intentions as he stated in this speech in Act I, Scene II:
Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta’s bed:
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order: this we came not to,
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.
Even though he plans on spending the rest of his life with her, he still did something that is seen is more liberal for the time; especially when compared to Angelo, and mainly his sister, Isabella. According to the logic of the time, perhaps the situation with Claudio serves as an example of why the city needs to be “cleaned up”.
Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 1 Conservative
Why does he belong in this spot?: Just like Mistress Overdone, perhaps his name is hinting at how he views sexuality. His name is close to “angel”, which is obviously a holy figure of the catholic religion. And what does the Catholic religion emphasize? The absence of anything fun (kidding, absence of before-marriage sex and brothels). His name mirrors/symbolizes his opinion about sex, and his effort to ban brothels and enforce a “no sex out of wedlock or else you will be punished” rule. But this raises a question: Is this genuine? Does he really feel this way about sex? Or he is just abusing his power in order to make a name for himself/for people to take him seriously about “cleaning up” the city? If this theory is true, obviously taking pleasure in destruction isn’t very “angelic” and his name can be taken as irony. And knowing Shakespeare, that’s plausible as well.
Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 2 Conservative
Why does she belong in this spot?: Here we have the other extreme on the spectrum. It’s unclear if Angelo truly has a conservative view on sexuality; her beliefs are made clear by her choice to be a nun. Just like Mistress Overdone (probably the only similarity between the two), her career is constant, and controls her social status and leisure activities. The first piece of dialogue we encounter of Isabella’s in Act I Scene IV shows a lot about her character:
And have you nuns no farther privileges?
Are not these large enough?
Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more;
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.
She is innocent, chaste, religious and wants MORE restraint: what’s more conservative than that? She represents everything that is good and pure; which according to Angelo, is more of what the city needs. She serves as a direct contrast to her brother, Claudio. It will definitely be interesting to see if she helps him out despite her own morals.