Oil on canvas, 30 x 16.75 inches. Tate Gallery, London. Claudio and Isabella is signed "1850," but it was first shown in 1853 at the Royal Academy.
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The painting depicts a moment from Act III, scene i of Measure for Measure when the novice Isabella visits her brother Claudio in prison to tell him that her plea for mercy from Angelo has failed and that he has lewdly proposed to her that she might trade her virginity for her brother's life. George Landow assigns Claudio and Isabella to the second rank of Hunt's paintings; one way employed by Hunt to prevent "his art from presenting nature 'claylike and finite'," says Landow, "was to depict emotionally powerful scenes from literature and from sacred and secular history." The scene in Claudio and Isabella, unlike Hunt's Lady of Shalott and his religious paintings that portray "such powerful moments of illumination or conversion," simply depicts a more "conventionally theatrical subject" (20).
Most of the critics who first reviewed the painting in 1853 agreed with Landow; they saw little in the picture to admire. The reviewer for The Examiner, for example, praised Hunt's depiction of Isabella, but of he says that Claudio, "whose fear of death is represented by a look and posture of imbecile lunacy, is a distressing and exaggerated feature of the scene. If it is to be supposed that Claudio expressed, in such a way of Mr. Hunt depicts it, his distress of mind, it is a thing that we had much rather suppose than see deliberately painted." Richard Altick, who quotes from this review in The Examiner, perhaps helps us understand why the painting does not ring true as a representation of the action in Act III; he says in his note on the painting that it describes the exchange between the two when "Claudio pleads with his sister Isabella to give herself to Angelo in order that he can be released from prison" (279).
If Altick correctly identifies the exact moment the painting captures, then I would agree that the expressions on the faces of Claudio and Isabella and their gestures do not genuinely reflect the action. That is why I would suggest another interpretation for the painting. In the earlier part of their conversation, Isabella has explained to Claudio what transpired when she had her audience with Angelo; she asks then, "What says my brother?"
CLAUDIO: Death is a fearful thing.
ISABELLA: And shamed life a hateful.
CLAUDIO: Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
Isabella replies, "Alas, alas!" This is the precise moment, I think, depicted in the painting. Isabella sympathetically lays her hands upon her brother's heart to comfort him and looks up at him with obvious pity and concern. But Claudio looks away with furrowed brow and awkwardly fiddles with the shackles on his leg. He knows that what he is to say next must be put in the most diplomatic terms, for he is going to ask her to trade her virginity for his life. Now the scene makes sense: Isabella's expression, Claudio's awkwardness, the half-open mouth prepared to ask for this sacrifice, and his gaze directed away from sister, whom he cannot look in the eye as he asks of her what he must.
CLAUDIO: Sweet sister, let me live:
What sin you do to save a brother's life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.
ISABELLA: O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood. Take my defiance!
Die, perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed:
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee.
CLAUDIO: Nay, hear me, Isabel.
ISABELLA: O, fie, fie, fie!
Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd:
'Tis best thou diest quickly.
CLAUDIO: O hear me, Isabella!
Thus Hunt captures the moment just before Isabella's violent eruption of disdain and disgust in defense of what one critic has called her "rancid chastity." Her accusation--"O you beast!"--and his plea, "O hear me, Isabella!" suggests an entirely different painting than the one we see. Christopher Wood is correct when he says Claudio and Isabella is "typical of Hunt's preoccupation with sin and guilt and his intensely moralistic approach to art," but he, like most critics, incorrectly assumes that the painting describes a scene where Claudio "pleads with her to save his life" (Wood, Pre-Raphaelites, 19).
Few critics would argue, however, with the craftsmanship and the execution of the painting; Hunt had gone to the Lollard prison at Lambeth Palace for the background of the picture to get the details right. Hanging in the casement is the lute with which he might have wooed his young lady, and carved in the wood just above the ring that fastens his chain is a reminder of how he came to be in this mess in the first place: the names Claudio and Juliet. The fallen petals of the flower on his cloak at his feet contrasts poignantly with the blossoms on the tree and the blue skies just outside the bars of the window in cell. All in all, it is a powerful depiction of an awkward and dramatically charged moment in Measure for Measure.