In this investigation I will focus mostly on the regulation of both convents and brothels in the time period of Shakespeare and the early Renaissance. Ruth Mazo Karras’ “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England,” focuses exactly on this topic throughout England and other European countries during the Renaissance. In regards to the convents I will be looking closely at an article entitled “Subjects on the World’s Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” written by David G. Allen and Robert A. White.
The regulations of brothels in the Renaissance were regarded heavily. Karras says that women within these brothels were basically regarded as evil and as sinners yet they remained occupying the position of prostitution solely because of the sexual appetite of men; these brothels were considered “…a necessary evil” (Karras). The first parallel between women of convents and stews I came to find was that of the aspect of being forbidden from society in a sense. Women of convents were completely shut off from the public, no insiders could leave and no outsiders could come in (Allen). The only difference in the secrecy of these two places was the fact that the brothels were attended by men. Karras also states that the women of brothels were not given any rights that regular women had, “In some places, she was not allowed to reject any customer, indeed could not be raped because she was considered to belong to all men and thus had no right to withhold consent” (Karras).
These two aspects of women’s lives in this time period play a major part in the drama Measure for Measure, and especially set up the scene in the opening act of the play. When Claudio sends for his sister, Isabel, to help him get out of jail, in which he was sentenced to death for having premarital (by the eyes of the church) sex with Juliet, Isabel leaves the convent in which she was about to take her vows in order to save her brother. Thus, we have an almost-nun and sinful intercourse immediately in Act 1, both directly related to the idea of convents and brothels and the women within these places. In this case, however, Juliet is not a prostitute but in the eyes of Angelo and the law is regarded as one because of her and Claudio’s unofficial and insufficient marriage.