In my gratitude journal, there is sprawling cursive about Isabella’s potential not-ending: warm, merciful, empowered, propellant. It was written midway through the rehearsal process, when we weren’t even sure what the staging would be. Isabella’s final moments onstage were twitching to fruition in my mind then, bashful and tenuous, asking permission. I was not asking permission, I don’t think, when I turned to the director at the next rehearsal and asked, “Can I try what I’m thinking?” Not really. The elastic between my scene partner and I was already tied and taut. I was going to kiss his forehead, and then leave. I barely waited for the yes. My whole body was balancing on the balls of my feet. I needed to act.
Spontaneity is not my middle name. On one hand, I did plan the ending out like a schemer. But I am becoming more gracefully attuned to the delicate romance between my mind and my body. My lips on my scene partner’s forehead was an idea, yes, but that idea lived in my body as acutely as it lived in my mind. It wasn’t a case of wouldn’t that be cool?! but rather this is what I keep seeing when I close my eyes, and it changes my breathing, and why? Is this her ending?
But it’s of course a not-ending. It’s a where is she going now? It’s an invitation and an inhale. It’s a no to one proposal and a yes to a million other suns. The plurality of that yes is what steadies my breath. And once we’d decided that was where Isabella was headed throughout the play, her whole story expanded to me. The plot points all happen as written in our production, yes. But Isabella’s actions throughout the play looked less and less like inevitabilities once I viewed them from the precipice of her not-ending. She spiraled out, kaleidoscopic, all her doubts and insecurities and contradictions becoming a mosaic of incredulous womanhood—a person under my skin who could ricochet in a million different directions.
When Isabella walks offstage, I know exactly where she’s headed first. She’s going home to do laundry and meal prep for her brother and his love and their baby daughter, to support them through the impending sleepless nights. She’ll draw circles with her fingers on her niece’s little back, press her lips to her niece’s forehead, smell all the newness. But that family is its own unit of newness, and she will slip quietly away once she senses she’s not welcome. Part of her will want to evaporate completely. Part of her will want to stay. But she’ll go. I don’t know where or when or how. She probably won’t say goodbye to her brother.
These are all things I suspect, but honestly, Isabella is over 400 years old and her spirit slips away from me, and there are many ways that she could go.
Isabella might have said no when Claudio asked her for help.
She’d worked hard to get into that convent and get the gates shut. Her discernment had been rigorous. She’d shoved her love for Claudio under all the organs in her torso when she’d assured the Mother Superior—yes, I can! She needed the fasting, the enclosure, the bells to rise and pray, the chores, the study, the penitence, the bare and frozen feet. She needed to feel the love of God in place of pangs of hunger, in place of wanting to cradle Claudio in her arms. She needed to feel it between her fingers, not just contemplate. She needed ecstasy. She’d prayed and prayed and written impassioned letters to the Poor Clares to convince them of what she needed, of what she’d been called to need.
And now Claudio needed her.
She might have said no. Maybe it would be better with him dead. Cut off his head and the chaos inside her would marbleize, slip between her legs with a muttered Hail Mary like everything else true and shameful that kept her on the ground. Then she could flush it, walk away, feel empty and divine and float up into what she’d told herself she needed.
Loving people is hard—especially people you grew up with who you barely understand.
Isabella could have said yes to Angelo’s offer.
Isabella’s love for Claudio is amorphous—oftentimes dense and heavy, oftentimes wispy and slippery and fluttering in her abdomen, wings jolting against her skin. It drives her forward; it crumples her down, it renders her tremulous and tugging on skirts. He is the only person she knows she is bound to.
She could have released herself into the chaos that Claudio kindles in her, she could have married it. She could have gone to Angelo’s garden house and submitted, let go, her love outweighing her shame.
If only Angelo had proposed marriage. That she would have duly considered.
Angelo—she thinks, when she meets him—is rigor incarnate. She sees him behind his desk and he scares her in all the purest ways. Lines, polygons, edifices, strictures, tightness in the throat, books piled on mahogany. Crucifixes. Crucifix is a gorgeous word. It could be crux if condensed. Crucial. Fix. Isabella can communicate with Angelo. She can stand on this surface. And there are moments between them that swirl in the air, make the whole room thick with theory. Isabel dares Angelo to put her in her place. She challenges him to rise to the occasion. If only he’d demanded that she marry him, that she consent to join together what could easily be one single stronghold. Justice. Law. Righteousness. God.
She could have married him. She could have molded herself onto his side. She could have counseled him, supported him, adroitly advocated for her own agenda politically. They could have shaped a different Vienna in their image. Raised boys and girls with discipline. Sent their sons and daughters to boarding schools. Had dutiful and passionate sex. Flagellated everyone around them according to their own peculiar shames. JusticeLawRighteousnessGod. They could have grown to love each other, could have grown knotted together in ways too chaotic for their comfort.
As it is in the script, too, Isabella could have lunged over her disgust. She could have folded the keys to the garden house tightly between her palms as if holding them would steady her brother’s pulse. She could have laid there as Angelo gnashed against her pelvis, her head turned to one side, muttering Hail Marys, willing herself not to cry, willing herself not to enjoy herself for that would be much worse. She could have run back to the convent, prayed and prayed to not be pregnant. She might have tried to end the pregnancy. That’s how she could have ended.
She could have left the convent when she began to show, showed up on Claudio and Juliet’s doorstep. Pushed the baby out in gritted silence or with bloody, vengeful shrieks. Left the child with Claudio and Juliet, gone back to the garden house to hang herself. Left Angelo a gift to find a few weeks later, prone and speechless and stinking and decomposing and suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by flies.
She might have pushed it out holding Juliet’s hand and loved it instantly. Raised it alongside her niece because she felt her love more keenly than her shame.
Isabella could have gone to Juliet for the birth of her niece.
She could have gotten a message at the convent: Baby’s coming. I’m scared. Please come. And although she hasn’t seen Juliet in months and how could they not have told me about this baby?? and Mariana is going to Angelo’s garden house at midnight and Claudio is sitting in prison thinking he’s good as dead, Isabella could have gone—could have packed her bags, told the Mother Superior that she wasn’t coming back, returned her uniform and the veil she had so dreamed of. She could have refused, as well. Prayed all night for Juliet but stayed planted behind gates. Too much. Too much. Too much.
If she had gone, she could have clutched Juliet’s hand, rubbed her back, told her not to think about Claudio now—I did my best. Wait until the morning. Focus now. That’s it. Sssshhh. She could have ssshhh’d Juliet’s wheezing apologies, recited psalms at steady tempos and sung hymns that they learned at school together, said firmly, yes, God will forgive you and believed it wholeheartedly, all anger and resentment aside. She could have kissed her friend’s forehead. Instructed shame to take a seat.
Isabella could have married the Duke.
Oh yes. Very much so. She could have allowed her care for him to carry her, could have pushed sensations of betrayal to the back of her mind to complete an even ending. She could have selectively remembered, remembered the security of his arms around her as she shattered at the prison, the image of Claudio’s head on Angelo’s desk ringing in impossibly shrill pitches in her ears. She could have taken Vincentio’s hand and said yes.
They could have had children. Boys upon boys. A daughter, fair-haired and prideful. She could have advised her husband gently, steered him in decisive directions politically, spent a lot of time at church and stopped advising him after a decade or so because he fumbles no matter what. She could have been depressed after her third and fourth baby and every winter after that, apathetic to her husband’s casual infidelity because loving him had always been a ceremonial act, not to be confused with passion. She’d pity him, feel periodic bouts of rage. She’d craved ecstasy, and he’d made her numb. She’d let him make her numb.
She’d grow more and more distanced from Claudio, thankful for his life and appreciating it from afar. Claudio and Juliet’s household would be joyous but they’d never invite her over because they’d assume she’s accustomed to more splendor at her home with the Duke and that she prefers it. She’d know this, know that they don’t know her anymore, that maybe they never did, stop reaching out to them. Find Vincentio in bed with a woman barely older than their daughter. Send all her children away to first-rate universities and then advantageous marriages, read and curl into herself, retreat into the activity of her mind, become singular, fade, and slip away quietly one evening, Vincentio weeping and apologizing at her bedside. She’d tell him she forgives him. That could be her ending.
She could have answered yes to the Duke’s proposal after weeks, months, years of his persistence. He could have showed up on Claudio and Juliet’s doorstep calling for her every day, neglecting his duties as a leader. Spinning different reasons as to why she and him were meant to be. Charming. Buoyant. Never seeing no’s as no’s. Desperate. Crying. Falling harder and harder every time she turned him down. She could have given in so that Vienna wouldn’t crumble at the altar of his infatuation. She also could have genuinely fallen for him, over time.
She could take a bus to another town in Austria, gotten a job on pure eloquence and drive. She could become a teacher, a nurse, a social worker, a lawyer. Marry a kind Catholic fellow with a smile like her brother’s and her father’s, spend Christmas at Claudio and Juliet’s and invite them to stay at her home for Easter, fall asleep to the sound of more giggling cousins sharing beds every few years. Get in the occasional argument with Claudio, always rooted at the prison in Vienna when he was eighteen and she twenty, always concluding in embraces and prayers and I love you and I’m sorry.
She could join another order—not the Poor Clares—larger and mobile. Deliver babies to sex workers and pamphlets to teenagers. Pray and praise and mend and distribute mercy and exchange letters with Vincentio for years. They could never meet again, but serve as each other’s closest confidantes. They could meet up every other Christmas, which Isabella spends with Claudio’s family in Vienna. They could cry together after Angelo’s death, comfort Mariana in her despair. They could fall asleep next to each other at ages 30 and 40, open and wanting but chaste. They could kiss at 25 and 35, after which she could take off her veil for good. Or they could hold hands at 70 and 80, squeeze fingers, say another of a million goodbyes.
He also could move on very quickly, marry some wealthy daughter of a friend to cover his public embarrassment. She could head out of Vienna and place him and Angelo in a small, relieved corner of her mind. They could try to think of each other rarely.
As it is, everyone else exits and the lights dim. The Duke shakes his head, shame curling and curdling, Why didn’t I get what I wanted right away? He turns back, extends a hand.
Isabel goes to him, takes his hands, opens her mouth to speak. Decides she doesn’t need to.
Looks up into his eyes, places fingers and palms lightly gently on his cheeks. Rises on tiptoe—it’s not easy—and kisses his forehead. Registers his hands resting surely on her waist.
Moves away, exhales, that’s done now, choice made. And then something rises in her, multiple things, a million suns. She heads off in one direction with the potential to cleave exponentially, iterations of Isabel walking down infinite roads. An inhale of no ideas. A swelling feeling of anything. Vincentio’s skin on her lips still, traces of it, soft, young, unfurrowed. She’s asymmetrical, ordinary, thunderous, transcendent, learning. She has an Act VI.