Below, you’ll find an in-depth explanation of attitudes in ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’ by John Keats.


Wealth and social customs can destroy true love – the tension between marrying for personal love or marrying for wealth and status are at the heart of many great love narratives, and ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil‘ is one of them. Isabella’s brothers are depicted as the villains of the piece, yet they are also products of their environment – it could be said that Keats is more critical of the social norms and structures that oppress true love than he is of the individual villains themselves because their values are pretty much aligned with the values of their Renaissance society (until the point where they commit murder): they believe women are their property, to be used as bargaining chips to barter and secure wealth and business connections through marriage. They believe that lower born folk have no right to fall in love with or marry those of a higher status, and they believe that Florentine Renaissance culture and society is far superior to others of its time because it is the richest, being the banking capital of Europe – these were all commonly accepted attitudes in their time and place. 

Love and suffering are cointegrated – As Keats had such a tragic life, he was wont to believe that the extreme pleasures of love could not be possible without difficulty and suffering; there is a sense that perhaps Lorenzo and Isabella are so strongly bound together because of the adverse circumstances, rather than just in spite of them. 

Forbidden love is often tragic and painful – Isabella and Lorenzo are ‘twin roses’, they are clearly matched for one another and their union is pure and honest; however, due to the disparity in wealth and status, society would dictate that Lorenzo is an unfit match for Isabella. For this reason, their love is socially forbidden and this puts a lot of pressure on the relationship, forcing it into secrecy. The lovers are still happy with arrangements until the brothers intervene, feeling that it is their right to murder Lorenzo and wed Isabella to a wealthier suitor, to further their own profits and connections. The scenario parallels the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet, another Italian Renaissance story of doomed lovers where the central characters are perfectly suited, yet the wider context of their feuding families prevents them from achieving a happy union. Keats uses allegorical referencing to Shakespeare’s play to place his own tale (originally Bocaccio’s) within the discourse of tragic love narratives. 

Check this link for Context and Themes in ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’ by John Keats.

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