Synopsis - Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure

By William Shakespeare, 1604

Setting: Vienna, Austria. No specific time period is indicated


Measure for Measure takes place in the city of Vienna , where the ruler, Duke Vincentio, has become concerned about the spread of lawlessness and immorality in the city. Blaming his own leniency, the Duke decides to temporarily abdicate his throne, naming Angelo, a “man of stricture and firm abstinence,” as his deputy. The Duke pretends to be going on a diplomatic mission to Hungary , but will instead disguise himself and remain in the city to secretly observe the results of Angelo's rule.

Among the first acts of Angelo's reign is the imprisonment of a young nobleman, Claudio, for vice. Claudio's offense seems relatively minor— he has impregnated his fiancée, Juliet, prior to their wedding night— but Angelo wishes to make an example of him. Although Claudio is deeply in love with Juliet and more than willing to marry her, Angelo insists that he be put to death according to the “strict statutes” of Vienna which permit a death sentence for illicit sex. His advisors urge him to rethink the sentence, but Angelo is unswayed.

Claudio's sister, Isabella, a young woman about to make her vows as a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for clemency for her brother. Angelo, overwhelmed by desire for Isabella, explains to her that he will spare her brother's life only if she consents to sleep with him. Horrified and repulsed, Isabella threatens to expose him, but Angelo reminds her that his reputation and authority will outweigh any allegations that she makes. Isabella, believing that Claudio will refuse to let her trade her virginity for his life, goes to visit her brother in prison and prepare him for death.

Meanwhile, the Duke, disguised as a friar, visits both Juliet and Claudio to offer religious consolation (and to gain more information about Angelo's conduct). While at the prison, he overhears the conversation between Claudio and Isabella. Although Claudio's first reaction is also horror at Angelo's manipulation of his sister, he pleads with Isabella to give in to Angelo and save his life, enraging her. The disguised Duke intercedes between the siblings. After sending Claudio out of the room, he tells Isabella that he has a plan to save both her and her brother, and to undo Angelo's abuse of power. He tells her of Mariana, Angelo's former fiancée, whom Angelo abandoned. The “friar” instructs Isabella to tell Angelo she will consent, while he visits the heartbroken Mariana and enlists her in their scheme.

They arrange for Mariana to meet Angelo and, disguised as Isabella, consummate their contracted marriage. Meanwhile the Duke returns to the prison to ensure that Angelo's pardon of Claudio is delivered. He is taken aback when instead an order arrives mandating that Claudio be put to death, and his head delivered to Angelo, by four o'clock. The “friar” persuades the prison keeper to substitute the head of another condemned man, sparing Claudio for the time being.

Meeting Isabella again, the “friar” tells her only that Angelo has betrayed her by executing her brother and that she must wait for the Duke's return for justice to be done. Finally, he sends word to Angelo of his imminent return to the city.

As the Duke's ceremonial entry into the city begins, Isabella and Mariana interrupt the procession with their story of Angelo's illicit activities. According to the women, with the assistance of a friar, “Lodowick,” they were able to substitute Mariana for Isabella, so that Angelo has in fact committed the same act for which he had condemned Claudio to death. Angelo scoffs at their story and insists that it is a scheme by the mysterious “Friar Lodowick” to slander him. When “Friar Lodowick” is revealed to be the Duke, however, Angelo has no choice but to confess.

Still pretending that Claudio was put to death, the Duke sentences Angelo to death according to the law by which he had condemned Claudio—“measure still for measure.” Mariana kneels to plead for mercy for Angelo, whom she still loves, and at her plea, Isabella places herself on the side of forgiveness as well. Shamed and humbled by this, Angelo admits that he deserves death even as the Duke reveals the living Claudio. The Duke pardons both Claudio and Angelo, warning both men to be good husbands to Juliet and Mariana, respectively, and offers Isabella his own hand in marriage.


Major Characters:

Vincentio – the Duke of Vienna, he disguises himself as a monk, “Friar Lodowick,” for most of the play

Angelo – the duke's deputy, a nobleman with a reputation as an extremely austere and severely moral individual

Escalus – an older lord and advisor to the Duke

Claudio – a young gentleman who is arrested for having premarital sex

Isabella – Claudio's sister, who is about to take vows as a nun

Lucio – Claudio's friend, a witty and insolent gentleman

Mariana – Angelo's former fiancée, whom he spurned after she lost her wealth

Juliet – Claudio's fiancée, whom he has impregnated

Provost – the keeper of the prison in Vienna

Elbow – a simple-minded constable, charged with enforcing the law

Pompey – a pimp who accepts a reduced sentence in exchange for working in the prison

Mistress Overdone – a brothel-keeper

Abhorson – the executioner


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