Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Figures Human and Symbolic: Sexual Impulse and Sexual Avoidance in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

This essay is an expanded version of a paper presented at the 2019 South Central Renaissance Conference, held at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.  My thanks to James Conlan and Michael Hays for their helpful editorial comments.


Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has received a mixed reception among readers and viewers practically from its first appearance.  It was performed at the court of James I, recently crowned as the successor to Elizabeth I, on 26 December 1604.  It is a strange kind of play to be performed in the Christmas season.  The plot is a variation of a story which Shakespeare modified from two sources: the most immediate source was a play by George Whetstone, Promos and Cassandra (1578), which was based on a story in Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi (1565).  The Cinthio story is a tragedy, but the Whetstone play had a happy ending.  Shakespeare followed Whetstone’s plot.

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, temporarily takes leave of the city and leaves his deputized representative, Angelo, in charge of city governance.  Angelo promptly applies an unrealistically harsh law, long unenforced, stating that any man who impregnates a woman not officially his wife shall be put to death.  The first victim of the newly enforced law is Claudio, who has gotten Juliet pregnant; they are betrothed, married by pre-contract, but not yet wedded in a church ceremony.  Claudio’s sister, Isabella, prompted by Claudio’s acquaintance Lucio, asks Angelo for leniency for Claudio.  Suddenly attracted by Isabella’s charms, Angelo promises Isabella that if she sleeps with him, Claudio’s life will be spared, a promise he has no intention of keeping.  The Duke, who has remained in Vienna disguised as a friar, instructs Isabella to agree to the plan because he will substitute Mariana, to whom Angelo was betrothed before he withdrew from the relationship because of insufficient dowry.  In the final act of the play, Duke Vincentio publicly “returns” to the city and corrects every injustice that has been perpetrated.  The play concludes as the Duke offers his hand in marriage to Isabella.

Early readers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, and William Hazlitt made clear their general dislike of the play, primarily due to its distasteful subject matter–fornication (Andrews 237, 239).  The greatest areas of complaint about the play have focused on the characters, especially the figure of the Duke, the head of the Viennese state, and Lucio, a facile and quick-witted playboy nobleman.  Duke Vincentio has been seen as a mysterious presence whose actions affect the main characters.  Thomas Marc Parrott, for example, says that the Duke “is not a character from real life, . . . , but a dramatic device for the manipulation of the plot, and this device of Shakespeare’s invention is the final touch that converts an old, true, and tragic story into a tragi-comedy” (361).  Arthur Quiller-Couch finds little to admire in the Duke.  The Duke, he says, “begins well, and in his exhortation to Claudio upon death he speaks most nobly.  But he tails off into a stage puppet and ends a wearisome man, talking rubbish” (xxxiii).

In Vincentio, the all-knowing and severe but merciful head of the state, readers have occasionally seen Shakespeare creating a character similar to James himself, who prided himself on his knowledge of the rules of governance, and who knew his scripture (Garber 564).  G. Wilson Knight likened the Duke to Christ and argued that the play “must be read in the light of the Gospel teaching” (Andrews 242).The title of the play is taken from Matthew, 7:1-2: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”  James would have recognized this passage; he had, after all, convened the Hampton Court Conference the previous January to begin work on what would eventually become known as the King James Version of the Bible.

Most critical invective, however, is reserved for Lucio.  According to John Cox, “Lucio and the Duke [of Vienna] have a great deal to do with each other in the course of the play, and until the very end the pattern of their relationship consistently works to the Duke’s discomfort” (152).  The effect of Lucio’s comments in the play, he adds, “is to make a rather severe authority look helpless in the face of very funny insults.”  Lucio is generally perceived as an embarrassing presence in the play, whose ribald comments help to reduce the general level of philosophical thought about the nature of mercy that occupies the first half of the play to the lower level of sexual activity.  Leslie Fiedler, for example, states that in Lucio “the bawd and the fool [are] coalesced” (162).  English actor Tim Piggott-Smith saw Lucio as a “parasite,” a “fast double-talker,” a “creep” (Andrews xv).  E. C. Pettet says that in Lucio Shakespeare has created “a new type of depraved character,” a man who is a “sickly, foul-mouthed whoremonger” (157).  While such responses are understandable, given Lucio’s role in the play, this type of invective inhibits the possibility of developing a more complete understanding of the purpose for his existence in the play.

The central thematic issue of the first half of the play, and its most engaging discussion of the qualities of mercy, is the conflict between Angelo and Isabella, as Angelo tries to manipulate Isabella into a sexual relationship with him, using false promises of leniency towards her brother Claudio as the key element in his persuasive strategy.   The central concern of the second half of the play is the Duke’s efforts to expose Angelo’s treachery.  When these are seen as the primary thematic pivot points of the play, the only characters in the play who appear to undergo any kind of change are Angelo and Isabella: Angelo’s scheme is revealed, and Isabella’s efforts to save her brother are successful.  From this viewpoint also Mariana is consistently and uncomplainingly (and unrealistically) faithful; Claudio is an unhappy victim of Angelo’s designs.  The Duke of Vienna is a shadowy god-like figure who manipulates key figures in the play.

However, the crucial movements in the play are of a much more dynamic nature than such a traditional view suggests.  All of the primary characters in the play, not just Angelo and Isabella, are caught up in the conflict of sexual attitudes and social expectations, which occur specifically as a result of their involvement in (or their efforts to deny) sexual activity.  As Katharine Eisaman Maus says, “the morally ambitious characters—the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella—initially assume that their virtue is tied up with, perhaps even identical with—their chastity” (842).  In one evident aspect, the central issue is the appropriate ethical response to the consequences of unregulated sexual activity.  However, at a deeper level, the issue is a heightening awareness of full engagement of life impulses, including the value of (socially responsible) sexual activity.  Every character in the play experiences change as a result of the influence of the sexual impulse, actions, or desires of another character.

These changes occur as a result of individual testing processes, planned and unplanned, that occur in the play.  That the play provides a series of tests of the characters has been observed by many readers (Garber 573; Coghill 21; Fergusson 138).  This testing process is clearly true of Angelo, Isabella, and Marianna, but it is also true of Lucio, and especially of the Duke of Vienna.  The Duke is not a static figure in the play.  As much as Isabella and Angelo, he experiences a major change in the play.  Before examining the changes that occur in the main figures in the play, however, we need to review their basic character make-up.


When the Duke departs early in the first act, he leaves his deputy, Angelo, in charge.  Escalus, his more senior advisor, approves of the choice, saying that

If any in Vienna be of worth

To undergo such ample grace and honour,

It is Lord Angelo.                                                       (1.1.22-24)[1]

Angelo’s attitude towards governance as acting head of Vienna is immediately evident in the following scene, when we learn that Claudio has been arrested and sentenced to death for causing his affianced partner, Julietta, to become pregnant.  While the Duke has been hesitant to enforce an old and unpopular law requiring that the man responsible for causing an unmarried pregnancy should be put to death, Angelo has no such reservations.  His quick actions suggest that he is eager to exercise his authority in this matter.  Angelo’s actions also suggest that he has, at least initially, a deep-seated aversion to sexual activity.

When Lucio informs Isabella that her brother Claudio has been sentenced to death, he directly attributes Angelo’s actions to his lack of normal human emotions.  He refers to Angelo as

A man whose blood

Is very snow-broth; one who never feels

The wanton stings and motions of the sense,

But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge

With profits of the mind, study, and fast.                               (1.4.56-60)

Although Lucio’s ideas about the reasons behind Angelo’s behavior are based on impressions, not firm knowledge, they are borne out by Angelo’s subsequent actions and provide a possible clue to Angelo’s hidden motives for his duplicitous actions in enforcing the law.

Angelo’s change in attitude is revealed to us in the two encounters with Isabella.  In their first meeting, after Lucio brings Isabella to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, we initially see a precise law enforcer adamant in his interpretation of the law:

Be you content, fair maid.

It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.

Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,

It should be thus with him.  He must die tomorrow.              (2.2.81-84)

Claudio’s harsh sentence combined with its hasty penalty indicates Angelo’s distaste for the issue.  But after Isabella leaves, Angelo’s comments reveal that his enthusiasm for proceeding with Claudio’s death may arise from other motives than his sense of the appropriateness (if not the existence) of the law:

Can it be

That modesty may more betray our sense

Than woman’s lightness?  Having waste ground enough,

Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary

And pitch our evils there?  O fie, fie, fie!

What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?

Dost thou desire her foully for those things

That make her good?                                                  (2.2.172-179)

In his reference to sexual activity using such terms as “woman’s lightness” and “waste ground” and that the presence of a “modest” woman “betraying” his sense (that is, causing him to develop feelings of sexual desire) Angelo is as much sexually conflicted as he is administratively motivated in his pursuit of justice in Vienna.

In one encounter with Isabella, Angelo is profoundly changed, and not for the better.  His own personal sexual impulse has caused him to change from the consummate law-enforcer to the consummate law-breaker.  When we learn later that Angelo walked away from his betrothal with Marianna because the agreed-upon dowry could not be provided, our opinion of him as someone who is sexually repressed (as well as a self-seeking opportunist) is confirmed.  The boldness of his deviousness and duplicity of his actions suggest that he is someone for whom the law is an instrument of power to be used for personal benefit by those who control it.


During most of the play Isabella attempts to avoid being caught up in Angelo’s net of planned seduction, and in our concern for her situation we may forget that when the play opens, she is about to enter a severely restrictive order, the Catholic order of Saint Clare, an order known even in Shakespeare’s day for its strict religious practices.  Strict though it is, Isabella questions whether the order is sufficiently strict to serve her purposes:

I speak not as desiring more [privileges],

But rather wishing a more strict restraint

Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.    (1.4.3-5)

Isabella’s concern for the “strict restraints” the order offers indicates her desire for nearly total avoidance of normal human interaction.  Lucio arrives in time to entreat her to appeal to Angelo on her brother’s behalf, and when she does so, she is initially so hesitant to defend her brother’s actions that Lucio feels it necessary to prompt her to use stronger, more forceful arguments.  If she were about to leave the normal world of human intercourse when she is approached by Lucio, we can understand her hesitancy to speak on behalf of her brother, who has committed an act of which she clearly does not approve.  As she tells Angelo at their first meeting,

There is a vice that I most do abhor,

And most desire should meet the blow of justice,

For which I would not plead, but that I must,

For which I must not plead, but that I am

At war ‘twixt will and will not.                                  (2.2.29-33)

These words identify her as someone who shares Angelo’s attitude towards sexual activity.  Later she affirms her intense denial of the pleasures of sex when she says

Were I under the terms of death,

Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,

And strip myself to death as to a bed

That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield

My body up to shame.                                                (2.2.100-104)

Isabella’s denial of the pleasure of sex has itself sexual overtones, as Marjorie Garber notes: “There is a peculiar and disquieting, or titillating side to Isabella’s denial of desire, a denial that itself exhibits desire.  Her protests of chastity against all assaults has a strong psychosexual tone, one that a modern world would classify as a kind of sadomasochism” (573).

As events in the play will demonstrate, the extreme attitudes towards sexual activity taken by Isabella and the Duke (too conservative) and Lucio (too liberal) will undergo moderation towards a socially acceptable middle ground, marriage.

When Isabella informs Claudio of Angelo’s terrible plan to bring her into his bed, she berates Claudio when he has the temerity to suggest that trading her virginity for his life would be an acceptable agreement.  Unless we understand that Isabella has an ingrained dislike for sexual intimacy, even an abhorrence of the act, we are likely to view her reaction to his request as bordering on the hysterical.  Only the intervention of the disguised Duke prevents the scene from becoming much more unpleasant.

And yet when, at the end of play, the Duke invites her to become his wife, she appears to accept.  That she does not make any comment indicating her denial of the offer suggests that she is willing to become his wife.  Whenever she was previously faced with a situation she disliked, she did not hesitate to state her displeasure.  Many readers have wondered why Isabella should seriously consider accepting the offer of the Duke’s hand in marriage, but almost no one has questioned why the Duke, spontaneously and without apparent forethought, asks her to be his wife.  It is as if, at the conclusion of a Shakespearean comedy, he is expected to offer marriage, which the woman will, according to Shakespearean comedic convention, accept.  If we are interested in Isabella’s reaction to such an unusual offer, we should also wonder, with equal interest, at the Duke’s offer of marriage.  This action is not in keeping with the Duke’s character early in the play; the Duke has in fact moved through a significant moderation of character.  Detailed examinations of the character of the Duke of Vienna are rare. Most interest is focused on Isabella and Angelo, for obvious reasons: their conflict of values is the central issue of the play.

Vincentio, The Duke of Vienna

The Duke is often seen as a static figure, whose character and nature remain constant throughout the play.  However, a careful reading of the Duke’s interactions with the other characters in the play suggests a much more nuanced and complex character, one who undergoes a change in outlook as profound as that experienced by Isabella.

Initially the Duke is a man who appears to prefer solitude and who is uncomfortable in the public eye.  He gives us several indications of his reclusive nature.  At the beginning of the play, before he mysteriously departs, leaving Angelo in charge of the governance of Vienna, he admits to Angelo and to Escalus that

I’ll privily away.  I love the people,

But do not like to stage me to their eyes.

Though it do well, I do not relish well

Their loud applause and aves vehement.

Nor do I think the man of safe discretion

That does affect it.                                          (1.1.67-72)

While some readers might approve of this tendency to avoid a public show for the sake of show, it is neither prudent nor appropriate for the conscientious ruler of a State to hold, much less express, such a view.  (We can think, for example, of the price Prospero pays for sharing this habit of mind.)  This statement appears to be more than a subterfuge to conceal his departure; it is a real expression of his character.  The Duke restates this idea when he asks Friar Thomas for help in disguising him as a cleric:

My holy sir, none better knows than you

How I have ever loved the life removed,

And held in idle price to haunt assemblies

Where youth and cost a witless bravery keeps.   (1.3.7-10)

This passage suggests that the Duke not only sees himself as a man who prefers quiet and study, he also indicates that he has moved past the age for the enjoyment of youthful activities.  In addition to suggesting that this is not the first time the Duke has assumed the role of a friar, the discussion between the Duke and Friar Thomas reveals another key personal characteristic, not previously mentioned, when he tells Friar Thomas to “throw away” the thought that he is seeking a disguise to gain access to a woman:

Believe not that the dribbling dart of love

Can pierce a complete bosom.                        (1.3.2-3)

His need for a disguise, he says,

hath a purpose

More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends

Of burning youth.                                           (1.3.4-6)

Again he emphasizes the difference in his personal outlook from younger men.  Although this statement carries metaphorical meaning, we should not ignore its self-referential implication: his gravity of age is contrasted to the idea of “burning” youth.  The Duke appears to be sincere when he says that his “complete bosom” does not allow for the possibility of love.  If that statement is true, how can we account for his surprising offer of marriage to Isabella at the end of the play?  What is responsible for his change of heart?  And when did that change occur?

Two events trigger the transformation of the Duke’s outlook on life.  The first is his meeting with Isabella, where he recognizes her considerable intellectual, and, presumably, physical appeal, and the second is his interaction with Lucio and his reflections on Lucio’s statements about his character.

When the Duke tells Friar Thomas that he has left Angelo in charge to enforce the laws of Vienna that have for too long gone unenforced, Friar Thomas suggests that the Duke has been avoiding his responsibilities as a ruler:

It rested in your Grace

To unloose this tied-up Justice when you pleased,

And it in you more dreadful would have seemed

Than in Lord Angelo.                                     (1.3.31-34)

The Duke responds

I do fear, too dreadful.

Sith ‘twas my fault to give the people scope,

‘Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them

For what I bid them do.                                  (1.3.34-37)

This idea is strangely expressed; that the Duke would suddenly enforce a law that he has long let slip might be unfair, but it would not be dreadful.  And how could it be tyrannous?  Is he worried about displaying inconsistency of character?  The Duke seems unwilling and even afraid to accept his responsibilities as the head of the Viennese government, at least insofar as they include the harsh law regarding fornication.  And even if what he says is partly to deceive the Friar, to disguise his true purpose in leaving Angelo in charge, it contains more than a kernel of truth given what some in the play (especially Lucio) agree to be the case, that a harsh, unpopular, unreasonable (and unrealistic) law has gone unenforced for many years.

The next aspect of the Duke’s demeanor to be considered is his general behavior as a man of God in the disguise of a friar, under the name of Friar Lodowick.  The Duke appears to welcome, even relish, his role as Claudio’s confessor.  He appears to be more comfortable as a friar than he is as a duke.  Does he really mean what he says when he tells Claudio to “be absolute for death” (3.1.5)?  The answer appears to be yes, he does.

The Duke, as Friar Lodowick, gives Claudio more advice about preparing himself for death than Claudio really needs. His counseling monologue runs some 35 lines, in which he presents no less than fifteen religious aphorisms, of which this sample is representative:

Merely, thou art death’s fool.

For him thou labor’st by thy flight to shun,

And yet runn’st toward him still.                    (3.1.11-13)

His comments on the brevity, impermanence, and transitory nature of life appear to be heartfelt and sincere, not learned from a prayer book or manual of religious instruction.  Why should the Duke feel the necessity to belabor Claudio with this laundry list of reasons to welcome the thought of death?  If he intends to save Claudio from death, these comments are so deceptive as to be inappropriate.  Surely it is not because he believes that Claudio has committed a truly serious crime against the State.  Claudio is not such a malicious character that he needs extensive religious correction.  There must be some other impulse at work.

One significant hint comes from the final lines at the end of his long lecture to Claudio:

Thou hast nor youth nor age,

But, as it were an after-dinner’s sleep

Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth

Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms

Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,

Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,

To make thy riches pleasant.  What’s in this

That bears the name of life?  Yet in this life

Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear

That makes these odds all even.                     (3.1.32-41)  [Emphasis added]

Although these lines provide profound spiritual value, they should not distract us from the recognition that they suggest that the Duke is thinking of himself as much as, if not more than, Claudio.  He is old and rich, certainly compared to Claudio, and while we know little of his private self, we know enough to sense that there is something missing from his life.  From what we have seen of the Duke thus far, we should have no difficulty believing that his existence is lacking in vitality (heat), passion (affection), lively action (limb), and beauty.

Moreover, if the Duke does not give the impression that he is thinking of himself more than Claudio when he delivers these lines, then the scene becomes shallow, superficial, false, unsatisfactory, and unconvincing: he is over-acting his role as a friar.  However, if we understand that these lines are increasingly self-referencing, the scene resonates with meaning.  He is effectively preparing himself, not Claudio, for death.  Might he not be feeling a little guilt at his attempt to transfer his own sense of world-weariness to Claudio?

The signs are there: withdrawal from society in general, stated abnegation of love and all that love entails, and unwillingness to engage in his governmental duties.  Whatever may be his true motives for moving through the city in disguise, the Duke is a man afflicted with a profound case of melancholy, very much in the vein of such familiar Shakespearean figures as Antonio and Orsino.  These men find redemption and revitalization through the efforts of key figures in their societies, and so will the Duke.

Immediately following his interview with Claudio, the Duke encounters Isabella for the first time, when she comes to the prison to inform Claudio of Angelo’s proposition.  The concealed Duke observes the exchange between Claudio and Isabella.  He remains in the background for nearly one hundred lines of the discussion between Claudio and Isabella.  Although Claudio previously appeared to accept the Duke’s counsel to be “absolute for death,” he evidently still has a strong desire to remain alive, and he does not see Isabella’s loss of virginity to the duplicitous Angelo as too high a price to pay for his release from prison.

The argument between Isabella and Claudio grows increasingly tense and uncomfortable.  The anger and tension that develop between brother and sister make this the most emotionally charged moment in the play; we as viewers are beginning to feel true distress that the relationship between brother and sister should become so angry and violent.  This traumatic confrontation is the direct result of Angelo’s actions—his determination to make an example of Claudio and his desire to have sex with Isabella.  At the moment when it seems that the tension and anger between the two cannot grow any more intense, the Duke intervenes.

During the debate between Claudio and Isabella, the Duke has had the opportunity to observe the essential qualities of Isabella.  Because he has been concealed and says nothing, we have neither words nor expressed gestures to help us determine the exact point at which he is drawn to her.  While we learn in great detail the reasons for Angelo’s attraction for Isabella, we know next to nothing about the Duke’s initial response to Isabella’s visual and verbal excellences. Unlike Angelo’s meeting with Isabella, Shakespeare provides no aside moments for the Duke; the Duke never steps forward from his hiding place to comment on Isabella’s impact on him.  Was he previously aware of her existence?  We do not know.  His first words to her are not about love or commiseration, but about advice, words that he says would bring “some satisfaction” for her own benefit (3.1.158-159).  She agrees to listen to what he has to say, and steps aside while the Duke repeats his harsh message to Claudio: “tomorrow you must die” (3.1.170).

After Claudio returns to his cell, the Duke turns his full attention to Isabella, and this is his first address to her: “The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good.  The goodness that is cheap in beauty makes beauty brief in goodness; but grace, being the soul of your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever fair.”  The kind of goodness he sees in Isabella is not brief but lasting.  His final statement is as profound as it is affecting: “Grace, being the Soul of your Complexion, shall keep the body of it [Goodness] ever fair.”  While these lines (3.1.181-184) are certainly appropriate lines to be spoken by a holy father, they contain a clear indication of the Duke’s favorable impression of Isabella.  In Isabella he sees beauty combined with a heavenly kind of goodness.  At this moment we have only these five lines to suggest the effect of Isabella on the Duke, but they are fully indicative of the true nature of his evaluation of her character.

The Duke immediately involves Isabella in his plan to trap Angelo: “the assault that Angelo hath made to you fortune hath conveyed to my understanding” (3.1.184-186).  The remaining lines in this scene are exclusively devoted to the Duke’s plan for Isabella to agree to meet Angelo and have Marianna replace Isabella at the assigned meeting place.  This is the “bed trick,” swapping one (more suitable) woman for another.  In the scene that follows, the Duke encounters Lucio, and their interaction changes the courses of both lives.


Lucio is usually identified with the group of “low” characters who are involved in Vienna’s bawdy house trade, including Elbow, the Constable, and Froth, the Tapster.  Lucio readily admits his fondness for the women of the stews, and he brags that he has gotten one of the women pregnant.  Lucio is clever, witty, ribald, plain-spoken, and articulate.  As his name suggests, his is one of the few “lights” in a play concerned with the darker underside of the city of Vienna.  Lucio is usually remembered for his comic interaction with the Duke in the fourth and fifth acts of the play.  In the last act he behaves like an impertinent upstart, a wise-cracking bystander who is unable to restrain his comments even when he directly incurs the displeasure of the Duke.

However, if Shakespeare envisioned the character of Lucio as comic relief, why does Lucio have such a fully developed role?  Was it because his role as a quick-witted cosmopolitan and lover of bodily pleasures adds a degree of earthy humor sorely needed in the play?  Was it to play the role of unofficial court jester to the disguised Duke?  And why did Shakespeare give him such a prominent part in the play?   A rough count shows that Lucio has more speaking opportunities (if not more lines) than Angelo.  There must be another, more relevant reason for Lucio’s fully developed and continuous participation in the action of the play.

Lucio is a well-rounded character, who participates in the serious action of the play to an equal degree as he does in its comic moments.  He moves easily and naturally from the “low” world of the taverns and brothels of Elbow, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone to the world of more refined society.  He is the emissary Claudio sends to persuade his sister to come to his defense, a task which Lucio enthusiastically and competently undertakes.  When Isabella begins her initially timid defense of Claudio’s case, Lucio encourages her to take a more aggressive stance in her plea to Angelo to spare her brother’s life.  Lucio may spend more time in the tavern than in upper levels of society, but he is comfortable and conversant in both.  He speaks the language of both worlds, and his speaking style requires few explanatory footnotes.  He is facile, lively, engaging, and no fool, though he may appear to speak foolishly at times when he is with the Duke.

Lucio provides an essential ingredient in the play by facilitating an important change in the character of the Duke of Vienna, helping him to change from a withdrawn, reclusive, melancholy individual and reluctant leader and member of Viennese society to a fully engaged leader and individual, who, in the fifth act of the play, makes a personal commitment to the State in his dispensation of justice and in his offer of marriage to Isabella.  The change that occurs in the character of the Duke can be seen in a review of their extended interaction in the play.

The Interaction of Lucio and the Duke of Vienna

Immediately following the scene in which the Duke persuades Isabella to participate in his plan to trick Angelo, the Duke encounters Elbow and Pompey, and, shortly afterwards, Lucio.  When the Duke discovers that Elbow has placed Pompey under arrest for arranging clandestine meetings of men and women engaging in fornication, he indignantly declares that Pompey is

A bawd, a wicked bawd!

The evil that thou causest to be done,

That is thy means to live.  Do thou but think

What ‘tis to cram a maw, or clothe a back

From such a filthy vice; say to thyself,

From their abominable and beastly touches

I drink, I eat, array myself, and live.                          (3.1.274-280)

Although this passage reflects the Duke’s attitude towards casual sexual activity, he does not appear to realize that the plan which he has just contrived involving Isabella with the assumed approval of Marianna is much like that of the man he has just dispatched to prison.  The Duke does not comment on this similarity if he in fact recognizes it.

When Lucio enters, he at first ignores the Duke (disguised as a Friar) and instead rebukes Pompey, who asks Lucio to provide bail.  When Elbow says that Pompey is going to prison for being a Bawd, Lucio agrees that is the appropriate punishment, indicating that Lucio has some sense of moral balance.  Eventually the other characters depart, and Lucio and the Duke remain onstage.  Lucio asks the Friar if he has heard any news about the Duke.  The Duke says that he has not.  At that point Lucio offers the first of an extended discussion of the nature and actions of the Duke:

It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state, and usurp the beggary he was never born to.  Lord Angelo Dukes it well in his absence; he puts transgression to’t.  (3.1.340-342)

When the Duke replies that Angelo indeed “does well in’t,” that is, in punishing those accused of inappropriate sexual activity, Lucio observes that “a little more lenity to lechery would do no harm in him; something crabbed that way, Friar.”  The Duke responds, apparently sincerely, that lechery is “too general a vice, and severity must cure it.”  This comment reflects both the (disguised) Duke’s sense of the responsibilities of authority and his personal distaste for sexual activity.  Lucio counters by saying that until eating and drinking are “put down” (3.1.343-349), this kind of sexual activity will continue: “What a ruthless thing is this in him [Angelo], for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!”  Lucio’s comment is exactly appropriate.

At this point Lucio begins his direct assessment of the Duke:

Would the Duke that is absent have done this?  Ere he had hanged a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand.  He had some feeling of the sport, he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.  (3.1.358-363)

Although Lucio’s claim seems unlikely, in fact the Duke will eventually—in the final act—show some mercy, even to Angelo, to whom most viewers would deny mercy.  And if the Duke thus far in the play has not demonstrated that he has “some feeling for the sport,” or “knows the service,” yet at play’s end he will offer his hand to Isabella, an offer that she appears to accept.

The Duke makes a significant response to Lucio’s statement: “I never heard the absent Duke much detected for women; he was not inclined that way” (3.1.364-365)  This comment marks the second time the Duke has denied any interest in, or even need for, women.  Lucio disagrees, saying that the Duke was interested in women and in drink, too: “the Duke had crotchets in him,” he says, and “he would be drunk too” (3.1.369-370).

When the Duke disagrees, Lucio says “Sir, I was an inward of his.  A shy fellow was the Duke, and I believe I know the cause of his withdrawing” (3.1.372-373).  “Withdrawing” has many meanings: among other meanings, it refers to the fact that the Duke left Vienna on short notice and in a secret fashion.  It also indicates that the Duke has a “withdrawing” character, that he is someone who wants to avoid interaction with others.  There is also a sexual connotation, which at this point seems inappropriate but which is in fact appropriate.

The Duke asks Lucio to describe the cause of the Duke’s “withdrawing,” but Lucio says that it is a secret, “lock’d within the teeth and lips” (3.1.375-376).  We never learn the secret that Lucio holds, but events in the play suggest that Lucio’s secret is the sense that the Duke, like all men, is capable of passion and sexual activity.  However, Lucio has not concluded his assessment of the Duke: “Although the greater file of the subject held the Duke to be wise,” he says, the Duke is, in fact, “a very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow” (3.1.377-379).  It may be difficult for us to imagine that Lucio might be correct in this assessment, because the Duke, as much as we know of him, hardly appears to be superficial (unless Lucio means that the Duke is not acting true to his own character), or ignorant (unless Lucio means that the Duke is ignorant of his own true nature), or unweighing (unless Lucio means that the Duke is not capable of making accurate judgments about himself).

Understandably, the Duke strongly protests the (to him) totally erroneous picture that Lucio has painted: “Either this is envy in you, folly, or mistaking” he tells Lucio, insisting that “the very stream of his life and the business he hath helmed must, upon a warranted need, give him a better proclamation.  Let him be but testimonied in his own bringings-forth, and he shall appear to the envious a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier” (3.1.380-384).  Although the Duke might believe he is an exemplary model of those three roles, we have little evidence of his right to any of those three roles in his actions or statements in the play.

Before they part company, Lucio brings up the topic that is on everyone’s mind: does the Friar believe that Claudio will really be put to death?  Suggesting that the Duke’s deputy, Angelo, possesses an unnatural outlook, that he would prevent sparrows from building in the eaves of his house “because they are lecherous,” Lucio states that the Duke would deal with the situation differently: “The Duke yet would have dark deeds darkly answered; he would never bring them to light.  Would he were returned!” (3.1.408-410).  According to Lucio’s assessment, the Duke, if he were to pass judgement on the case, would provide a penalty (if one were required) that did not require severe punishment or public humiliation.  This statement reminds us that not only has Angelo condemned Claudio to death, he has also put Claudio on display, causing him to be led publicly through the city to prison.

As he parts company with the disguised Duke, Lucio offers one last comment on the Duke’s character:

The Duke, I say to thee again, would eat mutton on Fridays.  He’s not past it, yet, and I say to thee, he would mouth with a beggar, though she smelt brown bread and garlic.  Say that I said so.  Farewell.  (3.1.412-415)

There is no malice in Lucio’s final comment; he says that the Duke would eat meat instead of fish on Fridays, violating standard religious practice, and he would kiss a street girl with bad breath.  Lucio says that the Duke “is not past it, yet,” meaning that the Duke is not too old to engage in a sexual relationship.  In Lucio’s view, the Duke is human, like the other citizens of Vienna.

After Lucio departs, the Duke briefly complains that no individual in elevated status can escape censure or calumny, as evidenced by the remarks he has just heard from Lucio, but coming from a disguised Duke who has just agreed to arrange a “bed trick,” the comments seem hollow and empty of conviction.

Then follows a brief scene in which Escalus, the Provost, and Mistress Overdone appear, the chief purpose of which is to provide the disguised Duke with information that Lucio has fathered a child with Kate Keepdown, the child now over a year old, information that the Duke will use to enforce a marriage between Kate and Lucio in the final act.  After the Provost escorts Mistress Overdone offstage, the Duke talks briefly with Escalus who, like Lucio, does not recognize the disguised Duke.  They exchange pleasantries and comments about the state of the world, and the Duke expresses the friar-like idea that “there is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it” (3.1.348-349).

And then, at the end of his short discourse on the decayed nature of the world as it exists in Vienna, as they are about to depart, the Duke suddenly asks Escalus a most unusual and unexpected question:  “I pray you sir, of what disposition was the Duke?”  The brief, politic answer that Escalus gives must certainly be accurate: “One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself.”  According to Escalus’ comment, the Duke was a conflicted man, who struggled with several personal internal conflicts, none of which is described.  Why should the Duke ask such a question at this moment?  And why should he use past tense: was the Duke, not is the Duke?  However, the Duke has one more question for Escalus: “What pleasure was he given to?”  This question is even more surprising than the first, because we have had no indication that the Duke was given to any kind of pleasure, rather preferring to live in a world of isolated meditation.  To this question Escalus gives a slightly more detailed response: “Rather rejoicing to see another merry than merry at anything which professed to make him rejoice: a gentleman of all temperance” (3.1.455-461).

Escalus is consistently presented in the play as an individual with a realistic understanding of the people and events of the world of Vienna, and his response must be accurate.  He suggests partly that the Duke was less interested in bodily pleasures than other people, but it suggests also that he was a man whose pleasure came in ensuring other people’s happiness.  Certainly, the Duke appears to be ensuring Mariana’s happiness at this point in the play.  However, sacrificing his own happiness in his efforts to ensure the happiness of others could result in detrimental effects for himself.

More important than the useful insights provided by Escalus’ brief comments into the character of the Duke, however, is the fact that this exchange occurs at all.  What could have caused the Duke to want to seek an objective opinion on his character, especially at this moment in the play?  To this point we have been assuming that the Duke’s excursion through the underworld of Vienna has been to discover the intentions and motivations of other key characters in the play.  But now he appears to be questioning his own motivations and values.

There are only two possible reasons for this sudden interest in personal self-examination: his vision of Isabella and his encounter with Lucio.  These two events, which have occurred almost simultaneously, have significantly unsettled his outlook on life.  Even Escalus recognizes the strangely inappropriate nature of these questions, for he immediately says, “But leave we him [the Duke] to his events,” (3.1.461) as he turns the discussion to Claudio’s status.

Lucio’s blunt and detailed assessment of his character has helped to disturb the equilibrium of the Duke.  There really is no other reason why the Duke should solicit an objective opinion on his character, especially from such a reliable source as Escalus, at this point in the play.  Lucio’s comments (and his encounter with Isabella) have evidently caused him to reflect on the possibility of a larger capacity for life than he has previously allowed.  Perhaps his “complete bosom” is incomplete.  The combination of his appreciation of Isabella’s character and Lucio’s penchant comments has caused the Duke to experience a crisis of character and to undergo a personal re-examination.

One final interaction between Lucio and the Duke remains: Lucio’s literal “uncovering” of the true Duke.  The evidence of the change in the Duke’s character is provided in the fifth act, most obviously in his masterful manipulation of the key characters as they parade past him and move towards the resolution of their issues, in which he brings concord out of discord.

The Resolution of the Play’s Issues in the Final Act

Act V of Measure for Measure is exceptional among Shakespeare’s plays for many reasons: it is the longest final act in any play; it is one continuous scene, one continuous sequence of connected actions; it involves more characters with speaking parts than any other final act.  It presents a series of “uncoverings,” in which the concealments or disguises of the main characters in the play are removed so that their true identities are revealed to others.  These “uncoverings” are symbolic as well as literal, in that the qualities associated with these characters are directly linked to and modified by the qualities of the characters who do the “uncovering.”

These are the concealed characters and the characters who do the “uncovering” in the order in which they occur in the final act:  Isabella is uncovered (figuratively) by the Duke; Mariana uncovers herself at the direction of Angelo; Claudio is uncovered by the Provost; and the Duke is uncovered by Lucio.  Even the recalcitrant prisoner Barnardine, who is present but does not speak, is “uncovered.”  In addition, each of the uncovered characters is tested or challenged and changes or is changed in some way as a result of the uncovering process.

Whereas the Duke departed silently and stealthily in Act I, claiming he did not like to “stage” himself for the approval of the citizens, he returns with bravado and splendor in Act V, making a regal public entry.  His apparent purpose in doing so, he tells Angelo, is to “yield you forth to public thanks” for the service he has rendered in the Duke’s absence:

O, your desert speaks loud and I should wrong it

To lock it in the wards of covert bosom

When it deserves, with characters of brass

A forted residence ‘gainst the tooth of time

And razure of oblivion.                                               (5.1.9-13)

No sooner does the Duke make this statement than Isabella, escorted by Friar Peter, enters and accuses Angelo of dealing falsely with her.  Angelo is, she says, “In all his dressings, caracts, titles, forms, . . . an arch-villain” (5.1.56-57).  She tells all present that Angelo

would not, but by gift of my chaste body,

To his concupiscible intemperate lust,

Release my brother; and after much debatement,

My sisterly remorse confutes mine honour,

And I did yield to him.  But the next morn betimes,

His purpose surfeiting, he sends a warrant

For my poor brother’s head.                                       (5.1.97-103)

The Duke appears to disbelieve Isabella’s claim, saying that it is not reasonable

That with such vehemency [Angelo] should pursue

Faults proper to himself.  If he had so offended,

He would have weighed thy brother by himself

And not have cut him off.                                           (5.1.109-112)

The Duke knows that Isabella’s claim is true, and his comments are clearly designed to emphasize the appalling hypocrisy of Angelo’s actions.  The Duke, continuing his artifice, insists that someone must have told Isabella to present such obviously false claims.  He instructs the guards to take Isabella away and asks if anyone knows who counseled her to make such an outrageous claim.  Friar Peter says that one Friar Lodowick had counseled her, and Lucio, unable to restrain himself, tells the Duke that that “meddling Friar” had said such unkind remarks about the Duke, that he had almost “swinged him soundly.”  Lucio describes the friar as “a saucy friar,” “a very scurvy fellow” (5.1.127, 136).  We know, having witnessed their meeting, that the disguised Duke displayed none of these characteristics, but Lucio maintains his invective, as if the very thought of the Duke in disguise has incensed him.

Friar Peter announces that he will produce a woman who will refute the claim of Isabella (who has now been taken away) that she has spent the night with Angelo.  At the Duke’s request, he brings Marianna, her face hidden by a veil, onstage.  Because these proceedings have gone on for some time and are likely to continue, the Duke orders that seats be provided and directs Angelo to serve as judge in the case.

When the Duke asks Mariana to remove her veil, she responds that she will not show her face “until my Husband bid me” (5.1.168).  Mariana claims that Isabella cannot have been telling the truth about her sexual activity with Angelo because during the night in question “I had him in mine arms with all the effect of love” (5.1.193-194).  When Angelo understandably expresses surprise, Mariana says that Angelo

Thinks he knows that he ne’er knew my body,

But knows, he thinks, that he knows Isabel’s.            (5.1.198-199)

Appalled (and probably confused) at this accusation, Angelo demands: “let’s see thy face.”  At his request, she unveils.  When the Duke asks Angelo if it is true that Mariana is his wife, Angelo attempts to deny the fact:

I must confess I know this woman;

And five years since there was some speech of marriage

Betwixt myself and her, which was broke off,

Partly for that her promised proportions

Came short of composition, but in chief

For that her reputation was disvalued

In levity. . . .                                                                (5.1.213-219)

When Mariana insists that her story is true, Angelo loses his patience and asks the Duke to “Let me have my way, my Lord, to find this practice out” (5.1.236-237).  The Duke readily agrees and takes the opportunity to depart.  Before he exits, he orders that the friar that “set [the women] on” should be sent for.

In the brief period in which the Duke is absent from the stage, Escalus asks Lucio if he knew “that Friar Lodowick to be a dishonest person,” and Lucio replies, in Latin, with the significant statement that “the cowl does not make the monk,” a phrase rich with meaning in this play (5.1.259).

When the Duke, again in disguise as Friar Lodowick, the Provost, and Isabella reappear a few moments later, the final sequence of uncoverings and revealings begins.  The disguised Duke addresses the assembled gathering and expresses the view that their search for justice will be unsuccessful if Angelo is to be the judge.  Escalus expresses outrage at the disguised Duke’s comments and says that he will be taken to “the rack.”  But the Duke says that the Duke will “dare no more to stretch this finger of mine than he would dare rack his own” finger.  The disguised Duke says that he is not the Duke’s subject, but his

business in this state

Made me a looker-on here in Vienna,

Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble

Till it o’errun the stew; laws for all faults,

But faults so countenanced that the strong statutes

Stand like the forfeits in a barber’s shop,

As much in mock as mark.                                         (5.1.310-316)

Escalus is further outraged by these remarks, calling them “slander to the state.”  Angelo asks Lucio if this man is the friar who made harsh comments about the Duke.  Lucio affirms that this is the same Friar and approaches him closely.  In this episode, Lucio confronts the disguised Duke, accusing him of saying that the Duke was “a fleshmonger, a fool, and a coward.”  The Duke responds that Lucio “must change persons with me ere you make that my report” (5.1.328-332).  The important element in this comment is less the idea that Lucio may be a “fleshmonger, fool, and coward,” which in many ways he is, and more the idea of the Duke and Lucio might be capable of “changing persons.”

The accusations that Friar Lodowick makes increasingly incense Angelo and Escalus, and they direct Lucio to assist the Provost in removing the disagreeable Friar from the stage.  The comments of Lucio are worth noting as he struggles with the disguised Duke:

Come, sir; come, sir; come sir; foh, sir!  Why you bald-pated, lying rascal, you must be hooded, must you?  Show your knave’s visage, with a pox to you.  Show your sheep-biting face, and be hanged an hour.  Will’t not off?  (5.1.344-347)

Though there are no stage directions in the original version of the play, it is clear that, with much difficulty and physical activity, at this point Lucio pulls off the disguised Duke’s hood (and probably his monk’s robe as well), revealing the Duke in his full regalia.  This moment is certainly comic, but it is as symbolic as it is comic.

Once the Duke is revealed, Lucio and Angelo realize that their deceits have been discovered.  Angelo, to his credit, immediately acknowledges his actions, and requests that the Duke punish him appropriately:

No longer session hold upon my shame,

But let my trial be mine own confession;

Immediate sentence then, and sequent death,

Is all the grace I beg.                                                   (5.1.363-366)

The Duke at first appears to resolve an awkward situation by directing Friar Peter to conduct a ceremony uniting Angelo and Mariana in marriage.  As Friar Peter, the Provost, Mariana, and Angelo step briefly offstage to complete the ceremony, the Duke addresses Isabella publicly for the first time in affectionate terms:

Your friar is now your prince.  As I was then

Advertising and holy to your business,

Not changing heart with habit I am still

Attorneyed at your service.                                         (5.1.374-377)

We can imagine that Isabel is as astounded as she is surprised to find that her hooded friar is her prince.  Isabella may not yet realize the full import of what the Duke is saying, as he immediately refers to the issue that still concerns her, the evident death of her brother as a result of Angelo’s duplicitous actions.  The Duke does not yet disabuse her of this notion, and in fact appears to ignore the possibility that Claudio might be alive when he says, in friar-like fashion,

But, peace be with him!

That life is better life, past fearing death

Than that which lives to fear.                                     (5.1.387-390)

This is the kind of comment with which he counseled Claudio earlier in the play, but here it is clearly spoken for effect.  At this point Friar Peter, the Provost, Angelo, and Mariana reappear, their hasty marriage ceremony concluded.  Without delay, the Duke announces that

The very mercy of the law cries out

Most audible, even from his proper tongue,

“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death.”

Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;

Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.    (5.1.399-403)

The Duke says that Angelo should be put to death for the apparent murder of Claudio: “We do condemn thee to the very block where Claudio stoop’d to death” (5.1.406-407).  Although this comment is probably intended to again remind Angelo of the hypocrisy of his actions concerning Claudio, Mariana is the most upset.  When Mariana expresses her shock at his decree, “I hope you will not mock me with a husband?” the Duke responds with one of the most fitting lines in the play: he will give Mariana all of Angelo’s worldly possessions “to buy you a better husband” (5.1.409; 417).

At this point Mariana kneels before the Duke, begging him to change his decree, but the Duke appears to be adamant as he says to her “you do but lose your labor.  Away with him to death!” (5.1.420-421).  Desperate, Mariana turns to Isabella to enlist her pleas on her behalf.  Although Mariana has known little of Isabella’s persuasive rhetorical abilities, we know that there is no one present more suited to the task of pleading for Angelo’s life or less inclined to do it.  The Duke reinforces the odds against Isabel’s likelihood of intervening on Mariana’s behalf by pointing out that “should she kneel down in mercy of this fact, her brother’s ghost his paved bed would break, and take her hence in horror” (5.1.426-428).  This statement appears to be a harsh test of Isabella’s saintly character; however, a more generous interpretation might regard this statement as the Duke’s intention to reveal the qualities of Isabella’s character to the public.

Mariana says that all she asks is that Isabella kneel beside her and she will “speak all,” adding that

They say best men are molded out of faults;

And, for the most, become much more the better

For being a little bad.  So may my husband.              (5.1.431-433)

As Isabel hesitates, the Duke again reminds her that Angelo “dies for Claudio’s death.”

Then, surprisingly, Isabel not only kneels but defends Angelo’s actions more eloquently and logically than Mariana might have, reminding the Duke that Angelo is technically not guilty of violating Isabel’s chastity because it has just been shown that Angelo spent the night with Mariana, and that although he had guilty intent, the act he contemplated was not in fact committed.

In response, the Duke recalls another of Angelo’s ill-advised actions: the hurried order to behead Claudio, and he appears to chastise the Provost for having executed Claudio without a proper warrant.  The Provost admits that he was at fault, but that he saved another prisoner, Barnardine, whose death Angelo had called for as well as Claudio’s.  The Duke directs that Barnardine be brought to the group.

The Provost returns shortly with Barnardine and another prisoner, actually Claudio, both covered by hoods, and Julietta.  If it is unclear why Shakespeare thought it necessary to include the uncouth Barnardine in the line-up of disguised characters, it should be evident when the Duke speaks on behalf of Barnardine, who never says a line in this scene, that

thou art said to have a stubborn soul

That apprehends no further than this world,

And squar’st thy life according.  Thou’rt condemned;

But, for those earthly faults, I quit them all,

And pray thee take this mercy to provide

For better times to come.                                            (5.1.474-479)

Finally, the Duke turns to the figure who has arrived with the others and asks, “what muffled fellow’s that?”

The Provost pulls back Claudio’s hood, and all can see that Claudio is alive, and that Angelo, in spite of his unlawful intentions, has committed no crimes after all.  To Isabella the Duke says that her brother is pardoned (for the “crime” of impregnating Julietta) and promptly proposes marriage:

And for your lovely sake

Give me your hand, and say you will be mine.

He is my brother too.  But fitter time for that.            (5.1.485-488)

Before Isabel can reply, the Duke turns to Angelo: “Look that you love your wife; her worth worth yours.”  Then he promptly turns to Lucio, who is one he “cannot pardon.”  Lucio has committed no crime comparable to those that Angelo planned, but he has slandered the Duke and fathered a child by Kate Keepdown.  The Duke forgives Lucio’s slanders but insists that Lucio marry the girl, in spite of Lucio’s complaint that “Marrying a punk, my Lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (5.1.515-516).

In the final moments of the play the Duke dispenses advice to all concerned.  He instructs Claudio to “restore” their rightful relationship with Juliet; he wishes joy to Mariana and advises Angelo to love her; he extends his thanks to Escalus for his faithful service and promises additional rewards; the Provost, who has assisted the Duke throughout the play, will hold a “worthier place.”

Finally, he returns his attention to Isabel:

Dear Isabel,

I have a motion which much imports your good,

Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,

What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.      (5.1.527-530)

His request that she “a willing ear incline” is a modification of his earlier request to her when, at their first meeting, he said

Might you dispense with your leisure, I would by and by have some speech with

you: the satisfaction I would require is likewise your own benefit.  (3.1.157-159)

This parallel phrasing suggests that Isabel will agree to the Duke’s last request with as much personal benefit as she received from his first request.

Although the play has a happy ending befitting a Shakespearean comedy, with four marriages and no undeserved deaths, it does not have the same feel-good ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This play is at least ten years later than MND, and the emphasis has shifted from the earlier playful and insincere expressions of ideal love to the social impact of sexual activity in society.  As a result of the sexual desires reflected in the play, the main characters have revised their outlooks on life, largely as a result of actions and decisions relating to the sexual act.  Claudio and Julietta are reunited.  Angelo has been publicly chastened and then restored to society as a result of his marriage to Mariana, and Lucio has been ordered to recognize his parental and social responsibilities by marrying Kate Keepdown.

In the surprising turns of events in the last act, we are likely to overlook the fact that the Duke has also changed.  He is no longer the reclusive leader of the opening act but has become a determined and even ebullient prince at the end of the play.  The key to his change is, in addition to his meeting with Isabella, his interaction with Lucio, the clever, alert, and robust pleasure-seeker.  In his final act of helping the Duke recover his true nature, he pulls off the friar’s habit, of which we assume the Duke will have no further need.  As a result of their interaction, the Duke has been reminded of the more earthy aspect of his nature.

Isabella has also changed.  Initially eager, even desperate, to enter a nunnery, as the play ends she is willingly about to accept the Duke’s proposal.  Her change is evidently linked to the Duke’s testing of her in the final act, when she not only challenged the authority of Angelo at the beginning of the act but joined Mariana in requesting that the Duke spare Angelo’s life.  If she had maintained the outlook she held as the play opened, she would not have been capable of pleading on Mariana’s behalf, nor would she have seriously considered the Duke’s proposal of marriage.  She is indeed a remarkable woman, one whose concept of mercy is capable of overlooking the unkind and unfeeling actions of others.

Why should the Duke have tested Isabel so severely?  Certainly it was not to test the quality of her rhetorical abilities or strength of character.  If anything, it may have been to display those qualities to the public.  In her plea on behalf of Mariana, she demonstrates her capacity to accept human imperfections.  If she is like Mariana, who can accept a deeply flawed Angelo as a husband, she can accept a man like the Duke, who must share some of Angelo’s frail human (and more specifically, male) weaknesses.

In this play, the extreme personal outlooks of the central characters—as represented in their beliefs and attitudes about sexual relationships—are modified by time and trial until they demonstrate more moderate and more accepting attitudes towards the members of the society of which they are a part and extreme attitudes are modified by personal experience and public correction.  Marriage moderates both the sexual excesses of Lucio and Claudio and the sexual inhibitions of Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke of Vienna.

Works Cited 

Andrews, John F., editor.  William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure.  Everyman, 1994.

Coghill, Nevill.  “Comic Form in Measure for Measure.”  Cambridge: Shakespeare Survey, 1955.

Cox, John D.  Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power.  Princeton University Press, 1989.

Fergusson, Francis.  The Human Image in Dramatic Literature: Essays.  Anchor Books, 1957.

Fiedler, Leslie.  The Stranger in Shakespeare: Studies in the Archetypal Underworld of the Plays.  Barnes & Noble, 2006.

Garber, Marjorie.  Shakespeare After All.  Anchor Books, 2005.

Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., editors.  The Norton Shakespeare: The Comedies (2nd ed.).  Norton, 2008.  Quoted passages are from this edition of the play.

Knight, G. Wilson.  Wheel of Fire.  Routledge/Barnes and Noble, 1965.

Maus, Katharine Eisaman.  Introduction to Measure for MeasureThe Norton Shakespeare: Comedies (2nd ed.), 2008.

Pettet, E. C.  Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition.  Haskell House, 1976.

Wilson, J. Dover, editor.  William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure.  Cambridge University Press, 1969.


[1] My source for line references is Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., editors.  The Norton Shakespeare: The Comedies (2nd ed.).  Norton, 2008.