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William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is a pretty dark play, not especially enjoyable to me, but well constructed, language was not exceptional.

Per Bevington: Sources include an actual incident in 16C Italian court of Don Ferdinando de Gonzaga. This inspired the Senecan drama of Claude Rouillet called "Philanira", which was translated into French (1563) and also inspired a novella in the Hecatommithi of G. B. Giraldi Cinthio (1565) and his play "Epitia" 1583. WS's actual source was prob. George Whetstone's "Promos and Cassandra" (1578) and a novella of the same subject.

This is one of the two "problem" plays or comedies along with All's Well That End's Well, for which it has many resemblances. Principal concern is with moral and social problems, filthy vices arising from sexual desire and the abuses of judicial authority. Images of disease abound. Much corruption in Vienna. The ending seems arbitrary, the two marriages foisted on the bridegrooms are against their wills. The sense of tragedy narrowly averted. Deals with the paradox: How are fallible humans to judge the sins of their fellow mortals and still be Christian. Contrasts 3 approaches to justice: Angelo as spokesman for absolute justice, Isabella for mercy, and Escalus for a compassionate and pragmatic approach. Duke is manipulative and testing, though he already knows Angelo has failed to treat his former fiancée honorably. Isabella in her excess emphasis on her virtue is too strident and must also be humbled before she can rise...

Act I

Act I Scene 1

Vienna, the court of Duke Vincentio. Escalus, an "ancient" and respected lord, speaks with the Duke. Duke hands Escalus a commission (subordinate to Angelo's) and calls for Angelo. A. has been elected to serve as the deputy governor in the absence of the Duke (he is ostensibly going to Poland), and is instructed to "Mortality and mercy in Vienna / live in thy tongue and heart." Duke seems to be tired of being in the public eye and is seeking some privacy: "I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes: /Through it do well, I do not relish well / Their loud applause and Aves vehement."

Act I Scene 2

Street. Lucio (a "fantastic", i.e. a talkative loudmouth and liar) converses with 2 gentlemen about the Duke's ostensible mission: to speak with other Dukes in opposition to the King of Hungary. Lucio alludes to the controversy on salvation through acts vs. grace alone.

Mistress Overdone enters—she is a "bawd", a prostitute and perhaps also a madam. Lucio implies she is riddled with V.D. She comments on Claudio, who has been arrested for fornication after getting the unmarried Julietta pregnant and under the harsh terms of a new proclamation from Angelo. Moreover, Overdone laments that the suburban brothels are to be torn down, incl. presumably her own. Her servant and tapster, Pompey (also called "Clown"), arrives. 

The Provost brings Claudio by before taking him to prison—he has been ordered to display the offender thus to the public. Claudio has been arrested, even though he has a "true contract" to marry Julietta (this did not confer premarital privileges in the eyes of the church). They had wanted to hide their sexual relations while awaiting the raising of a dowry from her relatives. Claudio feels that A. is trying out his new powers from the Duke to win himself a name. For the 19 year reign of the Duke, enforcement of laws such as for fornication has been lax.

Claudio asks Lucio to send for his sister Isabella, so she can try to dissuade A. from the execution.

Act I Scene 3

A friary. The Duke speaks to Friar Thomas of his desire to live a life removed, and rejects the thought that he should seek to find a wife. He comments how the strict laws of the realm have been laxly enforced under his rule the past 14 [19?] years and that "liberty plucks justice by the nose, / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum." In the past, he feared being dreadful and was too lenient, and worries that for him now to try to enforce the laws would seem like tyranny. He wishes to be outfitted with the habit of a friar to go among his people [as Friar Lodowick]. He wants to see what the effects of Angelo's strict law enforcement will be and also what effect the newly acquired power will have on the puritanical Angelo: "Lord Angelo is precise, / Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses / That his blood flows, or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see, / If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

Act I Scene 4

A convent. Isabella is preparing to take her formal vows and enter the convent. Lucio arrives to speak with I. Lucio hails her virginity and tells her of her brother's plight, though she believes he mocks and blasphemes the good in her. She suggests Claudio simply marry the girl. Lucio describes the cold-blooded Angelo, that he is to executed, and how she needs to soften his resolve with weeping and pleading. She will try to do so.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Court of justice. Escalus frets with Angelo at the severe sentence on Claudio—he had a noble father. E. asks A. if A. has not at some time in his own life committed a similar crime. A. says it cannot be avoided that the jury convicting a thief may have a thief or two in it [does he imply he has indeed been guilty of fornication in he past?], but is adamant and asks that he be held to the same high standard in his own future behavior.

A. tells Provost that C. is to executed at 9 AM next morning and to find a confessor for him.

Elbow ("a simple constable" [like Dogberry]) enters bringing Froth ("a foolish gentlean") and Pompey. Using fractured English and malapropisms, he tells that he has brought in Pompey, who has been a part time bawd [pimp?] serving Overdone in her new "bathhouse". Pompey treated Elbow's wife contemptuously when she was seeking stewed prunes... Angelo becomes impatient at the convoluted tale and leaves Escalus with the men. Elbow accuses Froth and Pompey of improprieties but his misunderstandings of English continue [these appear to have contributed to his taking offense]... Escalus decides to ask Froth abandon the trade of tapster—he appears to consent and is excused. 

Pompey confesses to Escalus that he is partly a bawd, and they discuss this as an occupation. E. says it is illegal, but P. responds "Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city? . . . Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to 't then." He argues that if everyone who commits fornication is executed the populace will be decimated and he will be able to afford a fine house. Escalus dismisses him with a warning, but Pompey to himself says "Whip me? No, no, let carman whip his jade. / The valiant heart is not whipped out of his trade."

Escalus speaks with Elbow and arranges to give him some relief from his years in service by finding more who are willing to serve in the role.

Act II Scene 2

Near the court of justice. Provost is bothered with the harsh sentence and expresses this to Angelo. He worries what is to be done with Juliet, and A. asks him to "dispose of her to some more fitter place . . . let her have needful but not lavish means."

Isabella and Lucio enter and she begins to plead, with Lucio always coaching her in what to say and do. He tells her she is too composed and cool, and must kneel down etc. She praises mercy in the powerful, and says her brother would not have been so stern in his judgement. She wishes she had his power. She speaks of God's forgiveness for sinners, and that Claudio is not prepared for death. She asks who else has died for such an offense. She accuses A. of tyrannical abuse of power: "O, it is excellent / To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant" and "But man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what he's most assured, / His glassy essence, like an angry ape / Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven / As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens, / Would all themselves laugh mortal." She implies men in authority skin over their own vices. 

Angelo begins to succumb to her appeal and to temptation, and asks her to return tomorrow. Left alone, he ponders how his lust has been awakened by the virtuous Isabella.

Act II Scene 3

Prison. Duke comes to Provost dressed as Friar Lodowick. Juliet arrives, and Lodowick/Duke asks her to repent her sins and advises that he will assess her penitence. She says the fornication was mutually committed and is repentant. He tells her Claudio is to die the next day.

Act II Scene 4

Angelo's official residence. He is obsesses with Isabel [Isabella]. Isabella appears with his servant. She asks his pleasure is. He speaks obliquely of his sexual interest in her, which she initially fails to understand, but he insists she must lay down the treasures of her body. She refuses, and they debate which is worse, her brother's execution or her violation and ostensible eternal damnation. He argues that she herself had tried to make light of the crime of fornication. He tells her he loves her, and that he will spare her brother's life in return. She thinks he is trying to entrap her, says she will reveal his deed. He argues no one will believe her. She says she will discuss this with her brother, and that he would never want her to be so violated on his behalf.


Act III Scene 1

Prison. Lodowick/Duke enters with Claudio and Provost. Lodowick/Duke counsels calm resignation, philosophical approach to death, etc., and Claudio is resigned to it. Isabella arrives, and Lodowick/Duke conceals himself to overhear her and Claudio. She tells him of the proposal for her to yield her virginity. Claudio is amazed that his judge [Angelo] proposes the same sin for which he is convicted. He fears death and says "The weariest and most loathed worldly life / That age, ache, penury and imprisonment / Can lay on nature is a paradise / To what we fear of death." He asks her to let him live. She calls him a coward and says he should die quickly.

Lodowick/Duke comes forward and speaks privately to Claudio. He says Angelo is merely testing her resolve and virtue and does not have evil designs on her [he is being manipulative here]. He again tells Claudio to prepare to die.

To Isabella, Lodowick/Duke divulges his plan. Angelo was affianced by oath to marry Mariana, but he coldly abandoned her when the ship carrying her brother and dowry sunk: "Left her in her tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort; swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor: in few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them, but relents not." He says Isabella can heal this rupture, since Mariana still loves A. He asks her to seemingly consent to Angelo's demand, but he will arrange Mariana to appear in the dark in her place. She consents and he makes for Mariana's.

Act III Scene 2

Same. Elbow enters with more humor. He has arrested Pompey for a picklock... [has to do with a chastity belt] and calls him a whoremonger. Lodowick/Duke chastises Pompey him for his vice and corruption.

Lucio enters and asks Pompey about Mistress Overdone. He refuses to make bail for Pompey... They speak of the Duke and his unknown whereabouts. Lucio speaks disparagingly of him, incensing Lodowick/Duke... Lodowick/Duke says Lucio should make his statements to the Duke if he ever returns. They turn to the question of Claudio's execution. Lodowick/Duke left alone ponders "What king so strong / Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?

Mistress Overdone is brought in to jail by Provost etc. as a bawd, accused by Lucio. But she counters that Lucio made Mistress Kate Keepdown [a prostitute] pregnant, promised to marry her, but did not, and that she herself has raised the 1 year old son. Escalus commands that Lucio to be arrested.

Escalus and Lodowick/Duke converse. Escalus, unlike Lucio, praises the Duke as well as the "friar". To himself, the Duke reflects "He who the sword of heaven will bear / Should be as holy as severe."

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

The moated grange of St. Luke's. Mariana listens to a boy sing, then dismisses him when Lodowick/Duke (still in disguise) approaches. She wishes he had not found her appearing to enjoy herself. Isabella arrives, and (with Mariana absent) tells Lodowick/Duke of Angelo's request that she meet him in his garden—he has given her a key to meet her in the middle of the night.

Lodowick/Duke has Isabella explain the proposal to Mariana, and she readily consents. Lodowick/Duke says she has nothing to fear, since "he is your husband on a precontract" (i.e., a legally binding agreement). 

Act IV Scene 2

Prison. Provost enlists Pompey into a new profession, to serve as assistant to the executioner Abhorson when Claudio and a murderer Barnardine are to be executed. Abhorson enters, and refers to his occupation (of hanging): "It is a mystery".

Duke arrives, and speaks praisingly of Angelo. Duke inquires if a countermand has been received, but none has come. 

A messenger arrives with the message to Provost to proceed to execute Claudio at 4 [presumably AM, i.e., rather than 9 AM] and to send the head to Angelo by 5 AM. Lodowick/Duke wonders that the Duke had not had the man executed before, during his nine years of imprisonment. Lodowick/Duke tells the Provost to delay the execution for 4 days, then wants to have the head of Barnardine substituted. Provost knows that would be against his oath. Lodowick/Duke shows him the seal of the Duke, saying Duke will return within 2 days, though Angelo has been led to understand rumors that the Duke is dead. Provost appears to consent.

Act IV Scene 3

Same. Pompey clowns, then Abhorson tries to rouse the drunk Barnardine for execution. Lodowick/Duke comes in, and sees Barnardine is unprepared for death because of his drunken state, and that therefore it would be damnable to execute him now.

Provost returns and tells him of Ragozine, who died during the night of a fever and whose head more closely resembles that of Claudio. Lodowick/Duke asks for Claudio and Barnardine to be hidden and to send Ragozine's head to Angelo instead. He then writes letters to his friend Varrius. In them, he asks that the Duke be met by him outside the city at the fount and [apparently] by Angelo closer to the city gate for a public entry into the city. Provost leaves with the head. 

Isabella arrives and Lodowick/Duke resolves to keep her ignorant. He tells her that Angelo has beheaded Claudio after all. She is distraught, but he says that she should give her cause to heaven. He assures her that she will have honor and revenge [?]. He gives her a letter to Friar Peter, asking that Peter and Isabella join at Mariana's house that night. He wants Isabella to appear before Duke and Angelo and accuse him thoroughly, though Friar Lodowick will be absent.

Lucio enters and comforts Isabella, saying the Duke "of dark corners" would not have allowed the execution. Lucio claims more knowledge of the Duke than warranted, and Lodowick/Duke says he does not find the real Duke in what Lucio says. Lucio relates that he was once brought before the Duke for getting a woman pregnant. He says he did not confess to this then, or else he would have had to marry the "rotten medlar" [i.e., the prostitute Keepdown]—he confesses to Lodowick/Duke his guilt.

Act IV Scene 4

Vienna. Escalus and Angelo read contradictory letters from Duke. He wants an announcement read asking for any craving redress present their claims outside of town...

Left alone, Angelo is remorseful for his wicked deed presumably against Isabella, and worries that she might accuse him. He had had Claudio killed because he feared he would otherwise seek vengeance.

Act IV Scene 5

Outside the city. Duke (undisguised) gives Friar Peter letters to distribute to Flavius and other men. Varrius arrives and Duke says others will join them as they walk.

Act IV Scene 6

Nearer the city gate. Isabella tells Mariana she [?] must accuse Angelo, as Duke instructed her, and that Duke has warned her not to worry if he speaks out against her.

Friar Peter arrives and prepares the women to confront the Duke and Angelo.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

The city gate. Duke is greeted by Escalus and Angelo (and others). Duke is effusive to them both and speaks of Angelo's deserving with great praise.

Friar Peter has Isabella kneel before the men. She says Angelo has been a virgin-violator in exchange for promising to let her brother live. Duke dismisses the claims, suggesting she is mad. Duke chastises Lucio for butting in with part of her tale. Duke pretends that Angelo could not possibly do something so base while executing her brother for the same act. Duke commands she be sent to prison. She claims Friar Lodowick knew of her intent to appear here. Lucio calls Lodowick a meddling friar, and accuses him of speaking against the Duke. Duke calls for Friar Lodowick to be found. Lucio continues to speak against Lodowick. Friar Peter speaks out against Isabella and defends Lodowick against Lucio's slander. He says Lodowick is currently sick with a fever. Peter says he will get another woman who will disprove Isabella's claim. Duke still seems quite warm and favorable to Angelo. 

Mariana enters veiled, and will not show her face "until my husband bids me". She speaks in riddles and paradoxes, that her husband is not guilty of fornication since he held her in his arms, etc. When Angelo asks her, she unveils and reveals that it was her body who took away the match with Isabella.

Angelo confesses to his engagement broken 5 years earlier, partly because of the lost dowry and ostensibly also because she had a reputation disvalued in levity. She says he knew her as a wife in the garden. Angelo begins to sense that he is the victim of "instruments of some more mightier member", and asks the Duke for the right to pursue the investigation. Duke tells him to punish Friar Peter and Mariana for their false claims. Duke leaves and Escalus takes his place.

Escalus interrogates Lucio about Friar Lodowick, and he again makes claims how the Lodowick spoke against the Duke. He also calls Isabella.

Duke reenters disguised as Lodowick, with Provost and Isabella. Escalus asks Lodowick if he set the women up to slander Angelo, which he denies. Lodowick asks that the Duke be present, and says the Duke unjustly has put the trial in the villain's [Angelo's?] mouth, speaking forcefully and critically. Escalus chastises him for speaking out against the Duke and Angelo, and sends him to the rack. But Duke says he is not a subject of the Duke, that he has been a looker-on of the corruption in Vienna, etc. Escalus finds these slander to the state.

Angelo asks Lucio about Lodowick—Lucio rebukes Lodowick for his alleged anti-Duke statements he made in prison. Lodowick protests he loves the Duke. They try to lead him to jail, but he resists, his hood comes off, and they all see he is the Duke himself.

Duke has Provost release Friar Peter and the women. He pardons Escalus' remarks, then addresses Angelo. Angelo kneels and confesses, acknowledging he should be executed. Duke tells Mariana to have the Friar Peter marry her and Angelo immediately—they leave with the Provost. Escalus is amazed at Angelo's dishonor. Isabella apologizes for unknowingly employing the services of the Duke as Lodowick. Duke still talks as if Claudio is dead.

The newlyweds return. Duke asks Isabella to forgive, for Mariana's sake, the acts of Angelo. Nevertheless, because he had Claudio killed, Duke proclaims that "'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!' / Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure. / Then, Angelo, thy fault's thus manifested, / Which, though thou wouldst deny, denies thee vantage. / We do condemn thee to the very block / Where Claudio stooped to death, and with like haste." Mariana pleads for Angelo's life, but Duke is determined and says she will be provided for as a widow out of Angelo's estate, in order to find a better husband. Mariana still pleads, then begs Isabella to take up the plea to spare Angelo's life. Isabella is moved and kneels, suggesting Angelo was at least partly sincerely motivated in the execution, until he saw her. She also asks he be spared, since "his act did not o'ertake his bad intent" [i.e. in the garden].

Duke wants to know why Claudio was beheaded at an unusual hour [4 AM], and Provost says it was because of the message he received. He tells of the plan to substitute Barnardine. Escalus chastises Angelo, who only wants to die.

Provost brings in Barnardine and Claudio (muffled). Duke pardons Barnardine.

Duke unmuffles Claudio and pardons him. He then asks Isabella to give her hand to him [i.e., marry him]. He has pardoned Angelo and advises him to love his wife.

But he cannot pardon Lucio, who defends his fantastic tales as simply according to the custom. Duke proclaims that Lucio must marry the woman he begot a child with [Keepdown]. Lucio begs to not be married to a whore. Duke forgives his slanders, and orders him to prison [where he will apparently marry?]. 

He tells Claudio to marry Julietta, wishes joy to Mariana, tells Angelo to love his wife, thanks Escalus and Provost, and again invites Isabella to marry him and mutually share what they own.