Department of English

Measure for Measure Synopsis

A dark comedy or problem play, Measure for Measure reeks of the human condition: lies, deception, sexual profligacy, and rank hypocrisy.  It begins with Duke Vincentio’s determining that Vienna has become so licentious that it must be reined in, but that his attempting to do so would be too harsh after his lax rule.  Declaring that he must leave on a journey, he puts the untested Lord Angelo in charge, but he remains in Vienna disguised as a friar.  Setting about to enforce the city’s laws against immorality, Angelo arrests Claudio and sentences him to death for impregnating his fiancée, Juliet.  Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to enter a nunnery, goes to Angelo to beg for mercy.  Angelo at first refuses, but then says that he will spare Claudio if she agrees to have sex with him; the shocked Isabella refuses.  At first Claudio agrees with her decision but he then pleads with her for his life.

The Duke, dressed as a friar, tells Isabella that Angelo abandoned his former fiancée, Mariana, when she lost her dowry in a shipwreck.  The Duke urges Isabella to agree to sex with Angelo, but will substitute Mariana for her; the next morning, Angelo will pardon Claudio and be forced to marry Mariana.  Everything goes according to plan, except that Angelo does not pardon Claudio, fearing revenge.  The provost and the Duke send him the head of a dead pirate, claiming that it belonged to Claudio, and Angelo believes that his orders were carried out.  Isabella is told that her brother is dead and that she should complain to the Duke, who is due to return shortly, accusing Angelo of unjust and immoral acts.  The Duke returns as himself, saying that he will hear all grievances immediately.  When Isabella tells her story, the Duke pretends not to believe her.  Finally the Duke reveals himself, and dispenses the justice promised by the play’s title.  In the end everyone gets married -- maybe.