Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Angelo (AN-jeh-loh), a Viennese nobleman, the duke’s deputy, a man who is cold, arrogant, and unbending in the knowledge of his own virtuous life. He refuses to look with sympathy on the offense of Claudio and stands firm for justice untempered with mercy. He is shocked to find himself tempted by Isabella, but he dismisses all moral scruples and attempts to seduce her, promising to free her brother if she will yield to him. Once he thinks he has had his will, he orders Claudio’s execution to take place. Faced with the duke’s knowledge of his behavior, he, still in character, asks death as the fitting recompense for his sins; mercy is still no part of his character, although it is that quality, meted out by the duke in accord with the pleas of Isabella and Mariana, that ultimately saves him.
Vincentio (veen-CHEHN-see-oh), the duke of Vienna, a rather ambiguous figure who acts at times as a force of divine destiny in the lives of his subjects. He has wavered in the enforcement of his state’s unjust laws. Pretending to go on a trip to Poland, he leaves the government in Angelo’s hands to try to remedy this laxity as well as to test Angelo’s “pale and cloistered virtue.” He moves quietly to counteract the effects of Angelo’s strict law enforcement on Isabella, Claudio, and Mariana.
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Vincentio the Duke (Duke Vincentio)
Ruler of Vienna. As the play opens, Duke Vincentio is preparing to leave the city for a while, so he deputizes the puritanical Angelo to govern during his absence. In fact, the Duke does not leave Vienna after all, but disguises himself as Friar Lodowick so that he can observe undetected the way in which Angelo administers law and order. After Angelo abuses his power by trying to force Isabella to have sex with him, the Duke orchestrates a "bed-trick," whereby Angelo is ultimately forced to marry his jilted fiancée, Mariana, and Claudio is freed to marry Juliet. At the close of the play the Duke asks Isabella to marry him.
Senior assistant to Duke Vincentio. While the Duke is away, Escalus acts as Angelo's assistant. Although Escalus has more seniority in office than Angelo has, the Duke passes over Escalus to promote Angelo as deputy— probably to test the younger man's mettle. A compassionate and honest man, Escalus is not offended that Angelo is promoted over him.
One of Duke Vincentio's assistants (the other, more senior, assistant is Escalus). On the pretext that he must leave Vienna for a while, the Duke deputizes Angelo, giving him full powers to enforce the laws of Vienna. Angelo's first actions as deputy are to close down Vienna's brothels and to arrest and sentence to death Claudio for impregnating his fiancée,...
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Angelo (Character Analysis)
He is one of Duke Vincentio's assistants (the other, more senior, assistant is Escalus). On the pretext that he must leave Vienna for a while, the duke deputizes Angelo, praising his virtues and giving him authority over the administration of the laws in the city. When Angelo protests that he is not yet ready for such responsibility ("Let there be some more test made of my metal" [I.i.48], he suggests), the duke insists that he accept the commission. Angelo's first actions as deputy are to close down Vienna's brothels and to arrest and sentence to death Claudio for impregnating his fiancée, Juliet. When Claudio's sister, Isabella, begs Angelo to be lenient, the deputy is excited by her purity and tries to coerce her into having sex with him in exchange for her brother's life.
Angelo has a reputation for rigid self-control and for supporting a strict moral code. Escalus says that Angelo is "most strait in virtue" (II.i.10). The duke describes his deputy as "precise" (I.iii.50), or puritanical. Dissolute Lucio complains that Angelo is so cold and prudish that his blood "is very snow-broth" (I.iv.58) and claims that the deputy controls his passions by fasting and studying. Angelo himself argues that people must see others punished before they themselves are willing to behave and that being lenient with criminals only makes them disrespectful of law and order:
We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear...
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Claudio (Character Analysis)
He is Isabella's brother and Juliet's fiancé. On orders from the newly deputized Angelo, Claudio is arrested and sentenced to death for having sex with Juliet out of wedlock. As he is being led to prison, Claudio bitterly observes that the law under which he has been arrested has not been enforced for nineteen years and suggests that Angelo has revived "the drowsy and neglected" statute simply to make a name for himself (I.ii.170). In I.ii.176-86, Claudio asks Lucio to inform Isabella of his plight so that she will persuade Angelo to be lenient with her brother. Claudio thus sets in motion the central conflict in the play, since Isabella's pleas ultimately arouse Angelo's lust.
Claudio has been described as affectionate and dependent upon others for guidance. His graphic speculations in prison about the afterlife reveal an overwhelming terror of death—especially now that he is so close to it:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and uncertain thought
Imagine howling—'tis too horrible!
It has been pointed out that just...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Escalus (Character Analysis)
He is Duke Vincentio's subordinate, and while the duke is away, he acts as Angelo's "secondary," or assistant (I.i.46). Although "Old Escalus" has more seniority in office than Angelo has, the duke passes over Escalus to promote Angelo as deputy—probably to test the younger man's mettle (see the Duke's conversation with Friar Thomas about Angelo in I.iii.50-54). Undisturbed by Angelo's promotion, Escalus remarks sincerely to the duke that "If any in Vienna be of worth / To undergo such ample grace and honour, / It is Lord Angelo" (I.i.22-24).
Critics have noted that the compassionate and honest Escalus serves as a foil to the absolute and increasingly hypocritical Angelo. (A foil is someone who highlights someone else's traits by providing a contrast to those traits.) Indeed, in II.i.6-16, Escalus urges Angelo to be merciful with Claudio, reminding the deputy that Claudio is a gentleman who "had a most noble father," and prophetically suggesting to him that had he ever been in Claudio's place, Angelo might have likewise broken the law:
Let but your honour know,
Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue,
That, in the working of your own affections,
Had time coher'd with place, or place with wishing,
Or that the resolute acting of your blood
Could have attain'd the effect of your own purpose,
Whether you had not sometime in your life
Err'd in this point which now you...
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Isabella (Character Analysis)
She is Claudio's sister. She becomes a novice of the order of Saint Clare on the same day that her brother is arrested and condemned to death for fornication. Claudio sends his friend Lucio to seek out Isabella at the convent and ask her to beg the deputy, Angelo, for her brother's life. "In her youth," Claudio explains,
There is a prone and speechless dialect
Such as move men; beside, she hath prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade.
As it turns out, Isabella's youthful beauty and skill at "reason and discourse" do not convince Angelo to release Claudio, but they do arouse his lust. When Angelo suggests that she have sex with him in return for her brother's life, Isabella refuses in disgust and goes to tell Claudio that he must prepare to die. She is confident that her brother will agree with her rejection of Angelo because Claudio has
in him such a mind of honour
That, had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he'd yield them up
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr'd pollution.
She is horrified when, instead of sharing her outrage, her brother pleads with her to save his life by sleeping with Angelo. Calling him a "beast" and a "faithless coward" for wanting to live at the...
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Lucio (Character Analysis)
He is a fashionable, dissipated gentleman and a friend of Claudio. During his first appearance in the play, he jokes with two other gentleman about soldiers, prostitutes, and venereal disease. However, once he hears that Claudio has been arrested and condemned to death, Lucio stops his joking and rushes off to "learn the truth of it" (I.ii.81).
Critics have pointed out that Lucio's character is a mixture of widely different traits. He is a go-between, a good friend, a heartless lecher, a comic, a liar, and a gadfly who, unlike the other characters in the play, remains rebellious to the end. At his friend Claudio's request, Lucio convinces Isabella to speak to Angelo on her brother's behalf, then coaches her when he thinks she is not being persuasive enough during her interview with the deputy. He laughs when Pompey is sent to jail, and he is accused by Mistress Overdone of heartlessly abandoning a prostitute whom he promised to marry after getting her pregnant (III.ii.199-203). Escalus complains that Lucio is "a fellow of much license" (III.ii.204). By contrast, after Claudio's apparent execution, Lucio sympathizes with the "pretty Isabella" and mourns her brother's death, declaring, "By my troth, Isabel, I loved thy brother" (IV.iii.151, 156).
Lucio gets himself into trouble when he slanders Duke Vincentio to his face. The duke is disguised at the time as Friar Lodowick and therefore unrecognizable. Falsely claiming to be his "inward," or...
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Mariana (Character Analysis)
She is Angelo's jilted fiancée. According to the duke (see III.i.209-223), Mariana and Angelo were engaged to be married until Mariana's brother, Frederick, was lost at sea along with his sister's dowry. Unwilling to marry Mariana without her dowry, Angelo nullified their engagement with the false excuse that Mariana was not a virgin. It is revealed that Mariana still loves Angelo in spite of his treachery, and she lives out her days secluded in a "moated grange" (III.i.264).
In III.i.243-58, the duke convinces Isabella to participate in a "bed-trick," whereby she and Mariana secretly switch places so that it is Mariana who actually sleeps with Angelo—thus reconfirming her engagement with him as well as saving Isabella's honor, while at the same time setting up Angelo to commit the same act for which he has condemned Claudio to death.
Mariana herself first appears in the play at the moated grange in IV.i, when she is told about and agrees to the duke's plan. She appears for the last time at the close of the play in V.i, when she declares Angelo to be her husband, becomes formally married to him on orders from the duke, and passionately pleads for Angelo's life when the duke orders his execution.
Although her role is brief, Mariana is useful to the action of the play because, thanks to the bed-trick, she provides Isabella with a way out of her difficulties with Angelo. Perhaps more importantly, critics have noted that by...
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Vincentio (Character Analysis)
He is the ruler of Vienna. As the play opens, Duke Vincentio is preparing to leave the city for a while, and when he appoints the puritanical Angelo to govern during his absence, he tells him that "Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart" (I.i.44-45). Shortly afterward, he informs Angelo that "Your scope is as mine own, / So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good" (I.i.64-66). Thus before he leaves, Duke Vincentio reminds Angelo twice of the need for balance in administering Vienna's laws: "Mortality" (the death sentence) should be tempered with mercy, and strict law enforcement should be "qualified," (modified) according to the case at hand.
In I.iii, we discover that the duke has not left Vienna after all, but plans instead to disguise himself as Friar Lodowick so that he can observe undetected the way in which Angelo administers law and order. The duke gives two reasons for setting up this plan. First, he is disappointed with his own lax enforcement of the laws: "We have strict statutes and most biting laws," he explains, "Which for this fourteen years we have let slip" (I.iii.19, 21). As a result, the people of Vienna do whatever they feel like, secure in the knowledge that the strict laws won't be enforced against them. Or, as the duke puts it, "liberty plucks justice by the nose;" and "the baby beats the nurse" (I.iii.29, 30).
When asked why he doesn't simply begin to enforce the city's laws...
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Other Characters (Descriptions)
He is the executioner at the prison where Claudio is being held. His role in the play is a minor one. In IV.ii.21-60 when the provost offers him the bawd Pompey as an apprentice, Abhorson initially objects, arguing that Pompey will "discredit" the executioner's profession. In IV.iii.20-65, Abhorson is prevented from executing Barnardine because that prisoner is too drunk to be prepared for death. While Abhorson's encounters with Pompey and Barnardine are comical, his presence in the play also functions as a grim reminder that Claudio has been sentenced to death.
Anonymous, unnamed characters with small or no speaking parts who nevertheless contribute to the atmosphere of the play with its emphasis on city life and law and order.
He is a prisoner at the jail where Claudio is being held, and like Claudio, he has been sentenced to death. In contrast to Claudio, however, he is a hardened criminal. The provost describes him as "A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless, and fearless of what's past, present, or to come" (IV.ii.142-44). Barnardine's neutral attitude to death differs markedly from the terror of death which Claudio confesses to his sister in III.i.115-131. In IV.ii, the duke arranges with the provost to have Barnardine executed in place of Claudio, but in IV.iii.43-63, Barnardine insists...
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