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.
Isabella (eez-eh-BEHL-ah), a young noblewoman who emerges from the nunnery where she is a postulant to try to save the life of her condemned brother. Her moral standards, like Angelo’s, are absolute; she is appalled to find herself faced with two equally dreadful alternatives: to watch her brother die, knowing that it is in her power to save him, or to surrender herself to Angelo. She cannot entirely comprehend Claudio’s passionate desire to live, no matter what the cost. Virtue is, for her, more alive than life itself, and she cannot help feeling a certain sense of justice in his condemnation, although she would save him if she could do so without causing her own damnation. She learns, as Angelo does not, to value mercy, and she is able at the end of the play to join Mariana on her knees to plead for the deputy’s life.
Claudio (KLOH-dee-oh), Isabella’s brother, condemned to death for getting his fiancée with child. He finds small consolation in the duke’s description of death, and he makes a passionate defense of life, describing the horrors of the unknown.
Escalus (EHS-keh-luhs), a wise old Viennese counselor, left by the duke as Angelo’s adviser. He deals humorously and sympathetically with the rather incoherent testimony of Elbow, the volunteer constable.
Mariana (mah-ree-AH-nah), a young woman betrothed to Angelo and legally his wife when he rejected her because of difficulties over her dowry. She agrees, at the duke’s request, to take Isabella’s place in the garden house where Angelo had arranged to meet her. Claiming Angelo as her husband at the duke’s reentry into the city, she asks mercy for his betrayal of Claudio and Isabella.
Lucio (LEW-shee-oh), a dissolute young man who brags of his desertion of his mistress and gives the disguised duke bits of malicious gossip about himself. He is sentenced, for his boasting and his slander, to marry the prostitute he has abandoned.
Mrs. Overdone, a bawd.
Pompey, her servant.
Juliet, Claudio’s fiancée, who is cared for by the disguised duke.
Elbow, a clownish volunteer constable whose malapropisms make enforcement of the law more than difficult.
Francisca (fran-SIHS-kuh), a nun of the order Isabella is entering.
Froth, a laconic patron of Mrs. Overdone’s establishment.
Provost (PROV-uhst), an officer of the state who pities Claudio and helps the duke save him, thus disobeying Angelo’s orders.
Abhorson, the hangman, a man of rather macabre humor.
Barnardine, a long-term prisoner freed by the merciful duke.
Friar Thomas and
Friar Peter, religious men who aid the duke.