Measure for Measure Summary
by William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure Summary

Measure for Measure is a play by William Shakespeare in which Duke Vincentio disguises himself as a friar in order to observe how his officials runs the city in his absence.

  • Duke Vincentio of Vienna pretends to leave the city. He disguises himself as a friar to see how Angelo, an appointed official, runs the city.

  • Angelo abuses his power and imprisons Claudio and Juliet, a young couple, for fornication. Angelo demands that Claudio's sister have sex with him to secure her brother's release, but she refuses.

  • The Duke stages his supposed return to Vienna, denounces Angelo, and frees Claudio and Juliet.

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The growing political and moral corruption of Vienna is a great worry to its kindly, temperate ruler, Duke Vincentio. Knowing that he himself is as much to blame for the troubles as anyone because he has been lax in the enforcement of existing laws, the duke tries to devise a scheme to revive the old discipline of civic authority.

Fearing that reforms instituted by himself might seem too harsh for his people to accept without protest, he decides to appoint a deputy governor and to leave the country for a while. Angelo, a respected and intelligent city official, seems just the man for the job. The duke turns over the affairs of Vienna to Angelo for a certain length of time and appoints Escalus, a trustworthy old official, to be second in command. The duke then pretends to leave for Poland. In reality, he disguises himself as a friar and returns to the city to watch the outcome of Angelo’s reforms.

Angelo’s first act is to imprison Claudio, a young nobleman who got his betrothed, Juliet, pregnant. Under an old statute, now revived, Claudio’s offense is punishable by death. After being paraded through the streets in disgrace, the young man is sent to prison. He asks his rakish friend, Lucio, to go to the nunnery where Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is a young novice about to take her vows and to ask her to plead with the new governor for his release. At the same time, Escalus, who has known Claudio’s father well, begs Angelo not to execute the young man. The new deputy remains firm, however, in carrying out the duties of his office, and Claudio’s well-wishers are given no reason to hope for their friend’s release.

The duke, disguised as a friar, visits Juliet and learns that the young couple had been very much in love and had, in fact, been formally engaged; they would have been married but for the fact that Juliet’s dowry had become a matter of legal dispute. There is no question of heartless seduction in the case at all.

Isabella, going before Angelo to plead her brother’s cause, meets with little success at first, even though she has been thoroughly coached by the wily Lucio. Nevertheless, Angelo’s cold heart is somewhat touched by Isabella’s beauty. By the second interview, he has become so passionately aroused as to forget his reputation for saintly behavior. He tells Isabella frankly that she can obtain her brother’s release only by yielding herself to his lustful desires, otherwise Claudio will die. Isabella is shocked at these words from the deputy, but when she asserts that she will expose him in public, Angelo, amused, asks who will believe her story. At her wit’s end, Isabella rushes to the prison where she tells Claudio of Angelo’s disgraceful proposition. When he first hears the deputy’s proposal, Claudio is outraged, but the thought of death so terrifies him that he finally begs Isabella to placate Angelo and give herself to him. Isabella, horrified by her brother’s cowardly attitude, lashes out at him with a scornful speech, but she is interrupted by the disguised duke, who has overheard much of the conversation. He draws Isabella aside from her brother and tells her that she will be able to save Claudio without shaming herself.

The friar tells Isabella that five years earlier, Angelo had been betrothed to a high-born lady named Mariana. The marriage did not take place,...

(The entire section is 2,208 words.)