Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
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, Juliet. When Claudio's sister, Isabella, begs Angelo to be lenient, the deputy becomes excited by her purity and tries to coerce her into having sex with him in exchange for her brother's life. With Isabella's help, the disguised Duke tricks Angelo into sleeping with his jilted fiancée, Mariana, and then orders Angelo to marry her.
A fashionable, dissipated gentleman and a friend of Claudio. He persuades Isabella to intercede with Angelo to save Claudio's life. Lucio inadvertently slanders the disguised Duke to his face. At the close of the play, the Duke sentences Lucio first to marry a prostitute whom he impregnated and then to be whipped and hanged. Shortly afterward, the Duke limits Lucio's sentence to marriage.
Two other gentlemen (First Gentleman and Second Gentleman)
Friends of Lucio. The two gentlemen are present when the brothel-keeper Mistress Overdone announces that Claudio has been arrested and sentenced to death for fornication, and they exit with Lucio to find out whether Overdone's story is true.
Mistress Overdone (Bawd)
She runs a house of prostitution which is closed down as a result of the newly deputized Angelo's strict enforcement of Vienna's laws. Later in the play, Elbow mentions that she has reopened her brothel under the guise of a bathhouse. She is arrested and sent to prison by Escalus.
Although he claims to be a tapster, or bartender, Pompey Bum is actually a bawd, or pimp, who works for Mistress Overdone; he is thus part of Vienna's illicit underworld. Pompey is sent to jail for pandering and for carrying "a strange picklock." In prison, he takes a job as assistant to Abhorson, the executioner.
Isabella's brother and Juliet's fiancé. On orders from the newly deputized Angelo, Claudio is sentenced to death for having sex with Juliet out of wedlock. 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.
Warden of the prison where Claudio is being held. In Act I, he conducts Claudio to jail. In Act II, he receives instructions from Angelo for Claudio's speedy execution. He spends much of the rest of the play helping the disguised Duke with his plan to save Claudio from death.
Claudio's fiancée who was impregnated by him and who, like him, is imprisoned by Angelo for fornication. Unlike Claudio, Juliet is not sentenced to death—probably because she is pregnant.
Thomas (Friar Thomas)
One of two friars in the play (Friar Peter is the other; Friar Lodowick is merely the Duke in disguise). The Duke reveals to Friar Thomas his plan to disguise himself as a monk so that he can secretly observe Angelo's enforcement of Vienna's laws.
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. When she begs Angelo to spare her brother, the deputy insists that she have sex with him in exchange for her brother's reprieve. She refuses and is horrified when her brother pleads with her to save his life by sleeping with Angelo. She participates in the Duke's scheme to unite Angelo with his jilted fiancée, Mariana. At the close of the play, the Duke asks Isabella to abandon the life of a nun in order to marry him.
Francisca (a nun)
A nun at the convent which has accepted Isabella as a novice. She appears at the beginning of the play, instructing Isabella on the convent's rules and privileges.
A constable. He arrests the bawd Pompey and the foolish gentleman Froth and brings them to Angelo and Escalus for judgment. Elbow is a comic figure who tends to speak in malapropisms.
A "foolish gentleman" who, along with the bawd Pompey, is arrested by Elbow at a brothel run by Mistress Overdone and brought before Angelo and Escalus for sentencing.
A retainer to Angelo. He announces the arrival of Isabella, who has come to plead with Angelo for her brother Claudio's life.
Angelo's jilted fiancée. According to the Duke, 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. Mariana still loves Angelo in spite of his treachery, and she lives out her days secluded in a "moated grange."
An executioner at the prison where Claudio is being held.
A prisoner and hardened criminal at the jail where Claudio is being held. When the Duke arranges with the Provost to have Barnardine executed in place of Claudio, Barnardine insists that he is too drunk to die, and refuses to be executed. He is pardoned at the close of the play.
Peter (Friar Peter)
One of two friars in the play (the other is Friar Thomas). Friar Peter helps the Duke orchestrate the final scene where Angelo's hypocrisy is revealed and Mariana asserts her right to be Angelo's wife. He also performs the offstage marriage ceremony between Mariana and Angelo.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support