Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The Duke is making a grand entrance at Vienna's city gate. He greets Angelo and Escalus and thanks them for their service in his absence. Isabella, seizing her chance, rushes before the Duke and, on her knees, implores him to grant her justice. He asks who has wronged her, and she accuses Angelo of being a "murderer," an "adulterous thief," a "hypocrite," and a "virgin-violator." The Duke goads Isabella on by pretending to believe she is out of her mind. Amid interruptions from Lucio, she tells her story in full. The Duke then accuses her of being "suborned"—hired or otherwise induced—to ruin Angelo's reputation.

As an officer comes to take her to prison, she names Friar Lodowick as one who knew of her plan to expose Angelo. This prompts a search for Lodowick, who—Friar Peter announces—is "sick ... of a strange fever." In his stead Friar Peter offers to "disprove" Isabella's accusations. To this end he brings forth Mariana, whose face is hidden by a veil. Declaring herself neither a maid (virgin) nor a wife nor a widow, she offers an alibi for Angelo: he was with her during the time he supposedly met with Isabella. Mariana tells of her broken engagement to Angelo, who admits to the story but denies being her husband. He broke the engagement five years ago, and the two have not had contact since. Angelo realizes that Mariana and Isabella are pawns—"no more / But instruments" in a larger scheme, and asks for the Duke's permission to investigate further. Granting him his authority, the Duke exits.

Shortly thereafter, "Friar Lodowick" (the disguised Duke) enters the stage, accompanied by Isabella and the Provost of the prison. Friar Lodowick denies having induced anyone to slander Angelo. Threatened with torture, he reiterates his claims of innocence, but Angelo and Escalus demand to have him thrown in prison. In the resulting tussle the friar's hood falls off, revealing the Duke. Realizing he has been found out, Angelo now begs for a speedy death. The Duke, however, has other plans. He orders Friar Peter to see that Angelo and Mariana are properly married. While this is taking place offstage, he asks Isabella's pardon for failing to save Claudio.

Angelo and Mariana return, escorted by the Provost. The Duke passes a sentence of death on Angelo for his crimes, but Mariana begs for his life to be spared. In a gesture of forgiveness, Isabella joins in kneeling and asking mercy for Angelo. Ignoring their pleas for now, the Duke demands to have the prisoner Barnardine—who was supposed to be executed—brought before him. Barnardine is brought forward and pardoned, along with another hooded prisoner who turns out to be Claudio. The Duke pardons Angelo too, exhorting him to treat Mariana better. He also pardons Lucio for his slanderous speeches, provided Lucio marries the "punk" (prostitute) by whom he has fathered a child. For his final trick, the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, although she does not reply. All retire to the Duke's palace for a celebration.

Analysis

In this final scene, the play's longest by far, several disparate threads of the plot come together in quick succession. The Duke's habit of tormenting his subjects through his capricious behavior (Act 2, Scene 3) comes back in full force as he starts to dispense "justice." One may wonder whether justice is really served by continuing to pretend Claudio is dead or by threatening Angelo with a death sentence that is never carried out. If Angelo's own words are to be believed, letting him live with his guilt may be crueler than sending him off to the hangman. Given his emphasis on paying "measure for measure" earlier in the play, Angelo may indeed prefer to die for his crimes, as he insists here.

Yet this sort of retributive, tit-for-tat justice would do nothing to console Mariana, who also has a moral claim on Angelo. Instead the Duke assigns Angelo to the restorative justice of trying to be a good husband to Mariana, whom he has spurned and neglected. Lucio, whose real crime consists not of slander but of abandoning his child and its mother, is given a similar "sentence." He, too, views his sentence of marriage and responsible fatherhood as worse than death, although he likely means this as a comical exaggeration. Interestingly, no act of repentance is demanded of the drunken murderer Barnardine, who is simply set free.

The Duke's marriage proposal is one of the most conspicuously open-ended moments in the Shakespearean repertoire. From his point of view, Isabella is getting a good deal if she trades in her nun's habit for the sumptuous gown of a duchess. He speaks about the prospective marriage as something that "much imports [her] good," meaning she will benefit greatly. Materially this benefit seems undeniable: duchesses have a more lavish and exciting life than cloistered nuns. Yet Isabella chose to be a nun, so it's hard to say whether she would find the prospect of being a duchess at all tempting. Faced with this ambiguity, actors and directors have taken various approaches to Isabella's response, ranging from an enthusiastic "yes" to a flat rejection.
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