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Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Course Hero. "Measure for Measure Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Feb. 2018. Web. 9 June 2023. <>.

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Course Hero. "Measure for Measure Study Guide." February 13, 2018. Accessed June 9, 2023.


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Measure for Measure | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

Just before his sudden departure from the city, the Duke of Vienna summons his deputy Angelo and the high-ranking magistrate Escalus. Angelo, he announces, will administer justice in Vienna until the Duke's return, with Escalus serving as Angelo's advisor. Angelo accepts and soon begins enforcing the city's laws much more harshly than the Duke has done. In particular he brings back the long-ignored death penalty for fornication, and the young gentleman Claudio is the first to be sentenced to death. Claudio's crime is a "border case" to begin with, because the woman he has gotten pregnant is his fiancée, Juliet. The two, he protests to the audience, were planning to marry as soon as possible. (In Shakespeare's time, two people who were formally betrothed were often considered essentially married.) The madam, Mistress Overdone, and her pimp, Pompey Bum, worry about the future of their business in a city where such laws are enforced.

A desperate and ashamed Claudio asks his friend Lucio to find his sister Isabella, a novice in a convent. Claudio hopes her skills in persuasive speech will save him from execution. The virtuous Isabella is upset to hear of Claudio's sentence, but she is also scandalized to hear of his behavior. Meanwhile the Duke hides out at a monastery near Vienna and secretly observes Angelo's style of government. He wishes, he tells the monks, to bring some discipline and morality back to the city while also testing Angelo's character as a leader. The Duke does not hesitate to admit to his own excessive leniency in punishing lawbreakers.

Act 2

Several of Claudio's fellow citizens, including Escalus, attempt to intervene on Claudio's behalf, but none can persuade Angelo to commute the sentence. Even the Provost of the prison (a post similar to warden or captain) tries to influence Angelo, but to no avail. Finally Isabella visits Angelo and tries to shame him into relenting. Finding himself impassioned with lust for the young and pure-hearted Isabella, Angelo asks her to come back after he has had some time to think over his decision. Meanwhile the Duke, in disguise as Friar Lodowick, visits the prison and speaks with Juliet about her fiancé's fate.

The next morning Isabella appears before Angelo to hear his answer. He shocks her by offering to spare Claudio in exchange for Isabella's virginity. At first she thinks he is joking, but as the truth dawns on her, she is repulsed by his lechery. She refuses his bargain and threatens to report their encounter to anyone who will listen. After Angelo, sneering that no one will believe her, leaves her to reconsider his proposition, she decides she will inform Claudio about the situation.

Act 3

The Duke, still disguised, pays another visit to the prison. He offers words of comfort to Claudio and cautions him to "be absolute for death." When Isabella arrives, the Duke leaves but listens to their conversation. Isabella tells Claudio of Angelo's attempt to proposition her, and Claudio initially reacts by nobly disdaining to be saved in such a manner. Moments later, however, he asks Isabella to at least consider sleeping with Angelo to spare her brother. Isabella is disgusted by her brother's cowardice.

Returning to the stage after eavesdropping, the Duke offers Isabella a way out of her dilemma. If she tells Angelo she agrees to sleep with him after all, the Duke explains, Angelo's fiancée, Mariana, will be able to take her place, and no harm will be done. This plan will save Claudio from execution without requiring Isabella to give up her chastity. Outside the prison the constables arrest Pompey Bum, soon to be joined by Mistress Overdone. The disguised Duke hears unflattering rumors about himself from the frivolous Lucio.

Act 4

A succession of short scenes elaborates the Duke's counterplot against Angelo. Mariana, Angelo's jilted fiancée, agrees to play her part by meeting Angelo for a midnight tryst in his garden.

Meanwhile Pompey Bum finds new employment in prison as an assistant executioner. Angelo and Escalus prepare for the Duke's return, neither aware that he has been watching them all the while from within the city.

Offstage Angelo follows through with his planned rendezvous with "Isabella"—actually Mariana—but does not keep his promise to pardon Claudio. The next day instead of the expected pardon, the Provost receives Angelo's message ordering Claudio to be beheaded at four o'clock in the morning and demanding proof—Claudio's head—that his order has been followed. The Duke, therefore, must find another head to present to Angelo. Another prisoner, Ragozine—a Claudio lookalike—has died of natural causes, and the Provost has this man's head delivered to Angelo instead, while Claudio has been hidden in another cell. Despite the success of this plan, the Duke, still disguised, deliberately deceives Isabella into believing her brother is dead, thinking to surprise her later. He suggests that she apply to the Duke for justice when he returns to town.

Afterward, guilt begins to crack the veneer of Angelo's composure, and he wonders whether he should have let Claudio live. The Duke, having snuck out of the city in disguise, returns to Vienna in a highly publicized ceremony.

Act 5

A single, long scene concludes the play. Arriving at the city gate, the Duke greets Angelo and Escalus. Isabella runs before him and demands justice, describing her mistreatment at the hands of Angelo. The Duke pretends not to believe her, calling her mad, and demands that someone produce the "Friar Lodowick" who encouraged her to appear before him. Mariana, claiming Angelo as her husband, vouches for his whereabouts—he was with her—the night he supposedly had the assignation with Isabella. Angelo claims to be the victim of a conspiracy to ruin his reputation.

The Duke leaves the stage and returns in his "Friar Lodowick" disguise, but his identity is revealed when Angelo and Escalus attempt to have him seized and imprisoned. Angelo pleads for death, but first the Duke insists that he marry Mariana. He then sentences Angelo, but both Mariana and Isabella beg for his life to be spared. The Duke at last relents, and it is soon revealed that Claudio has not been executed after all. Pardoning all the remaining evildoers large and small, the Duke then asks Isabella for her hand in marriage—a proposal to which she doesn't respond—and invites everyone back to his palace.

Measure for Measure Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 The Duke leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna.

Rising Action

2 Angelo sentences Claudio to death for fornication.

3 Isabella pleads for Claudio's life to be spared.

4 Angelo offers Claudio's life for Isabella's virginity.

5 The Duke hatches a plot to keep Claudio alive in secret.

6 Isabella "agrees" to sleep with Angelo.

7 Angelo is tricked into sleeping with Mariana instead.

8 The Duke makes his grand return to Vienna.


9 Isabella demands justice from the Duke.

Falling Action

10 Angelo is arrested for Claudio's wrongful death.

11 Claudio is revealed to be still alive.


12 Angelo and Claudio are both pardoned.

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