The Duke of Vienna announces he must travel to Poland and leaves all executive and judiciary power to his second in command: Angelo. Modestly, Angelo declines, the Duke tells him again that all life and death matters will be his concern until the Duke’s return. Angelo accepts. Unbeknown to everyone except a Friar, the Duke has not left Vienna, but is rather in disguise as Friar Lodowick. Claudio has been sentenced to death by Angelo for fornication (sleeping with Juliet who is nearly 9 months pregnant now). Instead of the typical forced marriage, Angelo is using Claudio as an example of his stricter enforcement of laws. Claudio pleads to Lucio to fetch his sister who is about to take her vow to be a nun to plead with Angelo for his life. Isabella goes to Angelo and pleads for her brother’s life. Infatuated with her, he gives her a proposition – yield her virginity to him or her brother dies. She refuses to sleep with him and thus she has condemned her brother to die the next morning via the chopping block.
The Duke, as Friar Lodowick, has overheard this dilemma and attempts to persuade the Provost to help him save Claudio’s life. Friar Lodowick and Isabella trick Angelo to sleep with Mariana, whom Angelo was previously engaged to but broke off the engagement when her brother and dowry drowned at sea. More trickery and disguising occurs to keep Angelo and another prisoner, Barnadine, alive.
In the last act, Friar Lodowick reveals himself to be the Duke, to the astonishment of everyone. His subjects spoke frankly with him about their opinions of the Duke and of their past. The Duke pardons some transgressions and forces Lucio to marry the prostitute he begot with child. Confronted with the trickery, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana who still pined for Angelo. Lastly, the Duke proposes to Isabella and though there is no scripted answer, it is implied by most theatre companies that she shakes her head yes.
I struggled though the first read of the play, which is not surprising as Shakespeare’s language is difficult to read, despite knowing its in iambic pentameter. As I did with Twelfth Night, I watched the BBC production of the play while following along with the book. The book and BBC version were 98% identical which was helpful to see facial expressions and body language as well as hear the spoken lines. With the movie and book together I understood the play much more and rather enjoyed it. It is typically classified as a “dark comedy” as it still falls in line with comedy expectations, but the audience begins to see a bit of tragedy that occurres in his later works begin to take root.
I would recommend Measure for Measure to read as well as the BBC production. I still feel as though I am watching a play, as the background and props are simple and typical for stage plays, but have the benefit of a complete background that does not need my imagination to fill it in. I can concentrate significantly more on the dialogue. The BBC production of nearly every Shakespeare play was done in the late seventies and throughout the eighties, which actually adds to the charm and feeling of seeing a stage play.