Measure for Measure
Summary and Synopsis

Measure for Measure is a play that defies categorization. Some call it a comedy, and some a “problem play”, due to its dabbling in darker, more evocative themes like trauma, repentance, and the entire notion of criminal justice. Whatever you call the play, it is hard to deny how well-written it is. In this work, Shakespeare balances tragedy and comedy on the razor edge of his incisive wit, delivering cutting condemnations to attitudes and morals still apparent today.

Read on as we break down the plot of one of Shakespeare’s most thematically rich texts in our Measure for Measure summary.

Measure for Measure Setting

We lay our scene in fair Vienna, likely sometime in the late 1500s. Shakespeare drew on two main sources for this play: Epitia’s tale from Italian writer Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (also used in Othello) and the 1578 George Whetstone play Promos and Cassandra. Both of these texts spin a similar yarn (Cinthio’s story being the origin point), so despite the play being written in 1604, it is likely that Shakespeare was harkening back a few decades to Catholic Vienna. While Measure for Measure is set in Vienna, the play’s motions seem to mirror issues present in London at the time of writing. King James was famed for his spies and hated being seen in public – much like Measure for Measure’s Duke Vincentio. Furthermore, due to plague outbreaks brothels were under strict scrutiny (if they were not being actively destroyed), seen as epicenters of physical, as well as moral, disease and infection.

Measure for Measure Summary

Measure for Measure Act 1 Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

We set our scene among the upper levels of Venetian society, with the duke and his ward Escalus discussing the moral degradation of the city. Duke Vincentio despairs at the state of things – what is the point of trying your hardest as governor when your city always goes back to moral bankruptcy?

He tells Escalus that he plans to leave the city for a while, freshening himself and his view of the city in that absence. To take his place, the duke nominates Lord Angelo, a man considered of incredibly high moral and ancestral repute.

The duke tells him just how important this role is and how highly esteemed Angelo is. To this point, the new lord asks that he be thoroughly tested before being regarded so highly.

Act 1, Scene 2

The focus leaves the venerated halls of nobility to the lowly citizens of Vienna that the duke is so concerned about.

This ragtag group of gathered Venetians (including the “noble” Lucio, Miss Overdone and her bartender/pimp Pompey Bum) watch Claudio, a man who has got a woman called Julietta pregnant out of wedlock, be taken to jail – to be beheaded in a scant three days.

As he his led to jail, Claudio spots Lucio, and takes a brief respite to talk to his old friend. He implores the man to find his sister, Isabella, in the local nunnery. Claudio hopes that her youth and piety would be able to persuade the duke with reasonable discourse.

Act 1, Scenes 3-4

After hearing of Claudio’s pious, nun-to-be sister, the play zooms in on a monastery within the city. The Duke lays out his first plot of subterfuge. He plans to infiltrate the base levels of Venetian society, the ones he sees as being so morally bankrupt, disguised as a lowly priest – Friar Lodowick. He hopes that this figure of humility might inspire trust and confession, and maybe grant some insight to why his governance is not working.

Elsewhere, in a nearby nunnery, Isabella is told of her brother’s impending demise, and eventually kowtows to Lucio’s pleas to beseech Angelo and beg for her brother’s life.

Measure for Measure Act 2 Summary

Act 2, Scenes 1-3

In one of the many halls in Angelo’s house, Escalus deals with some problem citizens. After setting a time for Claudio’s death with Angelo (9am the next day), Master Elbow, a 7-year veteran constable, brings forth an accusation of pimping against Pompey Bum. He is so incensed due to the nature of the “bawd-house” and its occupants – apparently his wife now works there.

Escalus dismisses Pompey with a warning and assures Elbow. In another of Angelo’s rooms, Isabella makes her appeal to Angelo. He agrees to delay Claudio’s execution, and asks Isabella to come and see him tomorrow to discuss further. Isabella thanks him and leaves, and Angelo monologues about how tempting he finds her.

Elsewhere in Vienna, the disguised Duke Vincentio conferences with Julietta, the woman that Claudio got pregnant. She discusses being with child, and the deep love she feels for Claudio.

Act 2, Scene 4

Isabella joins Angelo again in his house the next day. Angelo states what he wants in return for Claudio’s pardon: that Isabella give herself to him. She protests, arguing that it would be a greater sin still to corrupt her soul as a trade for her brother’s life.

Angelo returns that if she really loved her brother, she would do this for him. After further discourse, she spurns him again, and claims she will tell people of his deviance. He returns a harsh truth: who will believe a lowly woman when a man of his position protests otherwise.

The lord leaves, frustrated, as Isabella contemplates the horrible weight of what just happened to her.

Measure for Measure Act 3 Summary

Act 3, Scene 1

We return to Claudio’s prison cell, where he is discoursing with the Duke (as always, in full priest disguise). The Duke extols the problems with Claudio’s actions, and the man hangs his head in shame.

Isabella enters, and the Duke listens in on their conversation. Isabella relays what Angelo wanted her to do, and Claudio begs her to do it. Disgusted, she rebukes him and moves to leave. The Duke stops her, taken aback by the accusation against Angelo.

He begins to plot another scheme – involving Angelo’s abandoned former partner, Marianna. They were to be wed, but upon her brother’s death she lost her dowry, and so Angelo left her in her grief. Despite this, Marianna still holds affection for the offending Angelo, and it is upon this the Duke’s plan rotates. He instructs Isabella to go and accept the Lord’s offer, and then to switch her out with Mariana on the fated day of consummation. This would, in effect, make the betrothal between Angelo and Mariana legally binding, if he does not want to be accused of the same charges Claudio is to be executed under.

Act 3, Scene 2

Strolling the streets after this plan-hatching, Duke Vincentio happens upon Pompey and Elbow at it again. Elbow is arresting Pompey for hosting a brothel and organizing the bawd-house.

Lucio appears, and talks of helping to free Pompey later. As Elbow escorts the bawd offstage, Lucio turns to the Duke, who looks to him like a new priest in town. Lucio goes on to slander the Duke to his well-veiled face. This includes accusations of laziness, stupidity, and most scandalously of all: lechery.

Measure for Measure Act 4 Summary

Act 4, Scenes 1-2

The Duke and Isabella journey to Mariana. After a brief discussion between her and Isabella, Mariana agrees to the plot. The veil trick is underway.

In a jail in the deepest bowels of Vienna, Pompey is instructed to aid the executioner in order to alleviate his sentence somewhat. Unsurprisingly, the bawd agrees, revelling in his chance to get one over on his imprisoned peers. As Pompey exits with his new executioner tutor, the provost is presented with the disguised Duke, who hands over a pardon for Claudio sealed with the Duke’s signet ring wax seal.

The Duke argues that Angelo is just as guilty as Claudio, and that the provost should take another criminal, Barnadine, who is slated for eventual execution (with no signs of remorse) and have him executed in Claudio’s stead to trick Angelo.

Act 4, Scene 3

After a brief executioner’s monologue, Pompey is pushed aside by the provost and Duke, who discuss a pirate of an exact build matching Claudio’s – one who has died of fever. They decide to make this corpse the object of deception instead and arrange for Claudio and his double Barnadine to be ferreted away and hidden. Isabella arrives, and the Duke tells her that Claudio is dead.

He urges her to go and confront Angelo when the Duke “arrives” back in Vienna and excuses himself (as a priest) from attendance – because, well, you certainly cannot be in two places at once.

Act 4, Scenes 4-6

Escalus and Angelo discuss the Duke’s impending return, with Angelo extremely worried about his erratic letters. One demand, in particular, that asks them to gather a crowd at the gates and allow anyone to voice any injustices they might have suffered, gives Angelo great pause for thought.

In a field outside the town, the Duke (still dressed in full priest’s habit) discourses with Friar Peter, who helped him disguise in the first place. The Duke instructs him to hand him a specific set of letters at a fitting time in his “return”.

While these final elements of the plan are being set out, Isabella and Mariana await the Duke’s return by the city gates, with bated breath. The friar finds them, and escorts them to the grand finale.

Measure for Measure Act 5 Summary

Act 5, Scene 1

The Duke, in all his non-disguised glory, returns to his city of Vienna. His courtiers surround him, including Lucio, Escalus and Angelo. Friar Peter brings forth Isabella, who throws herself at the feet of the Duke, spilling forth her accusations against Angelo. The Duke pretends to bite back against this tirade against his noble peer and asks the crowd if anyone knows the Friar Lodowick Isabella mentions in her testimony.

Lucio pipes up and defames the Friar to the Duke. Friar Peter mentions that Lodowick just happens to have taken sick at this important moment.

The Duke brings forth Mariana, and the first part of the plot unravels, as Angelo’s mistreatment of his previous betrothal is revealed. The Duke excuses himself as Mariana and Isabella are removed by guards, asking Escalus to deal with Lucio and Angelo for the moment.

Adorned in his friar’s habit, The Duke returns, to a verbal barrage from a self-assured Lucio and an outraged Escalus. On the cusp of being sent to jail, the Duke pulls back the friar’s hood and reveals himself. He condemns Angelo to marry Mariana, Lucio to stay with Miss Overdone, and reveals the ruse: Claudio is still alive.

Duke Vincentio then confesses his love for Isabella and asks for her hand in marriage. Not content to let someone else have the last word, Lucio begs the Duke to not condemn him to marry a bawdy woman. The Duke obliges, and sends him straight to be executed.

Martin is an entertainment writer, ex-theatre kid and impassioned Macbeth stan. Despite doing his best to steer as modern as possible in his English degree, he still feels continually called back to Shakespeare. When not writing about literally anything he can get his hands on, Martin does his best to manage hosting and editing a multitude of different podcasts. Probably too many.