The Duke’s Scheme against Angelo: A Dark Twist in ‘Measure for Measure’

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the duke’s scheme against Angelo started when he realized that Angelo is thoroughly abusing his power. He was promising Isabella to spare her imprisoned brother’s life if she slept with him. Having abandoned his fiancé because of dowry, Angelo was in a tricky position and could be avenged with an old trick: make him think he has slept with Isabella, while he sleeps with Mariana.

a man writing a letter with quill and sealing.
The duke’s scheme against Angelo is to reveal Angelo’s true self and his hypocrisy, trying to teach him what he needed to learn all the time. (Image: Photo: inventbbart/Shutterstock)

The duke’s scheme against Angelo is built around his past, his lust, and his abuse of power. When Isabella pleads to Angelo’s for her brother’s life, he tells her that she can save him if she agrees to sleep with him. That was a mistake to abuse his power and the duke makes him realize that.

Characters of Isabella and Mariana in Measure for Measure

Beautiful nun with a candle reading the Bible.
When Angelo tries to manipulate Isabella, she refuses and storms away. (Image: Alex Cherepanov/Shutterstock)

Isabella agrees to sleep with Angelo only if the room is completely dark and he does not speak even a word to her. When the time comes, Mariana switches places with Isabella and sleeps with Angelo, making him her legal husband after their engagement.

The duke’s scheme against Angelo goes perfectly well and both women accuse Angelo in front of the duke. Of course, everything is rehearsed before and Angelo is the only one who has not been in the backstage performances. The duke then asks Angelo to be the judge of his own deeds.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Angelo and Justice

When Isabella and Mariana accuse Angelo, the duke tells him, “Be you judge of your own cause. Look inside yourself and tell us what you see. To be able to do this would be true self-knowledge.”

Angelo responds with anger and asks the duke to give him “the scope of justice” as he tries to manipulate justice like everything else in the play. However, the duke has foreseen all this and when Mariana reveals herself, Angelo gives up and admits that they were engaged.

When the duke reveals that he was disguised as the friar in prison and confirms Mariana’s claim of sleeping with Angelo, Angelo confesses and accepts the guilt and its consequence. It looks like he is happy to end the pretense.

He even knows that the just punishment for him is death and asks for it. Measure for Measure is full of tragic elements and themes, but not a tragedy, so it should not end with death.

Learn more about Measure for Measure and the comic elements in it.

Isabella, Chastity, and Vengeance

Mysterious woman in red cloak
Isabella is a comic heroine, lost in finding the direction and a man equal to herself, but she does as she tells others to do. (Image: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock)

Isabella is trying to save her chastity throughout the play, but her lines reveal that she does not hate love and human contact as much as she shows. She is a typical comic heroine who cannot find who she loves and almost never finds her equal among the men.

It is likely that Isabella even accepts the duke’s proposal at the end of the play. She says nothing after the duke asks her to “say you will be mine”, but her character’s development can make her say “yes” and leave the convent.

The next thing that is put to the test about Isabella is her desire for vengeance. When the duke says:

“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.”

Learn more about the tragic woman in Macbeth.

Undeserved Forgiveness

Mariana begs Isabella to ask the duke to spare Angelo’s life. She still loves Angelo and wants to live with her husband. Isabella still thinks that Claudio is dead and has no idea that the duke saved him by putting Ragozine’s dead head instead of his.

Despite all her hatred toward Angelo, she overcomes her strong desire for vengeance, kneels, and begs for his life. This is one of the most moving moments in all of Shakespeare’s plays:

“Most bounteous sir,
Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d, As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die.”

It looks like Isabella has finally found her true self. When she was begging for her brother’s life to Angelo, she used the moving theme of undeserved forgiveness, too:

“Alas, alas!
Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once; And He that might the vantage best have took Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should But judge you as you are? O, think on that; And mercy then will breathe within your lips, Like man new made.”

She tells Angelo that human beings are all condemned, but God gives them undeserved forgiveness, which is the tool for humans to find mercy. The positive point is Isabella acts as she says when she is put to the test.

The Happy Ending

Different critics have had different readings of Measure for Measure, many of which are more negative than the one presented here. However, it does not end as a tragedy and can be a more moving and hopeful play than some critics think.

Common Questions about the Duke’s Scheme against Angelo

Q: Who is Claudio in Measure for Measure?

Claudio in Measure for Measure is Isabella’s brother and the main reason for the duke’s scheme against Angelo. When Angelo asks Isabella to sleep with him in return for her brother life, the duke plots the scheme.

Q: Who is Mariana in Measure for Measure?

Mariana in Measure for Measure is Angelo’s ex-fiancé and an important part of the dukes’ scheme against Angelo. Angelo abandoned her after the ship with her dowry sank.

Q: Does the duke in Measure for Measure succeed in his scheme?

Yes, the duke’s scheme against Angelo in Measure for Measure goes exactly as he had planned: Angelo sleeps with Mariana, thinking it is Isabella.

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