A tragi‐comedy by Shakespeare, first printed in the First Folio of 1623, written probably in 1604. Its chief source is Whetstone's play Promos and Cassandra, based on a story in Cinthio's Hecatommithi. It has often been categorized as a ‘problem play’ because of the unpleasantness of its subject matter and the complexity of its plot and themes.
The duke of Vienna, on the pretext of a journey to Poland, hands over the government to his virtuous‐seeming deputy Angelo, who enforces strict laws against sexual licence which for the past 14 years had been neglected. Angelo at once sentences to death Claudio, a young gentleman who has got his betrothed Julietta with child. Claudio's sister Isabella, who is a novice in a sisterhood of nuns, pleads with Angelo for her brother's life, urged on by Claudio's friend Lucio. In response to her repeated pleas, Angelo offers to spare Claudio's life if she will consent to be his mistress. Isabella refuses, and will not be persuaded even by the desperate entreaties of Claudio in prison. The duke, disguised as a friar, has made a visit of spiritual comfort to Claudio, and now devises a way of saving his life. Isabella is to agree to a midnight assignation with Angelo, but her place is to be taken by Mariana, who was betrothed to Angelo and still loves him. Mariana is first seen (iv. i) listening to the song ‘Take, O, take those lips away’. This scheme is successful, but Angelo still proceeds with the order for Claudio's execution, though unknown to Isabella Claudio is saved by the substitution of the head of Ragozine, a pirate, who has died that night in the same prison. The duke lays by his disguise, simulates a return to Vienna, and pretends to disbelieve the complaints of Isabella and suit of Mariana, in favour of Angelo's hypocritical denial. When Angelo is forced to confess, both Mariana and Isabella plead for his life; Mariana is married to Angelo, Lucio to a whore, and at the end of a baffling final speech the duke appears to propose marriage to the novice Isabella.
Subjects: Shakespeare Studies and Criticism.
Related content in Oxford Index
William Shakespeare (1564—1616) playwright and poet