The Duke of Vienna decides that his people have been allowed to behave dishonourably for too long. Their morals have become too loose. The Duke appoints a deputy; Angelo who is known for being cold and firm. The Duke tells him that he is going away to Poland and will be leaving him in charge. He gives him a commission to ensure that moral laws are upheld, but he remains in Vienna in disguise to keep an eye on his deputy.
Angelo’s first decision is to arrest Claudio for getting his fiancé, Juliet, pregnant. Claudio faces death by beheading for his crime and Angelo is enforcing this. Claudio asks his friend Lucio to find his sister Isabella, a nun, to ask her to appeal to Angelo, using all her feminine wiles.
Isabella is convinced and goes to ask Angelo to pardon Claudio. Angelo marvels at Isabella’s purity and chastity and this makes him fall in love with her. He propositions her; he says that if she gives him her body, he will pardon Claudio. Isabella is shocked and outraged. She says she will not do this. Isabella tells Claudio about the proposition and tells him that he must be prepared to die because he would not be able to live as an honourable man if she were to go through with Angelo’s wishes. Claudio is frightened and begs her to do as Angelo says. Isabella is resolute and refuses.
Hearing this interchange between brother and sister, the Duke, disguised as a Friar, speaks to Isabella suggesting that she agrees to the proposition but sends Angelo’s ex betrothed; Mariana, disguised in Isabella’s place. Mariana is still in love with Angelo, despite him leaving her when her brother died at sea and as a result her losing her dowry. Angelo was no longer interested in Mariana without a dowry and he invented stories to dishonour her.
Mariana agrees to the plan as the Friar promises that she will be married to Angelo. Isabella meets Angelo accepting his proposition, she then tells Mariana the meeting place and the union takes place. However, Angelo insists that Claudio must still face execution despite his promises to Isabella.
The Duke, disguised as the Friar, tells the Provost to present an alternative head to Angelo as proof of Claudio’s execution. The Provost then hides Claudio away. The ‘Friar’ then convinces Isabella that her brother has been executed but announces the Duke’s return. He urges her to appeal to the Duke and complain about Angelo’s heavy handed rule.
The proposal is revealed to the Duke by Isabella but Angelo, of course, denies it. Then Mariana steps forward and explains that it was she who spent the night with Angelo. The ‘Friar’ is called to give evidence and the Duke excuses himself and comes back as the ‘Friar’. It is then revealed that the Duke, disguised as the Friar was party to everything that was going on. He forces Angelo to marry Mariana and then says that he should then be executed in the same way as Claudio, for the same crime; Measure for Measure. Claudio is then revealed as being alive, Isabella is grateful. Claudio is then told to marry Juliet to make her an honourable woman. The Duke pardons Angelo but enforces the marriage between him and Mariana. The Duke then asks Isabella to be his wife.
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASURE still FOR MEASURE.