Measure for Measure is a play about the difficulty of establishing a balanced moral order that will work for society as a whole. It’s also a play about the dangers of hypocrisy, in which many characters struggle for self-knowledge in the face of their different forms of self-deception.

The backdrop for these struggles is the Austrian city of Vienna, where lax enforcement of the law has resulted in an uptick in crime. In particular, Vienna is beset by the crime of fornication. Though sex outside of marriage is, first and foremost, a sin against God, this sacred law is also punishable by the secular justice system. But since the Duke has neglected to prosecute this crime during his time as leader, fornication has become a rampant problem. The brothel business is booming, and ordinary women are becoming pregnant before ever exchanging formal marriage vows.

These conditions set the stage for the play’s inciting incident, which occurs when Angelo arrests a young man named Claudio, who has gotten his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant. Angelo, to whom the Duke has recently deputized his authority, wants to establish a reputation for himself by cleaning up the city while the Duke is away. As a part of this plan, he decides to make an example of poor Claudio by sentencing him to death.

Claudio’s arrest, along with the cascade of similar arrests that soon follows, causes immediate chaos in Vienna, giving rise to several major conflicts that will unfold throughout the remainder of the play. On the broadest level, there’s the conflict between Vienna’s political authority, which wants to eradicate crime, and Vienna’s citizens, who recognize that sexuality is an ineradicable part of human nature. Yet there are also several interpersonal conflicts. For instance, there’s the conflict that arises when Angelo propositions Isabella to have sex with him in exchange for her brother’s pardon. This proposition places Isabella in a difficult situation that subsequently leads to a conflict between her and her brother. Though siblings, Isabella and Claudio are opposites. Whereas Claudio’s engagement in premarital sex demonstrates his unrestrained sexuality, Isabella arguably shows an excess of restraint—both sexual and otherwise. Their different priorities come to a head after Angelo’s proposition. Isabella, who prizes her chastity above all else, refuses to sacrifice it for her brother’s sake. As for Claudio, his looming fear of death makes him beg for her to reconsider.

These interpersonal conflicts—first between Angelo and Isabella, then between Isabella and Claudio—are soon mediated by the Duke, who’s disguised himself as a friar in order to go incognito among his citizens. The Duke has his own beef with Angelo. Though his deputy has done as the Duke hoped he would by enforcing the dormant law against fornication, the Duke also sees that Angelo is a tyrannical ruler and, even worse, a hypocrite. As his name implies, Angelo thinks himself an angel; he’s a religiously rigid man and a legal purist who projects the self-image of a moral authority. Yet in his proposition to Isabella, he’s shown himself capable of committing the very crimes for which he’s sentenced others to death. For this reason, the Duke decides to expose Angelo’s hypocrisy, and he begins to orchestrate a plan to do so.

The Duke spends acts 4 putting his plan into place, and this planning phase constitutes the final stage of the play’s rising action. The plan is elaborate and involves a complex series of substitutions and delays that are meant to ensure Angelo goes through with the crime of fornication. Yet for this plan to work, Isabella’s chastity must be preserved. So, in her place the Duke sends Angelo’s former fiancée, Mariana. If Angelo has sex with her, he will have committed precisely the same offense as Claudio, making it impossible for him to go through with the execution.

Acting like a master of ceremonies, the Duke makes an elaborate and sometimes obscure plan sets the stage for the play’s climax, which unfolds in the single long scene that constitutes act 5. Having assembled all his actors, the Duke feigns his grand return to Vienna. Angelo meets him at the city gates, and there begins the extended public performance that exposes Angelo’s crimes and unveils a series of deceptions: the Duke reveals his disguise, and Mariana reveals that she’s the one Angelo had sex with. Furthermore, Claudio, who is thought to have been executed in the previous act, is revealed to have survived.

With Angelo publicly chastened, the play’s falling action can begin. Acting quickly, the Duke restores the moral order of Vienna by establishing a series of suitably balanced punishments for the characters’ key crimes. Most of the “punishments” are in fact just marriages. However, in an unusual turn for a Shakespearean comedy, these marriages are all somewhat uneasy. Claudio and Juliet will be married based on their “precontract”—that is, their previous engagement. Angelo and Mariana will also be married based on their precontract. However, Angelo doesn’t seem very happy about the matter, since he was tricked into consummating a marriage that he’d previously tried to prevent by breaking off the engagement. Similarly unhappy is Lucio, whom the Duke orders to marry a prostitute he’s accidentally gotten pregnant. The fourth and final marriage is only ever presented as a potential coupling. In the final part of act 5, the Duke proposes to Isabella twice, but she never responds.

Though none of these marriage arrangements is perfectly happy, they do arguably establish a more balanced moral order. That is, no one will be executed for their relatively minor infractions, and everyone will be sorted into a pairing that will prevent them from living in further sin. By the play’s end, fornication may still be considered a crime in Vienna, but it’s no longer viewed as a crime worth punishing with excessive force. Indeed, there seems to be widespread recognition that, though sinful, sex is nonetheless deeply human.