Summary: Act 5, Scene 1 (Second Half)

The Duke turns to Angelo and asks if there is anything he would like to say in his own defense. Angelo confesses to his crime and asks for a death sentence. The Duke sentences him to marry Mariana instead. The Duke asks Isabella to come to him, and she says that she is ashamed to have asked him for help. He supposes that she must be wondering why he did not disclose his identity earlier in order to save Claudio’s life. He tells her that the death occurred sooner than he expected, but that Claudio is now in a better place. On Isabella’s behalf, the Duke orders Angelo to be executed as retribution for Claudio’s death.

Horrified, Mariana says, “I hope you will not mock me with a husband!” (5.1.477). She is worried that she will be a widow instead of a married woman, and so she asks for her husband to be pardoned. The Duke refuses, saying that at least her virtue will be preserved, and that she can find a better husband now. Mariana asks for Isabella’s help in persuading the Duke, saying that everyone has their faults.

Isabella kneels and asks the Duke to pardon Angelo, saying that she believes he meant well in his original plans to clean up the city. The Duke is distracted by another question and asks the Provost why Claudio was executed at such an unusual hour. He fires the Provost for obeying private orders. The Provost argues that he went against private orders by saving Barnardine, and the Duke asks to see him.

The Provost brings Barnardine, along with a muffled Claudio. The Duke pardons Barnardine, telling Friar Peter to take care of him. He then asks who the muffled man is. The Provost says he is another prisoner meant to be executed, one that looks like Claudio. He unveils Claudio. The Duke tells Isabella that Claudio is pardoned. He then asks her to marry him in exchange for having freed her brother.

Before Isabella can answer, he turns to Lucio instructs him to marry the woman who claims to have been impregnated by him. The Duke concludes by saying that everyone should live happily ever after. He then turns to Isabella and indicates that what’s his belongs to her, and what’s hers belongs to him.

Analysis: Act 5, Scene 1 (Second Half)

Two characteristics traditionally distinguish Shakespearean comedies: first, that no one dies in the course of the play, and second, that the play ends in marriage. By these metrics, Measure for Measure is indeed a comedy. However, it’s not quite so happy a comedy as Shakespeare’s other offerings in the genre. For one thing, though none of the characters listed among the dramatis personae die in the play, death does enter the play through the figure of Ragozine, the “notorious pirate” (4.3.76) who dies in prison and whose head is substituted for Claudio’s. For another thing, though the play does end in marriage, the marriages are strangely linked to death. This link becomes clear in Angelo’s case. Immediately after he confesses to the sin of fornication, he asks the Duke to sentence him to death, which he sees as the fit punishment for his crime. Yet the Duke denies him this sentence, instead ordering him to marry Mariana. The Duke then reverses course yet again once the marriage vows have been exchanged, telling Angelo that now he must die. Of course, Mariana and Isabella’s intercession on his behalf results in a pardon, but the alternation between death and marriage establishes a dark link between them.

As the example of Angelo and Mariana demonstrates, the marriages that conclude Measure for Measure aren’t necessarily all happy ones. Arguably, the only truly happy marriage arranged at the end is that between Claudio and Juliet, who had always intended to marry. Their union may be slightly marred by the trauma of Claudio’s time in prison and his execution sentence, but his pardon has freed him of all legal—and perhaps even religious—liability. As for Angelo and Mariana, their marriage arrangement seems potentially more troubled, particularly given the cruel background of Angelo’s refusal to marry her after the tragic loss of her brother and her dowry. Yet Mariana seems committed to Angelo despite this troubling history. For his part, Angelo agrees to the marriage as if it were a legal sentence. It will save his life, but it isn’t clear how enthusiastic he is about the union. Even less enthusiastic is Lucio, who complains that his bride, the pregnant Kate Keepdown, is a prostitute and that he would instantly become a cuckold in marrying her. However, the Duke insists that this is an appropriate outcome for his behavior. Once again, marriage is framed as a sentence rather than a happy resolution.

Most complicated of all is the Duke’s proposal to Isabella near the end of the scene. After revealing that he was the “Friar” with whom Isabella had plotted to save her brother, and after revealing that, despite his deceit, he in fact has saved her brother, the Duke indicates his desire to marry her. His proposal comes immediately after Claudio’s unveiling: “If he be like your brother, for his sake / Is he pardoned; and for your lovely sake, / Give me your hand and say you will be mine, / His is my brother too” (5.1.562–65). Notably, the Duke’s proposal bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the terms of Angelo’s far less decent proposal to Isabella earlier in the play: “Redeem thy brother / By yielding up thy body to my will” (2.4.177–78). Both men frame their proposals to Isabella in a way that implicates her relationship of duty to her brother. Just as Angelo said she could save her brother by having sex with him, the Duke now suggests that she might marry him because he saved her brother. In both cases, the proposal is essentially transactional.

The troubling nature of the Duke’s proposal to Isabella is especially notable given the fact that Isabella never responds to it. Immediately after he proposes, the Duke defers her answer by saying, “But fitter time for that” (5.1.565). Yet that “fitter time” never comes, and Isabella doesn’t say another word. To make the situation more uncomfortable, the play ends with the Duke returning his attention to Isabella and, in a continuation of his proposal, declares: “[I]f you’ll a willing ear incline, / What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.— / So, bring us to our palace” (5.1.611–12). Note how his language slips seamlessly from a proposal of marriage (“if you’ll a willing ear incline”) to assuming her agreement (“bring us to our palace”). Yet Isabella never officially agrees to marry the Duke. Though he assumes a happy ending, the play’s “real” ending may in fact be less than happy. Indeed, how we read the play’s end depends in large part on how we interpret Isabella’s silence. Is it a silent assent, in which she agrees to the “comic” economy of love and marriage? Or it a silent refusal, which refutes the role women have been made to play as subjects of male authority?