Measure for Measure and Duchess of Malfi

WJEC English Literature Unit 4

  • Created by: Katie
  • Created on: 11-06-11 15:21

Measure for Measure Synopsis

The Duke Vicentio has decided to give up his role and place it temporarily in the hands of his deputy, Angelo.

Angelo brings back laws into force; tackling prostitution and sex outside of marriage.

Instead of leaving Vienna like he claimed, the Duke remains disguised as a Friar to observe.

On the new regime, Claudio is arrested and condemned to death for impregnating his girlfriend, Juliet.

Claudio’s defence was that the two had a marital contract and were only waiting on certain practicalities to have an official ceremony.

Claudio asks friend Lucio to inform his sister, Isabella, who is about to enter a convent.

Isabella goes to Angelo to plead for Claudio’s life, Angelo is attracted to her.

At their second meeting, he offers to free Claudio if she has sex with him. Isabella is horrified, refuses, and goes to tell Claudio.

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Claudio attempts to persuade her to accept the proposal, as he fears for his life. Isabella refuses.

The disguised Duke tells Claudio to prepare himself for death, and tells Isabella of a way to resolve the situation.

Angelo’s jilted sweetheart, Mariana, will go in place of Isabella so that when having consummated their relationship, Angelo will be forced to marry her. The ‘friar’ and Isabella go to Mariana and she accepts the plan. She then meets Angelo in the darkness.

The next day Angelo orders Claudio’s execution. The Duke arranges another prisoner t be executed instead of Claudio, but Barnadine refuses to be hanged, so the head of Ragozine (a prisoner who’s died) is substituted.

The Duke tells Isabella that Claudio is dead.

The Duke makes preparations for his return to office, and arranges a public meeting with his deputy.

Isabella accuses Angelo, Mariana claims him as her lawful husband, and the Duke reveals that he has been aware of Angelo’s deeds during his ‘absence’. The Duke threatens to execute Angelo but Mariana persuades Isabella to plead for him.

Claudio is revealed to be alive and the Duke proposes to Isabella.

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Measure for Measure Characters

The Duke

  • First appearance I.1
  • Mysterious
  • Speeches lengthy and reflective
  • Not direct and purposeful instructions of an efficient ruler
  • Syntax represents mental unease? May be cause of a breakdown of order in the state or of the Duke himself
  • Longs for solitude; ‘I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes’ à repeated theme of Duke’s character: ‘ever loved the life removed’ to Friar Thomasin in I.3
  • As with much of his behaviour, motives for abdicating office are opaque.
  • He invents a plot and ‘positions’ his ‘characters’, enjoying the superior knowledge about how the events will turn out.
  • Doesn’t tell Isabella that Claudio is alive until the end
  • Let’s Mariana believe Angelo will be killed
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  • ‘To ***** myself to death as to a bed’
  • Her character emerges through interaction with others
  • Claudio à ‘prosperous art/when she will play with reason and discourse,/And well she can persuade.’
  • After Act III we don’t hear much of her, seeming tired and compliant (replacing her earlier fierce passions) by the end of the play
  • Why doesn’t she return to the convent?
  • Does she marry the Duke?


  • Character invites our hostility
  • Attempts to take advantage of Isabella’s weak, desperate state, lack of humanity concern for Claudio
  • Lucio à ‘urine is concealed in ice’
  • Isabella à ‘an hypocrite, a virgin-violater’
  • Strong imagery to describe him: ‘a man of stricture and firm abstinence.’, ‘that his blood flows/Is very show-broth’, ‘most strait in virtue’, ‘severe’
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  • Presence is merely needed to reveal actions and personalities of major characters
  • Main functions are to question our judgements of other characters, especially Isabella and Angelo
  • Humanise the play’s discussion of abstract ideas of justice and mercy
  • Mistress Overdone à ‘was worth five thousand of you all’
  • Escalus à ‘gentlemen’, with a ‘most noble father’
  • Speech on death represents a tragedy, tragic character: ‘sweet sister, let me live’


  • Appears in 6 scenes and is a cynical, amoral character
  • Witty one-liners
  • Pompey à ‘a gentlemen’
  • Character is parasitic in its reliance on others: ‘I am a kind of burr, I shall stick’
  • First appearance I.2
  • Joking about venereal disease: clever, cruel, edgy witticism
  • Character often seems to be speaking with an ironic awareness of the audience
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Measure for Measure Imagery and Language

  • Written in a variety of styles:
  • Earthy, bawdy prose of Pompey.
  • Short rhyming lines of the Duke’s moralising commentary.
  • Shifts between prose and verse may comment on the status of the speakers (difference between Claudio’s blank verse philosophy and Lucio’s prose jesting in I.2).
  • Duke, Escalus, Isabella and Claudio use different forms at different points.
  • End-rhyming is often employed to suggest proverbial wisdom and in the mouth of the disguised Duke, the device has a quality almost of incantation - it has been pointed out that the rhyming couplets in AIII echo the rhythms of the witches’ spells in Macbeth.
  • Bawdy and innuendo are the dominant features of the language.
  • Lucio’s punning on venereal diseases in AI and the slick and slippery language reveals and symbolises his moral shiftiness.
  • Isabella tells Angelo à ‘I am come to know your pleasure’ - even her modesty has been subconsciously affected by the prevailing language of sexual promiscuity and availability.
  • Terms having sexual meanings: ‘pregnant’ used metaphorically by the Duke in AI and Angelo in AII, also containing a literal meaning, of Juliet ‘very near her hour’, serves as a visual reminder of the consequences of sexual activity.
  • Some passages of philosophic richness in the play - Claudio on his fear of death, Isabella on the only true judgement.
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Duchess of Malfi Synopsis

Set in the court of Malfi, Italy: over 1504 – 1510.

The recently widowed Duchess falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, but her brothers who don’t want to share their inheritance forbid her from remarrying.

The Duchess marries Antonio in secret and bears him several children.

Her brother Ferdinand threatens and disowns her.

In an attempt to escape, the Duchess and Antonio concoct a story that Antonio has swindled her out of her fortune and she has to flee into exile.

She takes Bosola into her confidence, not knowing he is Ferdinand’s spy, and arranges that he will deliver her jewellery to Antonio at his hiding place in Ancona. She will join them later, whilst pretending to make a pilgrimage to a town nearby.

The Cardinal hears the plan, instructs Bosola to banish the two lovers, and sends soldiers to capture them.

Antonio escapes with their eldest son, but the Duchess, her maid, and her two younger children are returned to Malfi and, under instructions from Ferdinand, die at the hands of executioners under Bosola’s command.

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This turns Bosola against the Cardinal and Ferdinand.

The Cardinal confesses to his mistress Julia his part in killing the Duchess then kills her using a poisoned bible.

Bosola mishears the Cardinal plotting to kill him, and visits the dark chapel to kill the Cardinal at his prayers.

He mistakenly kills Antonio, who returned to Malfi to attempt to reconcile with the Cardinal.

Bosola kills the Cardinal. In the brawl that follows, Ferdinand and Bosola stab eachother to death.

Antonio’s elder son appears in the final scene, and takes his place as the heir to the Malfi fortune.

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Duchess of Malfi Characters


  • Steward of the Duchess, recently returned from France.
  • Honest and good judge of character.
  • His lower status hinders his relationship.
  • Recognises he can never be equal in the Duchess’ blood, ‘Ambition Madam, is a great man’s madness.’ This does not stop him hero-worshipping her. ‘For her discourse, it is so full of rapture.’
  • Takes the inferior part in the relationship, the Duchess taking the more manly role; taking the initiative is crisis and being the plotting one.
  • Bosola likens him to a ‘cedar’, judging him to be straight, Ferdinand asserts this by saying that shaking a cedar makes is strong.
  • Audience may interpret the same image: wooden, earnest, and mildly humourous.
  • Dies in a casual anticlimax.
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The Duchess

  • A hero with significant flaws.
  • ‘I’ll never marry –', link to deception.
  • Open and direct, sexual innuendo – ‘What pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?’
  • Strong: determination to marry, choice of husband, desire to live away from limelight.
  • Dominant.


  • Lonor, Antonio à he is a ‘black malcontent’ whose ‘foul melancholy/will poison all his goodness.’
  • A malcontent has knowledge and intelligence without status.
  • Pun in name: ‘Bos’ can mean a protuberance on a body (a prominence or knob), ‘ola’ is the diminutive.
  • Work as spy/hitman/intelligencer means he is trusted by no one (Duchess’ tragic mistake), he repays her confidence by betrayal, and his final service to her is to have her strangled.
  • No room for morals or feelings.
  • Neither villain nor hero.
  • ‘Tragic’ character, ‘I am your creature’ à Duke.
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The Cardinal

  • Older brother of Duchess/Ferdinand.
  • The play starts with his presence commanding attention.
  • Ruthlessness: uses brother to dispose of their sister, murders his mistress.
  • Incapable of guilt or remorse.


  • Feels inadequate as he holds secondary position in family. These feelings lead him into a hectoring spirit, which leads to isolation, then savagery, and leading to madness.
  • Grown so crooked he does not realise differences between criminals and friends.

Delio, Julia, Cariola

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Possible Approaches – Symmetry and Antitheses


  • Central idea of balance and equivalence.
  • Image of law – scales (balance between crime and punishment).

Point 1 – Measure for Measure

  • Duke: ‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
  • Duke invokes a false sense of equivalence, as Claudio isn’t dead.
  • We don’t know how Angelo is to be punished, or under what law.
  • Symmetry of crime and punishment is more complicated than once thought.

Point 2 – Measure for Measure

  • Angelo’s pre-marital contract with Mariana mirrors Claudio’s with Juliet, however Claudio wants to marry Juliet, whereas Angelo abandons Mariana.
  • Angelo revisits the same actions of Claudio, sex before marriage.
  • Claudio’s crime was mutually committed, coercion and deceit surround Angelo’s.
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Point 3 – Measure for Measure

  • Like Claudio, Lucio has got a woman pregnant outside of marriage, but Lucio parades his escape from responsibilities.

Link to Duchess of Malfi

  • Actions are legal, whereas those in Measure for Measure are illegal.
  • Unorthodox marriage (inequality, secret).
  • Both discuss the problems that accompany marriages.


  • Measure for Measure dramatises compatible belief system rather than the possibility of a middle ground.
  • No compromise or balance seems possible.
  • Both plays don’t resolve.
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Possible Approaches – Freedom and Restraint/Confin


  • Much of the action takes place in confined spaces, a metaphor for the theatre space itself.
  • Sense of entrapment, enclosedness of the play.

Point 1 – Measure for Measure

  • Freedom and restraint are physical places (brothel and prison); Isabella wishes a ‘more strict restraint’ in the convent; Angelo’s ‘garden circummured with brick’; Vienna – the Duke is to return to the city gates.
  • These geographical spaces seem symbolic of inner psychological restraint: Angelo’s self-controlled character would have a walled garden; For Isabella her secluded surroundings may symbolise virginal integrity.
  • Self-control for Isabella and Angelo is both a freedom and a restraint.

Point 2 – Measure for Measure

  • Both life and death are represented as freedom and restraint, for Isabella, a sinful life is ‘perpetual durance’, freeing life but dooming the soul eternally, Claudio sees death as being frozen in ‘thick ribbed ice,/to be imprisoned in the viewless winds’, despite being advised by the ‘friar’ that death is a release from the burden of life.
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Link to Duchess of Malfi

  • Prison is where most time spent by the Duchess.
  • She has one attempt at freedom but fails, (sending Antonio to Ancona and planning to join him, but by confiding in Bosola, this is fatal).
  • When Duchess comes to die, she sees her greatest confinement, a coffin. ‘This is your last presence chamber’, however the Duchess’ perspective is that she will gain something much wider. ‘Heaven gates are not so highly arch’d’, so kneels at her death.
  • The Duchess gives Antonio her wedding ring.
  • In doing so, she entraps him as her husband.
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Possible Approaches – Deception and Disguise

Point 1 – Measure for Measure

  • Duke as friar, spying on Angelo and city of Vienna.

Point 2 – Measure for Measure

  • Duke and Isabella deceive Angelo with Mariana, and by not killing Claudio.

Link to Duchess of Malfi

  • Bosola (spying, deceptive).
  • Duchess deceiving Ferdinand, saying Antonio is dead.


  • Deception for different purposes: Duke’s for the greater good, Bosola’s for selfish, sinister reasons?
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Possible Approaches – Corruption

Point 1 – Measure for Measure

  • City is corrupt, possible explanation for Duke leaving.

Point 2 – Measure for Measure

  • Angelo becomes corrupt.
  • Corruption seems to be result of too much indulgence, or a belief that one will get away with their crimes.
  • Power leads to ultimate corruption in Angelo.

Link to Duchess of Malfi

  • Antonio rejects the poison in the French court.
  • Antonio rues that rust has entered into Bosola’s soul.
  • Antonio describes Ferdinand’s behaviour as rotten ‘in his rank gall’.
  • Bosola despises the crooked ways of Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand.
  • Bosola recognises that his own corruption ‘grew out of horse dung’.
  • Bosola admits to the old lady that even good fruit rots in time.
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Measure for Measure Quotations

Act 1 Scene 2

‘So every scope by the immoderate use/Turns to restraint’ (Claudio to Lucio).

Act 1 Scene 3

‘Believe not that the dribbling dart of love/Can pierce a complete bosom (Duke).

‘…Lord Angelo,/A man of stricture and firm abstinence…’ (Duke)

Act 1 Scene 4

‘…Lord Angelo, a man whose blood/Is very snow-broth…’ (Lucio).

Act 2 Scene 1

‘’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,/Another thing to fall’ (Angelo).

‘Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall…’ (Escalus).

‘Lord Angelo is severe’ (Justice).

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Act 2 Scene 2

‘You are too cold’ (Lucio to Isabella).

‘The tempter, or the tempted, who sins most?’ (Angelo).

Act 2 Scene 4

‘Better it were a brother die at once/Than that a sister, by redeeming him,/Should die for ever’ (Isabella).

‘…my false o’erweighs your true’ (Angelo to Isabella).

Act 3 Scene 2

‘It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state…’ (Lucio to the disguised Duke about the Duke).

‘A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow’ (Lucio to the disguised Duke about the Duke).

Act 4 Scene 1

‘…the justice of your title to him/Doth flourish the deceit’ (Duke to Mariana about Angelo).

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Act 4 Scene 2

‘…you weigh equally. A feather will turn the scale’ (Provost to Abhorson about the professions of bawd and executioner).

Act 5 Scene 1

‘…justice, justice, justice, justice!’ (Isabella to Duke).

‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’ (Duke)

‘They say best men are moduled out of faults…’ (Mariana).

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Brilliant! Thank you.

anna hall


I found this very helpful.Thanks.

India Evans


just done a powerpoint revision session on this, thanks!

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