A quick overview of what happens in the plot of Measure for Measure. 
  • The Duke of Vienna pretends to leave the city on business and appoints Angelo to rule while he’s away. The duke then disguises himself as a friar so he can spy on Angelo and the people of Vienna.

  • Angelo brings back some old strict laws which shock his colleagues and upset many of the citizens. These include tearing down all the brothels. He also arrests a young man called Claudio for getting his fiancée Juliet pregnant.

    Did you know? The last comedy

    Measure for Measure is described as a dark comedy but is famous for its painful storyline and heavy themes. First performed in 1601, it was perhaps a turning point in Shakespeare’s writing as it marked a change from his lighter comedies to the heavy tragedies to come, such as Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

  • Claudio asks his friend Lucio to persuade Isabella, Claudio's sister, to plead for his life. Isabella is about to join a convent and become a nun but she agrees to visit Angelo to ask him to spare her brother’s life.

  • Escalus tries to persuade Angelo to spare Claudio’s life but Angelo says he would expect the same punishment if he committed the same sin. Angelo oversees lots of trials and sentences lots of people to prison, including the bawdy prisoner, Pompey.

  • Isabella visits Angelo and, encouraged by Lucio, speaks passionately to try and save Claudio. When she leaves, Angelo reveals in a soliloquy that he is attracted to her.

  • Angelo struggles with his feelings for Isabella but when she visits him again, he makes her an offer and says he'll spare her brother’s life if she has sex with him. Disgusted, Isabella refuses and threatens to reveal him as a hypocrite. Angelo says no one will believe her and Isabella realises he is right.

  • Isabella visits Claudio and tells him she can’t save him unless she sleeps with Angelo, which she won’t do. Claudio is afraid to die and asks her to reconsider. The duke overhears this and tells Claudio to prepare for death.

  • Dressed as a friar, the duke tells Isabella he has a plan to save her virtue and Claudio’s life. He will arrange for Mariana to sleep with Angelo instead, pretending to be Isabella.

    Did you know? The Bed-trick

    Shakespeare used many different story sources for his plays. Among those for Measure for Measure was an Italian book of love stories called ‘Hecatommithi’. However, Shakespeare made one big change by introducing Mariana and the ‘bedtrick’. In the Italian story, the Isabella character sleeps with Angelo and marries him.

  • Angelo sleeps with Mariana, thinking she is Isabella, but still decides to execute Claudio and demands to see his head. Without telling Isabella, the duke has another prisoner’s head sent to Angelo instead of Claudio’s.

  • At the gates of the city, the duke returns and Isabella explains what happened to her. The duke pretends he doesn’t believe her before revealing that he was the friar. Facing punishment, Angelo confesses but Mariana begs for his life. The duke grants her wish if Angelo marries her. The duke reunites Isabella with Claudio and asks for her hand in marriage. Isabella says nothing.

Teacher Notes

A great way to get students thinking about plot is to print the ten lines on this page and ask them to work in pairs to arrange them in the order they take place in the play. Alternatively, ask them to create their own 10 plot points and practice summarising what they know.