Here is a more detailed look at what happens in each scene of Measure for Measure, to help you look at the structure of the play and interrogate it.

As you look at each act we’ve included some things to notice. These are important character developments, or key questions that an acting company might ask when they first go through the play together at the start of rehearsal. If you work through these as you go, they will help you to make sense of the play. It’s a good idea to have a copy of the text nearby!

  • Act 1

    Act 1 Scene 1

    The play opens in the palace of the Duke of Vienna. The duke announces privately to Lord Escalus that he is leaving the city and is handing power to Angelo, a younger man with less experience than Escalus. He asks Escalus how he thinks Angelo will handle 'all the organs' of his power. Escalus seems to have no doubts about Angelo. When Angelo arrives and hears the duke’s wishes and praise, he is unsure and asks for 'more test' to be made of his character before he is given such responsibility. However, the duke insists and leaves the city quietly and without telling the public why. Escalus and Angelo leave to examine their new roles.

    What do we learn?

    • The duke is leaving Vienna immediately without saying why.
    • The duke is choosing to give power to a younger and less experienced man.
    • Escalus believes Angelo is worthy of such power but Angelo does not feel ready for such a test.
    • The duke loves the people but not the public fuss of parades and ceremony.

    Act 1 Scene 2

    On the streets of Vienna, the immediate effects of Angelo’s new power are felt. We meet characters from the seedier life of the city, the pubs and brothels. Lucio, a colourful bachelor, is joking with some other men, when Mistress Overdone, a brothel-keeper, appears. She has news that Lucio’s friend, Claudio, has been arrested for getting his fiancée pregnant. Lucio is shocked to learn that Claudio now faces the death penalty for such a minor crime. Pompey, who works for Mistress Overdone, arrives with further news that all the brothels are to be torn down. Overdone exclaims that there’s 'a change indeed in the commonwealth' and despairs at her future. Pompey tells her not to worry: she’s so good at her job, she’ll 'lack no clients'.

    What do we learn?

    • Angelo has wasted no time in cracking down on ‘lawless’ Vienna.
    • All the brothel houses in Vienna are to be pulled down.
    • Claudio is to be executed for getting his fiancée pregnant.

    Act 1 Scene 3

    The Provost leads Claudio through the streets to jail. Claudio complains that he is being displayed in public but the Provost says it's Angelo’s orders. Lucio spots Claudio and questions him further about his ‘crime’. Claudio tells Lucio that he intends to marry the pregnant Juliet; they were just waiting for a bigger dowry. He says that Angelo is using 'drowsy and neglected' laws to make a name for himself. Lucio tells him to appeal to the duke but Claudio says the duke can’t be found. He asks Lucio to visit his sister, Isabella, who is about to enter a convent, and persuade her to visit Angelo. Claudio hopes that her youth, which has a 'prone and speechless dialect, / Such as move men', and her gift for 'reason and discourse' will move Angelo. Lucio agrees.

    What do we learn?

    • Claudio intends to marry Juliet; they just couldn’t wait until they were married to sleep together.
    • The duke has allowed the old laws of Vienna to slip and Angelo is bringing them back.
    • Claudio has a sister called Isabella who is joining a convent.

    Act 1 Scene 4

    The duke visits Friar Thomas and asks him to hide him in the monastery . He explains that his love of a reclusive life has let the 'strict statutes and most biting laws' slip and Vienna has become corrupt. The duke feels the people would think he was a tyrant if he suddenly started punishing them for things he’s been allowing them to do so he’s leaving it to Angelo. He intends to disguise himself as a friar and return to the city to see if the 'precise' Angelo is changed by the power he’s been given.

    What do we learn?

    • The duke has not left Vienna but is hiding nearby.
    • The duke has neglected his responsibilities and Vienna has become corrupt.
    • The duke is using Angelo to bring order back to the city.
    • The duke will disguise himself as a friar and spy on Angelo to see if power changes him.
  • Act 2

    Act 2 Scene 1

    In a courtroom, Escalus advises Angelo to be less heavy-handed with the law and to put himself in Claudio’s place. Angelo has no sympathy for those who 'fall' to temptation and says he would expect the same punishment. He wants Claudio executed by 9am the next morning. In an aside, Escalus comments on the unfairness of life and asks forgiveness for what they do: 'Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.' A constable called Elbow enters with two prisoners, the foolish Froth and Pompey the 'bawd'. Elbow gets his words confused and a comical row starts between him and Pompey about Elbow’s wife. Angelo quickly tires of the confusion, leaving the case to Escalus who shows kindness to the distressed Elbow and deals firmly with Pompey: 'your bum is the greatest thing about you.' Escalus decides to recruit more constables to lighten Elbow’s workload and the scene ends on a more serious note as Escalus and a judge show sorrow for Claudio’s fate.

    What do we learn?

    • Escalus thinks Angelo’s methods are too harsh.
    • Angelo is very firm in his beliefs.
    • The law in Vienna, represented by the confused constable Elbow, is weak and easily ridiculed.

    Act 2 Scene 2

    Elsewhere in the court, the Provost questions Angelo about his decision to execute Claudio. Angelo tells him to do his 'office' or lose his job. The Provost asks him what to do about 'the groaning Juliet' who is close to giving birth. Angelo orders that she is taken 'To some more fitter place'. Lucio and Isabella are shown in. Isabella tells Angelo that she hates Claudio’s crime but asks that Angelo punishes the crime and not Claudio. Isabella seems ready to give up immediately but Lucio warns Isabella that she is 'too cold' and must try harder. Isabella speaks strongly, warning Angelo that it is 'tyrannous' to use his strength 'like a giant'. Angelo is about to leave when Isabella offers him a 'bribe', meaning that she will pray for his soul. Angelo tells her to return again tomorrow. In a soliloquy, Angelo struggles with his sudden sexual attraction to Isabella.

    What do we learn?

    • The Provost disagrees with Angelo’s decision to execute Claudio.
    • Juliet is to be moved to another prison, despite being heavily pregnant.
    • Despite his high principles, Angelo is immediately tempted by Isabella.

    Act 2 Scene 3

    The duke, now disguised as a friar, visits Juliet in prison and asks if she repents her sin. Juliet says she does and that she loves Claudio as much as she loves herself. The duke says her sin is 'of heavier kind' than Claudio’s and suggests that she’s only sorry because she’s been found out. The duke tells her he is leaving to visit Claudio who will die tomorrow. Juliet is left alone and distraught, knowing that she only escaped execution herself because she’s pregnant.

    What do we learn?

    • The duke’s disguise is successful and no one recognises him.
    • Juliet still loves Claudio.
    • Juliet’s pregnancy has saved her from being executed along with Claudio.

    Act 2 Scene 4

    Alone onstage, Angelo considers his feelings for Isabella and struggles to hide them when she arrives. Isabella says she has come to know his 'pleasure', meaning his 'wishes', but Angelo reads more into it. He tells her Claudio is to die but asks if she would commit a sin to save his life. Isabella doesn’t understand and Angelo takes a while to be direct but eventually gives her a choice, to 'lay down the treasures' of her body and sleep with him or let her brother die. Disgusted, Isabella threatens to reveal him as a hypocrite but Angelo says no one will believe her because of his 'unsoiled name'. Alone, Isabella realises in a soliloquy that Angelo is right and goes to tell Claudio, believing he will be equally disgusted.

    What do we learn?

    • Angelo is a hypocrite.
    • Isabella values her virginity more than her life and that of Claudio.
  • Act 3

    Act 3 Scene 1

    The disguised duke visits Claudio in prison to prepare him for death. Claudio thanks him and says he is ready to die. Isabella arrives and the duke hides to listen to their conversation. Isabella tells Claudio he must die. Claudio asks if there’s 'no remedy' and Isabella says only one that would strip away his 'honour'. Isabella seems afraid to tell him about Angelo’s offer but when she does, Claudio is outraged, saying immediately that she must not do it. However, his thoughts quickly change. Claudio admits he is afraid to die and suggests that sleeping with Angelo is the 'least' of the 'seven deadly' sins. Isabella curses him, calling him a “faithless coward” and that it’s best he dies quickly. The duke steps forward and, taking Claudio aside, tells him that Angelo is only testing Isabella and Claudio will die tomorrow. The duke then tells Isabella he has a plan to save her virginity and Claudio’s life. She will agree to Angelo’s demands but they will put his ex-fiancée, Mariana, in her place so that Angelo sleeps with her instead. Mariana still loves Angelo and is still engaged to him so it won’t be a sin. Angelo will think he has slept with Isabella and spare Claudio. Isabella agrees.

    What do we learn?

    • Claudio values his life more than his sister’s virginity.
    • The duke intends to punish Angelo.
    • Angelo was engaged to marry Mariana but broke it off when her dowry was lost.

    Act 3 Scene 2

    Constable Elbow brings Pompey into the jail. Pompey sees Lucio and asks him to pay his bail. Lucio refuses and Pompey is led away. The duke is disgusted by their bawdy conversation. Lucio, who doesn’t recognise the duke in his disguise, criticises the duke for leaving and putting the 'ruthless' Angelo in charge. He tells the ‘friar’ the duke is a drunk who was more forgiving of lechery because he was guilty of it himself. The disguised duke can’t defend himself but promises to report Lucio when the duke returns. Escalus and the Provost bring Mistress Overdone into the prison for running a brothel. She blames Lucio for giving 'information' against her and reveals he has a child with a woman he promised to marry but hasn’t. The disguised duke asks Escalus what kind of man the duke was. Escalus replies a 'gentleman of all temperance' who 'truly wanted to know himself'. Escalus adds that Angelo will not change his mind about Claudio. In a soliloquy, the duke criticises Angelo for being a hypocrite.

    What do we learn?

    • Pompey has been arrested for being a bawd.
    • Mistress Overdone has been arrested for running a brothel.
    • Lucio blames the duke for everything that’s happened.
    • The duke cares what the people think of him.
  • Act 4

    Act 4 Scene 1

    In a moated grange, a boy sings to the love-sick Mariana but she sends him away when the disguised duke arrives. He speaks privately with Isabella who tells him that Angelo has given her two keys and told her to meet him in a locked garden in 'the heavy middle of the night'. She has told him they must stay in the dark and she can’t be long. The duke tells Isabella to explain everything to Mariana. Mariana, who still loves Angelo, agrees to everything if the ‘friar’ wishes it. The duke tells her that Angelo is still her husband 'on a precontract' so to sleep with him is 'no sin'.

    What do we learn?

    • Mariana is lost in grief for Angelo and has shut herself away from the world.
    • Isabella has told Angelo she will sleep with him and they have arranged a place to meet.
    • Angelo will sleep with Mariana instead of Isabella.
    • The plan will take place in the dark so Angelo won’t know the women have swapped.

    Act 4 Scene 2

    It is the next morning and Mariana has slept with Angelo. In the prison, the Provost asks Pompey to be the executioner’s assistant as they are a man short. Pompey accepts, glad to be out of chains. Claudio and a drunkard called Barnadine are called for. Claudio appears, saying Barnadine is asleep. The Provost tells Claudio to prepare for death. The duke arrives in disguise, asking if anyone has come with a pardon for Claudio but hears that the 'bitter deputy' has ordered Claudio's head be sent to him that afternoon. Realising Angelo has broken his word, the duke arranges for Barnadine’s head to be sent to Angelo instead, trusting that Angelo won’t realise as 'death’s a great disguiser'. He gives the Provost a letter with the duke’s seal saying the duke will be returning in two days.

    What do we learn?

    • The bed-trick has worked and Angelo has slept with Mariana, thinking she was Isabella.
    • Angelo has broken his word to Isabella and still intends to execute Claudio.
    • Pompey is given a job as executioner.
    • The duke intends to save Claudio’s life but makes Angelo believe he has been executed.
    • The duke intends to ‘return’ to Vienna in two days.

    Act 4 Scene 3

    Pompey says in a soliloquy that he knows everyone in the prison because it’s full of customers from Mistress Overdone’s brothel. Adding more comedy to the scene, Barnadine refuses to be executed, saying he’s been drinking all night and isn’t ready. The Provost suggests they send Angelo the head of a pirate who has died of 'a cruel fever'. Left alone, the duke says he intends to write to Angelo to say he’s returning 'publicly' to Vienna. Isabella arrives, hoping to hear about Claudio’s pardon. The duke decides to tell her he’s been executed so the truth will bring her 'heavenly comforts' when she 'least' expects it. Isabella is distraught and curses the 'Most damned Angelo!' The duke tells her that she and Mariana must accuse Angelo publicly at the city gates tomorrow. Lucio enters and sympathises with Isabella. He criticises the duke, unaware that he is talking to him.

    What do we learn?

    • The prison is full of Mistress Overdone’s customers.
    • A pirate’s head will be sent to Angelo instead of Claudio’s.
    • The duke lies to Isabella by telling her that Claudio is dead.
    • The duke wants Angelo to be publicly accused by the two women he’s wronged.

    Act 4 Scene 4

    Angelo and Escalus discuss the duke’s instructions and make arrangements to meet him at the gate with various city VIPs. They reveal that the duke has ordered 'that if any crave redress of injustice, they should exhibit their petitions in the street'. Left alone, Angelo says in a soliloquy that he is relying on Isabella’s 'tender shame' to stop her speaking out and that he executed Claudio because he was afraid he would revenge his sister’s honour.

    What do we learn?

    • The duke’s return will be very public.
    • The duke is giving the people an opportunity to complain about Angelo.
    • Angelo thinks Isabella will stay quiet out of shame.
    • Angelo ordered Claudio’s death out of fear that he would revenge his sister.

    Act 4 Scene 5

    The duke, no longer in his disguise, makes arrangements for his return with Friar Peter. He orders for various important men to meet him at the city gates, along with trumpeters to herald his arrival.

    What do we learn?

    • The Provost knows about the duke’s plan.
    • No one is going to miss the duke’s return.

    Act 4 Scene 6

    Isabella is nervous, but Mariana tells her that she must obey the ‘Friar’, who has said that she must continue the pretence that Angelo has taken her virginity. Friar Peter arrives to take them to meet the duke.

    What do we learn?

    • The duke has planned for Mariana to be the first to accuse Angelo.
    • Isabella wants no delay in the truth being told.
  • Act 5

    Act 5 Scene 1

    At the city gates, the ‘returned’ duke greets Angelo and Escalus. Friar Peter urges Isabella to kneel for her petition. She does, speaking passionately for 'justice, justice, justice, justice!' and calling Angelo 'a virgin-violator'. Angelo accuses her of turning mad because of her brother’s death and the duke has her arrested. Isabella mentions ‘Friar Lodowick’ (the duke’s disguise) and Lucio adds that he heard Friar Lodowick slander the duke. Isabella is led away and Mariana enters, veiled. Mariana claims that Angelo is her husband and that he has 'known' her body. Angelo confesses he knows Mariana and explains their broken engagement, but says she and Isabella must be ‘instruments’ in someone else’s plot. ‘Friar Lodowick’ is sent for and the duke explains that he must leave for a while. He returns, disguised as the friar and claiming to be an outsider who has watched 'corruption boil and bubble' in Vienna. Lucio accuses him of slander against the duke and pulls his hood off, only to reveal his true identity. The duke has Lucio arrested. Angelo confesses his crime and asks to be sentenced to death, but the duke sends him away to be married at once to Mariana.

    The duke apologises to Isabella for Claudio’s death, saying that he could not reveal his identity before and that Claudio died sooner than he expected. Angelo and Mariana are brought back in, married. The duke orders that Angelo should be executed like Claudio: 'Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure'. Mariana begs Isabella to join her in pleading for Angelo’s life. Isabella agrees, saying that Angelo’s 'behaviour was sincere' until he met her. The duke then reveals Claudio, still alive. The duke pardons both him and Angelo and punishes Lucio by ordering him to marry the woman that he made pregnant, despite Lucio calling her a 'whore'. The duke asks Isabella to marry him but she does not answer.

    What do we learn?

    • Claudio is forgiven and is free to marry Juliet.
    • Angelo is sorry and prepared to die for his crime.
    • Angelo marries Mariana.
    • Lucio is forced to marry the mother of his child.
    • Isabella forgives Angelo.
    • The duke intends to marry Isabella.
    • The duke does not consider Isabella’s wish to become a nun.