Act Five of Measure for Measure is comprised of only one single scene, a 537-line behemoth, the longest first scene of any fifth act in the Canon, and the second longest fifth-act scene (nothing–nothing–is ever going to top the 914-line Act Five, Scene Two of Love’s Labor’s Lost), and the fifth longest scene overall. And as the fifth and final act of Measure for Measure begins, we’re reaching the culmination of the plan of the fruke (the FRiar-dUKE)–or at least plan B. Since the Bed Trick between Angelo and Isabella/Mariana did not produce the pardon of Claudio everyone had expected, the fruke is doubling-down on Claudio’s supposed execution, even denying his sister any relief that he is being held safely in a secret cell. Why does the fruke do this? It seems unnecessary. We’re about to find out otherwise.
The scene opens with Angelo and Escalus greeting the duke at the welcoming ceremony just outside the city gates. Cordial, respectful, polite are hallmarks. Only because we know what’s coming, the duke’s statement that Angelo’s deserving or “desert speaks loud” (V.i.9) rings somewhat ominously. Almost instantly Isabella enters and petitions the duke to hear her “complaint” (V.i.24) and grant her “justice, justice, justice!” (V.i.25). When the duke says that Lord Angelo will give her justice, she responds by saying, “You bid me seek redemption of the devil” (V.i.29), and Angelo tells the duke that he questions her sanity, and predicts “she will speak most bitterly and strange” (V.i.37).
Isabella agrees that what she’s about to say is strange, and then accuses Angelo of being “a murderer…an adulterous thief, // An hypocrite, a virgin-violator” (V.i.40, 41-2). The duke takes the side of Angelo asking that she be taken away as “she speaks this in th’ infirmity of sense” (V.i.48). As she continues to argue her case, the duke admits that “her madness hath the oddest frame of sense” (V.i.62), and one has to wonder how much of what the duke says is for the benefit of the crowd that has gathered, setting them up to bring Angelo down.
When she begins to tell the details of her tale, Lucio–in an attempt to buttress her claims–continually interrupts with statements of support; the duke chastises him for it. The duke also warns Isabella when her diction becomes too wild, telling her “That’s somewhat madly spoken” (V.i.90) after she calls Angelo “this pernicious caitiff deputy” (V.i.89). When she reaches the claim of Angelo’s demand of her chastity, the duke calls this into doubt, citing Angelo’s “integrity” (V.i.108), just as Angelo would have predicted. But the duke takes it one step further, saying,
That with such vehemency he should pursue
Faults proper to himself. If he had so offended,
He would have weighed thy brother by himself
And not have cut him off.
This continues to build the subliminal case in the minds of his in-scene audience, the crowd.
The duke demands who sent her to do this, and she responds that it was Friar Lodowick, a man Lucio claims he doesn’t like because “he spake against (the duke’s) grace” (V.i.130). These kinds of interjections from Lucio continue throughout the scene, always prompting the duke to order him to be quiet. The duke demands that the friar be found and brought to him. Friar Peter vouches for Lodowick, calling him “divine and holy” (V.i.145), but questions the validity of his claims as they “so vulgarly and personally accused” (V.i.161) Angelo.
Isabella is taken aside, guarded, and Mariana enters veiled. And much like in the last scene of All’s Well That Ends Well, the Bed Trick substitute’s speech is filled with ambiguous and contradictory statements (she is not married, yet no maid nor widow–this prompts Lucio to offer that she might be a “punk” (V.i.180) or prostitute…and the duke reprimands his again for speaking out of turn). She then reveals herself and names Angelo as both her husband, and he who “thinks he knows that he ne’er knew my body, // But knows, he thinks, that he knows Isabel’s” (V.i.202-3). She also reveals what she did “at (Angelo’s) garden house // In (Isabella’s) imagined person” (V.i.211-2).
After another comic interjection by Lucio, Angelo admits that he knows Mariana and that he was once engaged to her, but that he broke off the engagement not only because of the dowry, but because “her reputation was disvalued // In levity” (V.i.220-1), accusing her of being unchaste. He even goes so far as to beg from the duke the ability to question not only the women but he who “sets them on” (V.i.237). The duke agrees, giving Angelo the power to “punish them to (his) height of pleasure” (V.i.239). And just before the duke has to exit the scene, they send the provost to retrieve the friar (convenient, no?).
As they wait for the friar and Isabella to be brought forth, Lucio continues his slanders of the absent friar. When the fruke arrives, he criticizes the absent duke for allowing the accused (deputy duke) to sit in judgment. Escalus attacks the friar for attacking the duke, but the fruke responds that he’s been watching what’s been going on in Vienna, where “corruption boil and bubble” (V.i.317). Lucio continues his attack on friar claiming he himself spoke well of the duke against the friar’s slanders. The fruke denies this, and when he does, Lucio physically accosts him, accidentally revealing the duke.
After the duke makes sure that Lucio “sneak(s) not away” (V.i.356), he asks Angelo if he has anything to say in his defense. Angelo doesn’t, admits his guilt, and calls for his own “trial be (his) own confession. // Immediate sentence, then, and sequent death // Is all the grace (he) beg(s)” (V.i.370-2). Angelo, upon questioning, admits to having been contracted to Mariana; the duke sends them off to be married. The duke tells Isabella that he could not save Claudio because of the “swift celerity of his death” (V.i.392). Again, this bringing up a “dead” Claudio seems gratuitous, purposefully cruel.
As Angelo and Mariana re-enter married, the duke tells Isabella that she should pardon Angelo “for Mariana’s sake” (V.i.401), but then reminds her that Angelo betrayed not only the law but Claudio and because of this, the law cries out, “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death! // Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure, // Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure ” (V.i.407-9). And before Isabella can voice any mercy, the duke calls for Angelo to be sent off for execution. The duke doesn’t respond to Mariana’s pleas for mercy, saying only that she can use her inheritance from Angelo to “buy (her) a better husband” (V.i.423). Mariana then begs mercy from Isabella, and Isabella is touched. She tells the duke she pardons Angelo. And now we understand why the duke cruelly allowed Isabella believe that her brother was dead: for her to show true mercy–the kind that Angelo failed to show–she had to forgive Angelo BEFORE knowing he was still alive. It’s a “teachable moment.”
The duke reminds all that Claudio was executed early because of the note from Angelo. The duke has the provost bring in the remaining death-row prisoners, so that they may be pardoned. Out are trotted Barnardine and Claudio hooded. When the duke reveals Claudio to Isabella, he says,
Is he pardoned; and for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine,
He is my brother too. But fitter time for that.
So the duke hints at marriage, but there is no response.
The duke pardons Angelo, but Lucio doesn’t get off so easily. For “slandering a prince” (V.i.522), Lucio is first sentenced to marry any prostitute he hath “begot with child” (V.i.509), and then “whipped and hanged” (V.i.511). As if inspired by Isabella’s mercy (or perhaps in an attempt to impress her), the duke then rethinks the punishment and orders the marriage without the death, though for Lucio, “Marrying a punk…is pressing to death, whipping and hanging” (V.i.520-1).
In the final speech, the duke sends Claudio off to marriage, reiterates Angelo’s marriage, and again hints at a marriage for himself to Isabella,
I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.—
But again, there’s no acknowledgement nor agreement, and the play ends only with his promise to reveal “what’s yet behind” (V.i.537) to all back at the palace.