Measure for Measure (TV Movie 1979) - Plot Summary Poster

(1979 TV Movie)


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  • When the Duke of Vienna takes a mysterious leave of absence and leaves the strict Angelo in charge, things couldn't be worse for Claudio, who is sentenced to death for premarital sex. His sister, Isabella (a nun-in-training), however, is a very persuasive pleader. She goes to Angelo, but instead of freeing her brother, she gets an offer from Angelo to save Claudio's life if Isabella sleeps with him. The only sympathetic friend Isabella has is a priest who, in actuality, is the Duke in disguise...and he has a plan.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Isabella is one of the most powerful women in Shakespeare's plays. Angelo is one of the greatest villains. Measure for Measure is a story of abuse of official power, sexual harassment and Christian forgiveness.

    The Duke of Vienna has let things slide for years. He says he's going on a trip and leaves his friend Angelo in charge of the city. He tells him to straighten things out. Angelo is super strict. He closes all the houses of disrepute and arrests everyone who has committed immoral offenses. Claudio is arrested and condemned to have his head chopped off for getting his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant.

    Claudio sends for his sister, Isabella, a novice nun at the convent, to go to Angelo and plead for his life. She's a very strict person herself.

    Isabella pleads with Angelo who instantly falls in lust with her and tells her that he won't chop off her brother's head if she will have sex with him. She, of course, is horrified and refuses. Her brother urges her to do it to save his life, but she says that would only send them both to hell.

    Meanwhile, the Duke is lurking around the city disguised as a friar and knows everything. He remembers Angelo had been engaged to Mariana, who he dumped when her entire fortune was lost at sea.

    The friar (the Duke) introduces Isabella to Mariana. He tells Isabella to agree to sleep with Angelo but that Mariana will take her place in the darkened room. Mariana sleeps with her estranged fiancé, Angelo, thereby, according to Elizabethan law, making them married. But Angelo reneges on his promise to Isabella and sends the order to chop off Claudio's head anyway.

    In the final, VERY LONG Act 5, the Duke returns to Vienna (as the Duke, not as the friar). Isabella confronts Angelo in a large crowd pointing her finger at him and shouting, "Justice! Justice! Justice! Justice!"

    Angelo says to the Duke:

    My lord, her wits, I fear me, are not firm. She hath been a suitor to me for her brother cut off by course of justice. And she will speak most bitterly and strange.

    Isabella yells in their faces:

    Most strange, but yet most truly, will I speak. That Angelo is forsworn, is it not strange? That Angelo is a murderer, is it not strange? That Angelo is an adulterous thief, A hypocrite, a virgin-violator, Is it not strange, and strange?

    Isabella is (temporarily) dismissed as a lunatic. Marianna reveals that she was the one who slept with Angelo. The Duke reveals himself as the friar who knows everything. He condemns Angelo to death.

    Marianna pleads with Isabella to join her to ask the Duke for the life of her husband, Angelo. Isabella hesitates to forgive the man who killed her brother. In a very powerful display of Christian forgiveness, Isabella kneels with Marianna to ask pardon for Angelo.

    In the end, the Duke reveals that he was able to save the life of Claudio. Claudio and Juliet are officially married, Angelo is pardoned and officially married to Marianna, and (most disturbingly) the Duke asks Isabella to marry him. Now it is the DUKE who has the hots for Isabella. This is a part of the play with the greatest flexibility because after she discovers her brother is alive, Isabella has NO MORE LINES! She says nothing at the very end of the play. In the new 2006 production, she stomps off angrily, leaving the Duke in a sexually frustrated snit. In this 1978 BBC production she seems to accept the proposal. If I were the director, I would have her run down the street to escape into the convent and slam the door behind her.

    Key Ideas: Abuse of official power, sexual harassment, Christian forgiveness.

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