The Duke in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure plays a role in nearly every affair between characters throughout the play. Whether he is explicitly fulfilling his role as the Duke of Vienna or in disguise as a friar, the Duke acts as a puppeteer and pulls most of the strings throughout the play.As the title of the play suggests and as the Duke references in one of his final speeches: “‘and Measure still for Measure’” (5, 1, 409), much of the play surrounds finding an appropriate response, punishment, or retribution for other actions. We see this as Angelo and Escalus discuss how to handle the law in response to Claudio’s criminal lechery. Angelo argues that the men must not “make a scarecrow of the law” (2, 1, 1) and merely appear intimidating, bus Escalus notes that the men must be careful and only “cut a little” (2, 1, 5), as if carefully pruning a tree. Later we hear Isabella threaten Angelo that she will “tell the world aloud/ What man thou art” (2, 4, 152-153) after he propositions her. But Angelo belittles her authority, asking, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?…Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true” (2, 4, 154, 169). Isabella weighs her decision to save her brother’s life at the expense of her own virginity but ultimately it is the Duke’s own value judgments that matter. The Duke resolves how the law is treated with respect to Claudio’s infraction and resolves how much power Isabella actually has.
While Angelo believes no one will believe Isabella’s claims about his proposition, the Duke knows that Angelo was testing Isabella’s virtue when he proposed she had the power to save Claudio. He shares this insight with Claudio then suggests a plan to save Claudio without tarnishing Isabella’s virtue. The Duke takes the law into his own hands and essentially saves Isabella from needing to choose between her body and soul or needing to make sense of what constitutes sin and virtue in the case of saving her brother.
The Duke assuredly schemes to save Claudio by tricking Angelo into sleeping with his estranged fiancé, Mariana. While the Duke is proposing a sexual act outside of marriage that echoes that which has gotten Claudio in trouble with Juliet, he assures Mariana that this act is not sinful because there was a previous contract of marriage. Without regard to how Angelo has decided to treat the law, the Duke takes on the role of interpreter of the spirit of the law. Additionally, by taking Isabella out of the calculus of how to save Claudio, he restores her agency as a woman in control of her own body and values that Angelo nearly stripped away. (Although this becomes problematic again when the Duke proposes to Isabella without giving her a chance to respond–but again shows his exercise of control.)
Furthermore, the Duke makes explicit value judgments about life itself when he directs his followers how to fake Claudio’s death while sacrificing Barnadine. Claudio’s life is worthwhile while Barnadine’s is not and this imbalance is reasoned out by the Duke.
The play opens with the Duke granting leadership of Vienna to Angelo. But while the official power has technically been transferred, we see that the Duke remains in control. Each character faces difficult decisions and is constantly measuring the value of the law and of certain moral beliefs, but the Duke consistently has the final say.