By William Shakespeare
Probably written between 1603-04

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2009

General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I’d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I’ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare’s play’s I’ve read and commented on


This play was a delightful read. There was a two-pronged area of interest to me. First there were the character studies. We have:

  1. The flawed Duke of Vienna who has let things get out of control in the state because of his reluctance to enforce laws. He sort of cops out, but perhaps with decent intentions, of turning over the state to a real hard-liner who will enforce laws with vigor. But, when things go terribly wrong, he is willing to work to rectify the situation from behind the scenes, never bringing to light his role in either the situation that led to him temporarily stepping down, nor the rather dubious measures he took to restore order.
  2. Angelo, the man who replaces the duke at first appears to be good and fair ruler, though extremely harsh in punishing those who violate laws. However, like Bill Clinton in our time, he gets caught up in a mess of his own making by his lust. He goes way over the edge, justifying the murder of a prisoner to satisfy his lust with Isabella.
  3. Claudio has violated a sexual law, and is to be put to death by Angelo. However, when his own sister comes to him and reveals that if she will have sex with Angelo, then Angelo will pardon him. . She begs him to die with honor and not ask this of her. But, he pleads with her to go through with it to save him. His weakness is blatant.
  4. Isabella, this sister of Claudio, who wants to be a nun, seems about the only character who remains quite blameless and decent in the whole mess, and hopefully she would have then gone on to the convent and continued to live her decent life.
  5. A somewhat minor character, the provost – sort of primary right hand man of the throne, is quite decent. He does his job as required by law, but is always wishing for leniency on especially harsh sentences, and is willing to go to the edge of the law, but not over, to help those accused to be treated with fairness, but leniency. The second issue that comes in the play is fascinating. The question is of the balance to be had between law and a well-ordered state, and human decency in punishment and power of the state. The arguments are well laid out by Shakespeare, and it seems he definitely leans toward the pole of a much more lenient state than the more harsh methods of the other.

The Duke of Vienna has ruled for many years in a lenient way, and now his subjects don’t take the law seriously and life has deteriorated.

And liberty plucks justice by the nose.
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Thus he decides to pretend to go away and to turn rule over to Angelo, a good man and hard nosed law and order guy. The duke doesn’t have the courage to bring the reform himself, so Angelo is, so to speak, to do his dirty work for him. Angelo sets out to make the reforms. In an early ruling he condemns to death the quite decent Claudio, who, in love with his cousin (by adoption), but working to smooth their coming marriage, in the meantime gets her pregnant. One of Claudio’s friends appeals to his sister, Isabella, who is about to enter the convent, to try to convince Angelo not to hang Claudio. She is fearful of her possibility of success. Claudio’s friend chastises her:

Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.

Even Claudio recognizes he did violate the law, and thus sees that, while harsh, and to put it mildly, quite disadvantageous to himself, his sentence is just. His friend is less noble and tells him

I had as life have the
Foppery of freedom as the morality of imprisonment.

Isabella pleads with Angelo, especially pointing out that the laws haven’t been enforced in years. He agrees, and sees this is precisely the problem in the kingdom, and he explains his harshness:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law.
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And yet let it keep one shape till custom make it
Their perch, and not their terror.

She persists that this is such a common crime these days:

Who is it hath died for the offense
There’s many committed it.

He continues his defense of his justice, a strong deterrence theory of justice:

The law hath not been dead though it hath slept
Those many had not dared to do that evil
If the first man that did this edict infringe
Had answer’d for his deed; now ‘tis awake.

In the end she can’t convince Angelo to stay the execution of her brother. But, that night he discovers he is simply head over heels in lust with her and when she returns the next day to again beg for mercy for Claudio, he offers her a deal, let her sleep with him and he will spare her brother. She refuses, condemns him and says she will simply go and tell her brother, who will feel the same way as she, and let her brother then prepare for his death.

At the prison the duke, dressed as a monk is there, and listens in on the brother / sister discussion in which Claudio does not distinguish himself. She tells him it is her eternal soul versus his bodily death. He says: Take him up on the deal and free me. For you it’s not sin since you aren’t doing it willingly. She is shocked and disappointed and leaves.

But the duke, still posing as a monk intervenes, and begins to realize what a terrible mistake he has made in entrusting the state to Angelo. He devises a plan. Angelo once jilted a woman, Mariana, who loved him when she lost her dowry. So, the plan is the duke will get the woman, who still loves Angelo, dressed as Isabella. Then if Angelo goes to bed with her, he will have violated the same law with its capital offense, and at the same time save Claudio, defend Isabella’s honor and let the women (both) have had her revenge on Angelo.

Things have heated up marvelously.

The duke, still masquerading as a monk, goes to Mariana, the woman who Angelo had left after her dowry evaporated and presents this scheme to her where she would deceive Angelo, but it would “right” things on the duke’s curious logic.

He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together ‘tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit.

Things then tumble together with nearly everyone except Isabella in on shady deeds and misinformation.

In the end, it ends up with the evil being punished (except Claudio, who comes out of it pretty well), and even the horrid behavior of Angelo is excused if he will marry Mariana.

I was concerned with her. Why in the world would she want such a jerk? But, Shakespeare anticipated my doubts and she herself is much more forgiving, if expecting very little from us men!

They say, best men are moulded out of faults;
And for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad.

So be it. Measure for measure it works itself out.

A really delightful play, and thought provoking. I recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett



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Bob Corbett