Angelo immediately enforces Vienna’s previously neglected harsh laws against immorality. What I cannot make out is if this was against the Duke’s wishs, concurrent with them or neutral.
To what end did the Duke observe Vienna in disguise? He already knew the effects caused by his neglect of punishment. Was he thinking about making Angelo his heir? Why?
Whatever the reason for Angelo’s accession to power, he certainly utilizes it instantly when he condemns Claudio to death for fathering a child out of wedlock (or rather the deed which led to the child :P). The laws are inconsistent—both are humiliated, but only Claudio condemned to be executed. Why not fines, a public humiliation, and jail for both?
Claudio is soooo despicable. He knew he was doing wrong, and I believe he also knew the punishment. They were not married because of some complication of Juliet’s dowry—to me this makes it worse because he was excusing himself saying they were all but married. He also has no scruples with his sister saving his sorry neck with the same sin that has earned him capital punishment.
I think (maybe) Isabella could be justified in condemning (to Claudio) Angelo’s response to her plea for mercy. All praise and commendation is due to Isabella for so forcefully rebuking her brother and guarding her virtue.
You could argue that she was committing murder by not sinning to save her brother’s life. I am in complete disagreement with this stance. Claudio knew he was sinning, and he knew that according to the law this sin deserves death. He flouts the moral and legal systems and then expects his sister to do the same to save him from punishment.
As to the other hypocrite, Angelo, why he was so strict with the laws and faithless with promises is beyond me. He doesn’t intend to save Claudio (another strike against Claudio’s dreadful wish), and he leaves Mariana—there are plenty of this type of rogue. He is a tyrant as well but why he chooses to enforce morality laws and keep up the appearance of stringent morality boggles my mind. The Duke was obviously not of a keen mind with regard to the ability to perceive and penetrate faҫades.
The Duke himself does not have a spectacular character. He neither enforces the laws nor seeks to find improvements for his rule. He disappears for no obvious purpose, and he makes a highly dubious moral choice by substituting Mariana for Isabella in the deputy’s lascivious plan. Isabella risks her reputation and safety in assenting to such a plan. Of real concern is Mariana’s immorality. She was promised to Angelo—but was not Juliet to Claudio—or was Angelo and Mariana’s parental, official, and binding (would that really make the sin less?!) and Juliet and Claudio’s merely consensual and emotional? It is fornication either way.
There are two positive aspects of the play: Isabella’s true virtue and the “rightness” of the ending. Claudio is saved and must marry Julietta while Angelo is exposed and forced to marry Mariana. Lucio, friend of Claudio and a horrid rake, is forced to marry a “woman of the evening” that he got with child and promised to marry (hah, I looove when such men are trapped like that—which is why I enjoyed All’s Well that Ends Well). The crowning touch is that the Duke has fallen in love with Isabella.
The public discovery of Angelo takes too long—Mariana and Isabella are made to look like fools and the truth regarding the “death” of Claudio was cruelly kept from Isabella merely so that the Duke could see her relief when she sees Claudio in life. And yet she loved him, how convenient for him!
Since writing this I took a Renaissance Culture course in college wherein I read the story of Boccaccio’s that Shakespeare borrowed to use in All’s Well that Ends Well, so I wonder if this play has an original story since I believe that many of Shakespeare’s plays had borrowed plots. I shall have to look into this further.