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Duke Vincentio has his own ulterior motives for leaving Vienna in Angelo's care. Aware of the decay and debauchery, which has seeped into his people, he wishes to change the system by introducing stricter laws and regulations. One wonders, however, why he didn't do it himself, instead of giving Angelo the charges and going through so many devious means to achieve his end. The Duke himself hints that he does not want to be a tyrant; more likely, he knows he cannot, by his very nature, be one, and thus entrusts Angelo to enforce the strict interpretation of the law.
The Duke is truly a mysterious stage character who seems more absorbed in his own plots than in the welfare of his state. His disguise causes part of the mystery. During the play, he shows that he has leadership potential. He controls the thoughts and actions of Mariana, convincing her that there is no sin in her sleeping with Angelo. He also influences Isabella. By the end of the play, the Duke comes across as a resolute character who has become attentive to the feelings of others and capable of action, as demonstrate in the punishments that he mercifully dispenses.
The ultimate objective of the Duke is to test and to humanize both Angelo and Isabella. By the end of the play, he is successful on both accounts. Angelo admits his foolish misdeeds and repents. Isabella applies her Christianity to a real-life situation, forgiving Angelo, the man responsible for her brother's death. And the Duke himself has certainly proven his own humanity.
At the beginning of the play, Isabella, Claudio's sister, is at a convent, training to become a nun. She is depicted as pious and pure, filled with grace and Christian virtue. She is also a beautiful woman. As a character, she inspires both criticism and praise from the literary critics. Some see her as one of Shakespeare's most interesting and strongest female characters. In the midst of the moral decay around her, she holds firmly to her beliefs and principles, to the point of sacrificing her brother's life to save her soul for eternity. In the end, she is seen as the symbol of mercy when she forgives Angelo, even though she believes he has put her brother to death and has propositioned her. It is no small wonder that the Duke recognizes her goodness and chooses her for his wife.
Other critics judge her as a hypocrite. She is all for saving her own soul, yet when it comes to the Duke's proposal for Mariana, she, without any qualms, agrees to put Mariana in Angelo's bed in her place. At the end of the play, these critics assume she will marry the Duke, quickly relinquishing her religious training and the piety that she valued so highly during most of the play. These critics also see her as non-emotional, almost icy, in her relationships to other people. They cannot believe she can so easily commit her brother to death.
In truth, upon close inspection of the play, one must judge Isabella as an emotional, almost fiery character. In Act I, Scene 4, Isabella is introduced as a novice, entering the sisterhood of St. Clare. She is obviously a very devout female. As a bright and beautiful woman from the upper classes of society, she would have much to look forward to in life. Because of her strong Christian beliefs, she is preparing to give up her potential earthly pleasures and live as a nun. During the play, she clearly defends her Christian beliefs with deep emotion. With such lofty ideals, it is not surprising that Isabella would recoil from the idea of giving her pure body in exchange for the life of a man, even if it is her brother.
As the play proceeds and as the Duke goes about weaving his plots, Isabella begins to undergo gradual changes. Although she still exemplifies purity and piety, she is beginning to interact with life and sees how she can serve her fellow man outside of the convent. At the final scene, in a picture of pure mercy, she joins Mariana in pleading for Angelo's life, the man who has tried to seduce her. She is truly an example of Christian forgiveness.