The ending of Measure for Measure revealed the true nature of the Duke’s character: he is an apt, forgiving, just, caring ruler after all, and any attempts to replace him will fail. The Duke will go to extraordinary lengths to prove this, which is how the play begins. Shakespeare makes it seem that the Duke was giving up his position as an act of cowardice, a general unwillingness to uphold the law. The Duke, probably sensing that the people pf Vienna held this opinion, decided to spy on anyone and everyone who had anything to do with his rule and the law of the land.
The best part of this elaborate plan was his return to rule in Vienna and the subsequent revelation that he was the friar that many of the main characters have been confiding in. He dishes out a number of punishments to almost everyone, to take them back a few lines later, showing that he’s a kind ruler. He goes along with Angelo’s opinion that Isabella and Mariana are lying and crazy, and has Isabella sent away to jail at first. After being revealed as the friar, he first forces Angelo to marry Mariana for engaging in pre-marital sex, then he condemns him to death for the hypocritical punishment of Claudio for the same “crime.” The Duke forces Lucio to marry whatever prostitute he impregnated, then orders him to be flogged and killed.
Suddenly, though, the Duke simply forgives everyone. Everyone. Claudio, Angelo, and Lucio all must get married to their respective partners. Lucio is the only unhappy one here, as he likens marrying a whore to getting beaten and executed: “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (5.1.515-516). Even a prisoner of nine years, Barnardine, who was supposed to be executed, who was even seriously recommenced to be executed in Claudio’s place by the Duke, was pardoned. Barnardine’s probably the second strongest character in this play, besides the Duke, because he puts off his execution by being too drunk and lazy to cooperate. When he’s called upon to die, he even announces he’s going back to his cell to go to sleep. I love the Duke’s explanation for Barnadine’s pardon: “Sirrah, thou art said to have a stubborn soul / That apprehends no further than this world, / And squar’st thy life according. Thou’rt condemned; / But, for those earthly faults, I quit them all,” (5.1.474-477). That’s like saying, “Barney, you refuse to die, and have no aspirations. But everyone’s got their own problems. You’re pardoned.” Perhaps the Duke saw a little of himself in Barnadine.
Redemption is a strong theme within this play. Virtually every character gets let off the hook for their various crimes, no matter how serious. Even Pompey gets to execute people for the rest of his life. Good for him. I’d say that this play is a commentary about the unnecessary harshness of puritan values. Angelo represents a move towards that conservative, unforgiving nature, of Puritanism. The Duke, however, represents Shakespeare’s opinion of the previous, relaxed rule of Elizabeth I. He’s such a perfect ruler in the play that it’s clear Shakespeare wanted this type of ruler to come back, as opposed to the Puritan rule of King James after her death.