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Duke Vincentio, having decided to go on a long journey, leaves the management of his kingdom in the hands of Angelo. The real reason for his leaving Vienna is, in fact, to come back disguised as a friar and watch what transpires in his kingdom during his absence. The Duke feels that the city has become morally corrupted, with whorehouses all over, and he wishes to bring a change in the city.
Angelo, at first, seems like the right choice for taking the Duke's place. He is an industrious, noble, and trustworthy man. In his zeal to prove himself, he arrests Claudio, a young gentleman, for having impregnated a young girl, Juliet, and sentences him to death. Lucio, a person from the lower strata of society, comes to know of Claudio's sentence from Mistress Overdone, who is the Madam of a whorehouse. Lucio decides to take the matter in his hands. He goes to meet Isabella to inform her of her brother Claudio's impending death. Isabella goes to Angelo to plead for her brother's release. Angelo is dazzled by her beauty, and in his heightened state of desire, propositions Isabella to offer her body to him in return for her brother's release. An outraged Isabella returns to her brother, maintaining that her chastity is more important than his life.
Angelo spends the night with Mariana. The then violates his promise (and his honor) and orders Claudio's execution. The Duke arranges to behead another prisoner and present his head instead of Claudio's. In the final scene, Isabella reveals the entire truth of the deception to Angelo. The Duke reveals his identity, orders Angelo to marry Mariana, and then promptly sentences him to death. Now Mariana pleads for her husband's life and entreats Isabella to join her. Isabella consents. The Duke pardons Angelo and also reveals that Claudio is not dead. Finally, after ordering Claudio to marry Juliet, he proposes to Isabella, who accepts.