Lucio may at first seem a straightforward character – lewd, crude and a liar, but one who introduces a good deal of humour into the play. However, like many of the characters in Measure for Measure, he can be problematic.

Lucio as a lecher

When we first meet Lucio, it is at the beginning of Act I sc ii, in a scene which is in direct juxtaposition to the mood and topic of the previous one. (See also Structure > Juxtaposition of scenes.) He is discussing with his friends the report of the Duke's withdrawal from Vienna, and their conversation is interlaced with sexual puns (see also Shakespeare's Language > Language as a weapon):

  • They readily admit to visiting brothels and to contracting venereal diseases.
  • When Mistress Overdone, the brothel-keeper, enters, Lucio says that he has ‘purchased … many diseases under her roof'.
  • Later we learn (Act III sc ii) that he has impregnated a prostitute, Kate Keep-down.
  • When talking to the disguised Duke in Act III sc ii, Lucio describes lechery as ‘sport'.
  • He does not see fornication as wrong, but refers to lust as if it were beyond the control of the human will – he says it is ‘the rebellion of a cod-piece' – adding that Claudio has been condemned ‘for untrussing'.
  • He also (slanderously) praises the absent Duke for being sexually licentious:
Ere (the Duke) would have hanged a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling for the sport; he knew the service.

Lucio, the true friend of Claudio

Shakespeare also depicts Lucio as the friend of Claudio – a young man whose only sexual encounter, as far as we know, is with Juliet, whom he regards as ‘fast my wife'. In doing this, Shakespeare is able to introduce another side of Lucio's character, quite different from that we see when he is with his ‘low-life' friends:

  • Lucio is immediately keen to help Claudio; when Claudio asks for ‘a word with you', Lucio's response is, ‘A hundred - if they'll do you any good'.
  • He readily agrees to find Isabella and to enlist her help.

Elevated language

Once in the presence of Isabella (Act I sc iv) Lucio behaves with respect (and the change of his speech to blank verse underlines this for the audience; see also Shakespeare's Language > Blank verse, prose & rhyme). He acknowledges that he is often flippant, but insists that he is now serious:

I would not, though ‘tis my familiar sin,
With maids to seem the lapwing, and to jest
Tongue far from heart, play with all virgins so.
I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted
By your renouncement, an immortal spirit,
And to be talk'd with in sincerity
As with a saint.

Given the extravagance of this language, Isabella feels he is mocking her, but he insists that he is not.

Shakespeare then gives him a passage of poetic language, vastly different form his gross puns in Act I sc ii, in which he describes the sexual encounter of Claudio and Juliet, and Juliet's consequent pregnancy:

Your brother and his lover have embrac'd;
As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time
That from the seedness the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry.

It could be argued that these words are euphemistic, and are Lucio's way of introducing to Isabella a topic which he feels may shock her; he does, after all, want to persuade her to plead for Claudio. Nevertheless, the fact that Shakespeare gives Lucio the capacity for such thoughts, words and imagery shows that he is not merely a jester and a ‘lapwing'.

A dedicated friend

We also see another side to Lucio when he goes with Isabella to the court when she first pleads for her brother's life:

  • Isabella's own abhorrence of fornication leads to her being easily put off; at first she rapidly accepts Angelo's judgement, saying ‘O just but severe law! I had a brother, then,' before turning to go
  • It is Lucio who urges her to stay (again speaking in blank verse):
Give't not o'er so. – To him again, entreat him,
Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown;
You are too cold. If you should need a pin,
You could not with more tame a tongue desire it.
To him, I say.
  • He has to urge her on twice more before he can be sure she is using her eloquence to full effect, when he can at last remark, ‘Ay, well said,' and later praises her efforts further, with ‘That's well said.'
  • Nevertheless, he still feels she needs to be encouraged to continue, telling her, ‘O to him, to him, wench! He will relent; / He's coming, I perceive't.'
  • He then continues encouraging her with asides throughout the rest of the scene.

The audience is given the impression that, without Lucio to urge her on, Isabella would have easily given up her efforts to save her brother.

Lucio as betrayer

Although Lucio seems a good friend to Claudio, he is not always so loyal. His behaviour to Pompey, Mistress Overdone and Kate Keep-down (a character we hear of but do not see) shows the audience a much less pleasant aspect of Lucio.

It might be argued that Lucio acknowledges Claudio is a better person than these pimps and prostitutes, and that he therefore behaves differently to him. However Lucio's deliberate betrayal of the ‘low-life' characters, when they expect his help, reveals an unsavoury side to his nature:

  • When Pompey, on his way to prison, in Act III sc ii, encounters Lucio, he immediately asks for bail, expecting that Lucio will help him:
    ‘Here's a gentleman, and a friend of mine.'

Not only does Lucio refuse, but he mocks Pompey – and makes it clear that Pompey is a bawd:

What, is there none of Pygmalion's images newly made woman to be had now, for putting the hand in the pocket and extracting clutched? … How doth my dear morsel thy mistress? Procures she still, ha? Bawd is he doubtless, and of antiquity too.
  • Mistress Overdone is consequently taken to gaol; she knows that Lucio has given evidence against her, and she tells Escalus that Lucio has deserted a woman he promised to marry, and has disowned his child by her:
O my lord, this is one Lucio's information against me, Mistress Kate Keep-down was with child by him in the Duke' s time, he promised her marriage. Her child is a year and a quarter old ... I have kept it myself; and see how he goes about to abuse me. (Act III sc ii)

Lucio and humour

Gross language

As well as his betrayal of Pompey and Mistress Overdone, and his treatment of Kate Keep-down, Lucio also grossly slanders the Duke. Since it is obvious from his behaviour in the final scene, if not before, that Lucio does not know the Duke, Lucio's claims in Act III sc ii that he is a friend of the Duke, and knows him to be a lecher, are clearly lies.

This scene usually arouses laughter when played on stage:

  • The audience is aware that, unbeknownst to Lucio, he is speaking to the Duke himself:
    • As often in comedy, amusement arises from the position of privileged knowledge which the audience has.
  • Another reason the audience may find this encounter funny is due to the Duke's embarrassment:
    • The Duke has to put up with Lucio's slanders as he cannot yet reveal his identity.
    • The grossness of Lucio's accusations and the language in which he expresses them add to the Duke's discomfiture.
    • Lucio's remarks that the Duke was so lecherous that he would copulate with ‘a beggar of fifty' and would ‘mouth with a beggar though she smelt brown bread and garlic', cannot be refuted by the ‘friar', nor can the Duke in his present disguise deny Lucio's claim to be ‘an inward of his.'


Lucio also causes amusement in Act V sc i; his cheekiness in constantly interrupting, and insisting on talking when asked to be silent, induces laughter even in the most serious moments.

Dramatic irony

There is also humour for the audience in yet again being in a privileged position: since Lucio does not know that the friar and the Duke are one and the same person, he fails to realise his mistake in now claiming that the friar slandered the Duke:

My lord, I know him. ‘Tis a meddling friar;
I do not like the man; had he been lay, my lord,
For certain words he spoke against your Grace
In your retirement, I had swing'd him soundly…..
a saucy friar,
A very scurvy fellow.

The audience could be amused, not only by Lucio's failure to realise that the Duke and the friar are one and the same, but also, once again, by the discomfiture of the Duke. Whilst the Duke can, and does, later punish Lucio for his slanders, at the time, until he reveals his double identity as Friar Lodowick, he has to put up with Lucio's glib hypocrisy.

Lucio is clearly a rogue, a liar and a deceiver, but nevertheless, in the theatre, the humour that arises from the outrageousness of his behaviour usually attracts at least some sympathy from the audience.

Lucio as moral compass

  • It is Lucio's discomfiture of the Duke, through his slanders, which highlights the dubious nature of the Duke's decision to adopt a disguise, especially the disguise of a friar
  • The fact that Lucio's only punishment (to marry Kate Keep-down) is imposed, not because he has outraged morality, but because ‘slandering a prince deserves it', may make the audience wonder whether the Duke has actually done anything to reform the corruption loose in the state of Vienna.
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