In many ways Claudio acts as a catalyst: it is in reacting to his actions that other characters exhibit their own natures, and his situation gives rise to many of the important themes and significant ideas of the play. (See also Themes and significant ideas.)

Claudio and Juliet

Claudio's relationship with Juliet is at once both a parallel to and a contrast with other sexual encounters in the play:

  • As it is outside marriage, their sexual intercourse is, by the laws of Vienna (and for Shakespeare's audience) technically fornication
  • However, they have exchanged vows and regard themselves as married. (See also Social/political context > The Stuart monarchy.)
  • Far from taking money for sex, like the pimps and prostitutes (who nevertheless seem to escape the full penalty of the law), Claudio has accepted Juliet as his wife, even though her dowry is not yet forthcoming. In this he is far more moral than Angelo who rejected Mariana when her dowry was lost; Claudio is, as Lucio remarks (Act I sc ii) ‘ever precise in promise-keeping.'

Angelo, and Claudio's death sentence

Angelo's insistence to Escalus in Act II sc i that Claudio deserves the death sentence, becomes highly ironic and significant: his words, unknown to himself at the time, pronounce his own death-sentence:

When I that censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.

By judging Claudio so severely, Angelo places himself in peril of equally severe judgement. The ‘measure' he metes out to Claudio will be the measure he himself may receive: see also Introduction.

Isabella and Claudio

Isabella, too, reveals much of her character through her reaction to Claudio and his actions:

  • Although Juliet is a friend whom Isabella regards as ‘my cousin Juliet' (Act I sc iv) she nevertheless so disapproves of their behaviour that she cannot bring herself to name their act of fornication, telling Angelo how much she ‘abhor(s)' the vice (Act II sc ii), which she ‘most desire(s) should meet the blow of justice.'
  • When Claudio asks her to agree to Angelo's demands, to save his life, her violent reaction reveals much of her character and her priorities: her role as a ‘sister' in the sense of ‘nun' is more important to her than her role as Claudio's sister (see also Characterisation > Isabella; Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity).

Claudio's view of death

  • Claudio himself seems more concerned to save his life than his soul; by bringing him to the point of death, the Duke allows Claudio to understand that he is mortal and that he will one day face God's judgement as well as man's.
  • Nevertheless, although the last words that Claudio speaks in the play (in Act III sc i) are , ‘I am so out of love with life that I will sue to be rid of it,' this comment does not seem to reflect his priorities, but rather to be a reaction of despair following Isabella's tirade of invective against him.
  • His real feelings are much more passionately demonstrated in his urgent plea for life: ‘Ay, but to die, and go we know not where…'.
  • In this speech his depiction of life after death has more to do with classical and pagan imagery than with Christian belief, and suggests that Claudio's views are very different from those of his sister.

Claudio and sexual licence

Although he longs to enjoy his physical, earthly life, Claudio's attitude to sexual licence is very different from the dissolute Lucio's, even though they have been shown to be friends early in the play (Act I sc ii):

  • Claudio accepts that there should be moral bounds to behaviour, and that he has over-stepped them. When asked by Lucio what is the cause of his arrest, he replies:
From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty,
As surfeit, is the father of much fast;
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint.
  • He acknowledges that, although the law is severe, nevertheless he is paying for an offence which he has committed and ‘ ‘tis just'
  • He is ashamed, and, like Isabella, he does not wish to name his sin which ‘but to speak of would offend again.'

Claudio and the ending of the play

  • It is not Claudio's reaction to his own offence, but Isabella's, the Duke's and Angelo's which Shakespeare focuses on
  • After Act III Claudio does not speak again, though he is spoken of by the others
  • His apparent ‘death' is the catalyst which the Duke uses to induce Isabella to ask for mercy rather than strict justice for Angelo, even though she thinks Angelo has had Claudio executed
  • Sixty lines from the end of the play Claudio is brought in ‘muffled', but Shakespeare gives him no lines to speak
  • It is again in others' reactions to Claudio's situation that he continues to be significant, for in revealing that he has saved her brother the Duke takes the opportunity to ask Isabella to ‘Give me your hand and say you will be mine.'
  • What Claudio thinks about the situation we have no way of knowing: like his sister, he is silent at the end of the play.
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