Mariana is part of one of the key enigmas of this ‘problem play' (see also Introduction).

Who is Mariana?

Mariana, performed by Poornima Kirby for Shakespeare and CompanyIt is Angelo's treatment of Mariana that enables the Duke to use her in the ‘bed-trick' and to save Isabella's chastity; yet her very existence is unknown to the audience – and, it appears, to the other characters – until Act III sc i when the Duke reveals it to Isabella:

  • Isabella has ‘heard of the lady, and good words went with her name', but Mariana's treatment by Angelo has apparently escaped her attention.
  • Angelo has blackened Mariana's reputation, ‘pretending in her discoveries of dishonour', which allowed him to break his betrothal vows, yet Isabella has only heard ‘good words' about Mariana.
  • No other character, with the exception of the Duke, who has been visiting her as her confessor for several years, seems to have any knowledge of this sad lady, who lives in a ‘moated grange' presumably in some quiet area of the city.

Mariana and the play's other characters

Thematic significance

The problems which Mariana poses from the perspective of the plot's realism are largely irrelevant when considering her thematic significance:

  • Through her betrothal to Angelo, and his leaving her because of the failure of her dowry, Shakespeare creates a series of parallels and contrasts between Angelo and Claudio. (See also Structure.)
  • By showing us that the Duke regards it as lawful for Mariana to sleep with Angelo as her husband, Claudio's relationship with Juliet is put into a new perspective. (See also Social/political context > The Stuart monarchy.)

A light to others

Mariana also contributes to the shaping of Isabella's character. Mariana's continued love for Angelo, and her desire to save his life, leads to her pleading with Isabella to join her in begging for mercy, even though they both believe that Claudio has been executed at Angelo's command. Isabella's acquiescence in this act shows how far she much she has learned about the human condition during the course of the play.

Mariana also adds to the enigma of the Duke's character; not only has he visited her for years, but apparently as a father-confessor, since she tells her page-boy (Act IV sc i) that the ‘friar' has ‘often still'd my brawling discontent', and in his final speech of the play the Duke remarks that he has ‘confess'd her'. Yet in Act I sc iii the Duke went to ask to borrow a friar's habit and to learn how to behave as one. (See also Structure.)

An exemplum of love

Through her generosity of spirit, Mariana enables the Duke to manipulate a ‘happy ending' for Angelo and the other characters. Her love is unconditional, and she goes on loving Angelo even though he has wronged her. In this way she is key to the discussion of love, mercy and forgiveness, as opposed to strict justice, which is at the heart of the play.

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