The ambiguous ending

The Duke's proposal

At the end of the play, the Duke twice asks Isabella to marry him. He first asks her to ‘Give me your hand and say you will be mine'. Shakespeare gives her no words of reply. Some forty lines later, in his final speech, the Duke says to her:

Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

Again Isabella has no words of reply.

The director's choice

The director of any production of the play has to decide what to do at this point:

  • Should Isabella smile and move towards the Duke, in acceptance?
  • Should she turn away in horror, suggesting that her chastity and her vocation as a nun are still her main priorities?
  • Should she look uncertain?

There is no indication in the text, and indeed there has been no indication of the Duke's feelings for Isabella before this point in the play. If a stage director wishes to indicate that the Duke has earlier had tender feelings for Isabella, this would have to be done by facial expression or gesture; as far as we know (the text was not published during Shakespeare's life-time) Shakespeare wishes to leave us guessing.

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