Barnardine and Claudio – parallel and contrast

Barnardine is first mentioned in Act IV sc ii, when the Provost asks Pompey to help the executioner Abhorson. Claudio and Barnardine are to be executed on the same day. For the audience, this instantly places them in a parallel but contrasting position:

  • Both are condemned to death, but one for taking a life and the other for creating a new life
  • The injustice of this seems obvious, and part of Barnardine's role is to reinforce for the audience a sense that applying the law indiscriminately does not result in true justice. The Provost expresses his feelings about the situation, remarking:
Th'one has my pity; not a jot the other,
Being a murderer, though he were my brother

Barnardine and the Duke

Barnardine has another function in the play, which is to reveal more about the nature of the Duke.

1. Apparently the Duke has, in the past, acted firmly in matters of law.

  • In Act IV sc ii, the Duke asks the Provost about Barnardine: 
‘How came it that the absent Duke had not either delivered him to his liberty, or executed him?'


‘I have heard that it was ever his manner to do so',

with which the Provost agrees.

However, this seems at odds with:

  • The Duke's own admission to Friar Thomas, in Act I sc iii, that he has ‘let slip' for many years the ‘strict statutes' by which the ruler should control Vienna.
  • His total ignorance of Barnardine's position, having to ask further questions of the Provost in order to find out about this prisoner. This may well make the audience wonder what they are to think of the Duke and his knowledge about his city.

2. There is no doubt, however, that the Duke cares about the spiritual well-being of Barnardine:

  • It would be convenient to have Barnardine executed, so that his head could be substituted for Claudio's
  • He clearly deserves death under Viennese law, as a confessed murderer

However, the Duke decides:

  • That Barnadine cannot be beheaded in a drunken state and with no sign of penitence.
  • He must be given the chance to acknowledge his sins, to repent and to save his soul:
A creature unprepar'd, unmeet for death;
And to transport him in the mind he is
Were damnable.

Barnardine and the Duke's mercy

At the end of the play, Barnardine has further significance: the Duke's treatment of him raises questions about what the Duke has managed to achieve, if anything, by his disguise and his apparent departure from Vienna (see also Characterisation > The Duke):

  • Undue leniency has been a problem in Vienna, resulting in a situation of growing disorder, where ‘quite athwart goes all decorum' (Act I sc iii)
  • Nevertheless, the Duke completely pardons Barnardine, telling him to think of his soul and his eternal life:
Sirrah, thou art said to have a stubborn soul
That apprehends no further than this world,
And squar'st thy life according. Thou'rt condemn'd;
But, for those earthly faults, I quit them all,
And pray thee take this mercy to provide
For better times to come.
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