Spoiler Alert! Close your eyes if you don't want us to ruin the ending for you...
Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's comedies knows what to expect at the end of the play – wedding bells. In the case of Measure for Measure, we get a quadruple dose: Angelo is forced to marry the girl he once jilted, Claudio is pardoned and free to marry his baby mama (Juliet), Lucio is ordered to marry the mother of his illegitimate child, and the Duke proposes to Isabella.
Does this mean everyone lives happily ever after? Not so much. Even though the Duke makes a big show out of how "joy[ful]" it is that so many couples are pairing up, Measure for Measure offers one of the most artificial (and controversial) "happily ever after" conclusions in Western literature.
Although Claudio is happy to escape execution and be reunited with Juliet, for Lucio, marriage seems worse than the death penalty. When the Duke orders him to marry the mother of his child, he declares "Marrying a punk [prostitute], my lord, is pressing to death, / whipping, and hanging:" (5.1.30). Angelo's response to his forced marriage is just as poignant. When he is ordered to marry Mariana, Angelo obeys the Duke but says absolutely nothing.
What's even more astonishing is the way the Duke proposes (or propositions) Isabella immediately after revealing that her brother is alive and well:
If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon'd; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine. (5.1.61)
The Duke obviously feels that he's doing Isabella a huge favor by 1) pardoning her fornicating brother and 2) offering to marry her. Still, Isabella is completely silent.
Is she speechless because she's overjoyed at the proposal? Or, is she silent because she's been propositioned (for the second time) by yet another powerful man?
At the play's beginning, Isabella was about to take a final vow that would make her a nun. Has she changed her mind, or not? Shakespeare wants you to decide. If she is happy about the Duke's offer, then she's undergone one heck of a transformation. If she hasn't changed her mind about being a nun, then Isabella is being victimized here.
Just imagine if you were a director or the actor/actress playing the role of Isabella. How would you stage these final moments?