As its title suggests, this play is about judgment, retribution, and mercy. It is also about the balance between freedom and restraint and between legitimate exercise of power and abuse of that power. The dramatic matrix Shakespeare creates is fundamentally serious. Yet he brings in comic elements, and the resolution of the story is carried out in the tradition of comedy. Thus the "problem" of this play: the mood constantly shifts, as do our perspectives. Throughout the work we tend to sympathize with certain characters and remain antagonistic to others. Yet the lines of demarcation blur. Even at the end, we still find ourselves weighing the merits of opposing forces and evaluating the significance of what we have experienced.
The primary source of the work, which is set in sixteenth-century Vienna, is George Whetstone play Promos and Cassandra ( 1578), which itself was derived from Giraldi Cinthio collection of tales known as Hecatommithi ( 1565). This book is the one from which Shakespeare took the story that became Othello.
The opening scene establishes the curious atmosphere. The Duke begins by praising the wisdom and skill of his advisor Escalus (I, i, 3-13). Thus we are surprised when the Duke orders the presence of Angelo:
What figure of us think you he will bear?
For you must know, we have with special soul
Elected him our absence to supply, Lent him our terror, dress'd him with our love, And given his deputation all the organs
Of our own pow'r. What think you of it?
(I, i, 16-21)
Escalus's answer is neutral (I i, 22-24), but questions remain: first, why is the Duke bestowing authority on someone else, and second, why does he choose a seemingly unknown quantity like Angelo instead of a reliable counselor like Escalus?