The picture illustrates the dilemma of Claudio and Isabella and is based on a scene from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Claudio's life can only be saved if his sister Isabella agrees to sacrifice her virginity to Angelo, the absent Duke's deputy. The moment is summed up by these lines from the play, which Hunt inscribed on the picture frame: 'Claudio. Death is a fearful thing. Isabella. And shamed life is hateful.' However, the painting is more than a mere illustration of Shakespeare's words, and Hunt conditions our response through the picture's subtle imagery.
Isabella is an upright figure, symbolising her virtue and moral rectitude. Hunt remains faithful to the details of the play by dressing her in the simple white habit of the order of St Clare, further emphasising her purity. She is bathed in sunlight, thus linking her to the outdoor scene, with its apple blossom in full bloom and a distant view of a church, a reminder of duty and Christian ethics. Claudio's contorted pose, as he stands manacled to the wall, acts as a foil to that of Isabella and symbolises his troubled mind. In contrast to her plain white attire he is richly dressed in black, crimson and purple. Unlike his sister, he is a creature of passion, whose heart rules his head. Isabella's large hands are placed on his heart in a gesture of restraint, reminding us that it was Claudio's desire for Juliet and her subsequent pregnancy which led to his imprisonment. He turns away from the light and avoids his sister's gaze, glaring moodily into the corner of his cell. The apple blossom strewn across his cloak was a late addition. Associated with Isabella, it represents Claudio's willingness to sacrifice his sister's virginity in order to save his own life.
When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853 it was accompanied by a quotation from Measure for Measure, Act III, scene I:
Claud.Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;'Tis too horrible!
The weariest, and most loathed worldly life,
That age, ache penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
In 1864 Hunt issued a pamphlet advertising the engraving of Claudio and Isabella, in which he summarised the picture's 'deep and noble moral' as 'Thou shall not do evil that good may come.'
Leslie Parris (ed), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.103-4, reproduced p.103 in colour.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.144-5, reproduced p.146, in colour.