Barnadine, a veteran inmate of the prison, that also houses two new arrivals;
Claudio, (guilty of fornication), and Pompey, (guilty of being a bawd), is described by the Provost as:
" A Bohemian born, but here nursed up and bred: one that is a prisoner nine years old". (IV.ii.)His prison term was some 14 years. The reason for this extended term is that his execution had been stayed by reprieves wrought by his friends, since existing evidence for an alleged murder was of "doubtful proof". (But when it becomes expedient for Angelo's public image to effect an execution, "proof" is miraculously produced .
Barnadine, then would be about 23 years old, and _if he committed the murder, the circumstances would be open to speculation.
The Provost continues his description:
"A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless and fearless of what's past, present or to come; insensible of mortality and desperately mortal." ( IV.ii.)To promote his plan to avert Claudio's execution, the duke orders the substitution of Barnadine, (just as he substituted Marianna to preserve Isabella's chastity). The duke exposes himself as a "user", glazing his self-interest with righteousness, but Barnadine refuses to cooperate. He defies the executioner:
" You rogue, I have been drinking all night, I am not fitted fort".He ignores the urgings of Pompey and the duke to go peaceably to the block and insists:
"I swear, I will not die today for any man's persuasion, if you have anything to say to me, come to my ward, for thence will not I today." (IV. iii)and he locks himself in his cell.
Saved by the death of another inmate who died "of a cruel fever", (interpreted by the duke as "an accident that heaven provides") the indestructible Barnadine chalks up another victory.
The disguised duke resumes his royal identity at the play's close, and among his various acts of judgements and sentences, he liberates Barnadine, forgiving him his "earthly faults", commending his "stubborn soul".
What the duke calls "stubborn soul" is really Barnadine's spiritual freedom, despite his physical confinement. This duality is shown in the painting as the open blue sky and bright sun on the left background and the bars and lock on the right but note that the lock is on the inside of his cell.
His proclamation is nailed to the wall and demonstrated by his resolute ax-breaking, which also represents all the laws in the play, both legal and moral that have been broken.
Men like Barnadine are not easily intimidated. They have a kind of integrity that qualifies them as "Truth-Tellers" and bringers of light, symbolized by the sun emblazoned on his tunic.