Act II, Scene 1
To no avail, Escalus pleads with an adamant Angelo to have pity on the life of Claudio. Angelo does not really consider Claudio’s crime to be something major, but he is intent on carrying out the “measure of the law” and to be strict with all offenders who break the law. As a result, he orders Claudio to be executed the next morning. Escalus is grieved over Claudio’s fate, but is helpless to stop the execution.
Elbow, a constable, enters with Froth and Pompey in custody, both guilty of immoral acts. When Escalus questions them about their crimes, they give long and ridiculous answers. Angelo, disgusted with their chatter, asks Escalus to settle the case and leaves the place. Although Escalus is dismayed by the steady decay of established social standard, he dismisses Froth and Pompey with a warning; he tells them that if they are again arrested for immoral activities, their punishment will be severe.
Angelo is adamant in enforcing the law to the letter, and, therefore, plans the execution of Claudio. When Escalus pleads for mercy for Claudio and tries to reason with him, saying that anyone, even Angelo himself could have committed the crime, Angelo argues and says, “It is one thing to be tempted, Escalus, another thing to fall.” It is ironic that later in the play Angelo is tempted and commits the same crime, proving his total hypocrisy.
Escalus serves as a foil to Angelo. Escalus is older, wiser, and merciful. On the other hand, Angelo is young and relentless. He wants to follow his orders to restore dignity to the City, and he is determined to carry out the law with great strictness, assigning punishment equally no matter the circumstances. It is obvious that he is using Claudio to set an example for all others involved in immoral activities. He plans to execute Claudio for having fathered an illegitimate child. Ironically, in the same scene, Escalus dismisses the charges against Froth and Pompey with only a warning, yet both of them are truly guilty of immoral behavior.
Elbow, Froth, and Pompey are representatives of the lower class of society in contrast to Escalus and Angelo. The entry of the three men provides comic relief to the scene. Elbow, in his mission as a serious constable, uses highbrow language, which is filled with malapropisms. Instead of saying ‘malefactors,’ he says ‘benefactors,’ and he says ‘respected’ for ‘suspected’. The scene, thus, becomes a humorous interlude, filled with bawdy comment and vulgarisms. The prisoners come across as normal human beings, with human foibles. Their language, though crude, provides entertainment and need not be taken seriously. This comic relief has been injected at the opportune moment, between Claudio’s arrest and his scheduled execution.
Act II, Scene 2
The scene opens with the Provost questioning Angelo about his decision to execute Claudio. Angelo has not wavered in his decision. The execution is still to take place the next day.
Lucio brings Isabella to Angelo’s house to beg him to spare the life of Claudio. Before he departs, the Provost, realizing why she is present, wishes Isabella good luck with Angelo.
Isabella is dramatic in her pleas before Angelo, making reference to Christian forgiveness. (Remember she is about to become a nun.). In spite of her noble efforts and lofty language-, she is not successful. Angelo professes to be a stickler for rules and refuses to oblige her requests. Angelo, however, deceitfully states that there is some sense in her arguments and asks her to visit him the next day. After Isabella and Lucio leave, Angelo indulges in a soliloquy. He reveals that he is tempted by Isabella’s beauty and feels ill at ease to have a desire that he considers a sin in others.
Isabella, the pious sister of Claudio, has been persuaded by Lucio to plead for her brother’s life. She is brought to Angelo by Lucio, but the Deputy refuses to free or forgive the prisoner. She accuses Angelo of being a tyrant and asks Angelo if he has ever been guilty of actions similar to Claudio. Angelo is unmoved by her pleas, but is tempted by her beauty. In his soliloquy at the end of the scene, he confesses his own lust, saying, “With saints does bait thy hook!” Isabella’s purity makes her even more tempting.
The scene has three important purposes. It reinforces the theme of mercy introduced in the last scene. It also brings together Isabella and Angelo for the first time. Both will play an important part in the play as the drama unfolds. Finally, it foreshadows Angelo’s later guilt in committing a crime of passion. He, however, will be treated mercifully
Act II, Scene 3
The Duke, disguised as a friar, visits the prison. He tells the provost that he has come to help the prisoner Claudio. From the provost, the “friar gathers information about Claudio’s guilt; he also learns of the planned execution. Juliet comes into the scene and tells the “friar” that Claudio and she mutually committed the crime; she also adds that she repents for it.
In this brief scene, the Duke, in disguise, faces the accused for the first time; he willingly listens to Claudio’s side of the story, which reveals that the Duke tries to deal in fairness. By revealing more of the Duke’s just nature, Shakespeare makes his later intervention in the affair more believable. The Duke’s disguise serves him well, for it easily gains him entrance to see Claudio.
Duke Vincentio has his own ulterior motives for leaving Vienna in Angelo’s care. Aware of the decay and debauchery, which has seeped into his people, he wishes to change the system by introducing stricter laws and regulations. One wonders, however, why he didn’t do it himself, instead of giving Angelo the charges and going through so many devious means to achieve his end. The Duke himself hints that he does not want to be a tyrant; more likely, he knows he cannot, by his very nature, be one, and thus entrusts Angelo to enforce the strict interpretation of the law.
The Duke is truly a mysterious stage character who seems more absorbed in his own plots than in the welfare of his state. His disguise causes part of the mystery. During the play, he shows that he has leadership potential. He controls the thoughts and actions of Mariana, convincing her that there is no sin in her sleeping with Angelo. He also influences Isabella. By the end of the play, the Duke comes across as a resolute character who has become attentive to the feelings of others and capable of action, as demonstrate in the punishments that he mercifully dispenses.
The ultimate objective of the Duke is to test and to humanize both Angelo and Isabella. By the end of the play, he is successful on both accounts. Angelo admits his foolish misdeeds and repents. Isabella applies her Christianity to a real-life situation, forgiving Angelo, the man responsible for her brother’s death. And the Duke himself has certainly proven his own humanity.
At the beginning of the play, Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is at a convent, training to become a nun. She is depicted as pious and pure, filled with grace and Christian virtue. She is also a beautiful woman. As a character, she inspires both criticism and praise from the literary critics. Some see her as one of Shakespeare’s most interesting and strongest female characters. In the midst of the moral decay around her, she holds firmly to her beliefs and principles, to the point of sacrificing her brother’s life to save her soul for eternity. In the end, she is seen as the symbol of mercy when she forgives Angelo, even though she believes he has put her brother to death and has propositioned her. It is no small wonder that the Duke recognizes her goodness and chooses her for his wife.
Other critics judge her as a hypocrite. She is all for saving her own soul, yet when it comes to the Duke’s proposal for Mariana, she, without any qualms, agrees to put Mariana in Angelo’s bed in her place. At the end of the play, these critics assume she will marry the Duke, quickly relinquishing her religious training and the piety that she valued so highly during most of the play. These critics also see her as non-emotional, almost icy, in her relationships to other people. They cannot believe she can so easily commit her brother to death.
In truth, upon close inspection of the play, one must judge Isabella as an emotional, almost fiery character. In Act I, Scene 4, Isabella is introduced as a novice, entering the sisterhood of St. Clare. She is obviously a very devout female. As a bright and beautiful woman from the upper classes of society, she would have much to look forward to in life. Because of her strong Christian beliefs, she is preparing to give up her potential earthly pleasures and live as a nun. During the play, she clearly defends her Christian beliefs with deep emotion. With such lofty ideals, it is not surprising that Isabella would recoil from the idea of giving her pure body in exchange for the life of a man, even if it is her brother.
As the play proceeds and as the Duke goes about weaving his plots, Isabella begins to undergo gradual changes. Although she still exemplifies purity and piety, she is beginning to interact with life and sees how she can serve her fellow man outside of the convent. At the final scene, in a picture of pure mercy, she joins Mariana in pleading for Angelo’s life, the man who has tried to seduce her. She is truly an example of Christian forgiveness.
The main theme of Measure for Measure is that rational rules and regulations are necessary to maintain law and order. In Angelo’s eagerness for reform, he demands “measure for measure,” which means pure justice, without mercy. His belief is in ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ no matter the circumstances. Measure for Measure speaks about man’s action, its results, and the need for mercy, even if there is a strict legal system. Justice has to be tempered with mercy; only then can a government conduct its affairs smoothly.
Hypocrites bring their own destruction. Angelo is the personification of the hypocrite in the play. He condemns Claudio to death for his immoral actions and then proceeds to try and seduce Isabella himself. In the end, he is unmasked for his hypocrisy and begs for forgiveness for his misdeeds. Because of the Duke’s mercy, Angelo is spared from the total condemnation he deserves.
Critical Appreciation of Measure for Measure
Critics have diverse views regarding the value of the play. Some consider it very good, filled with wisdom; others consider it one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, filled with unexciting characters. It is important to remember that Measure for Measure is an old story told over again. Shakespeare refashions the original tale, largely known by Elizabethan audiences, with a higher motive. The moral theme, which has traces of the old Morality plays, gives it a peculiar ethical interest.
It carefully develops the theme of the need to temper justice with mercy. The entire play is meticulously constructed, and most characters illustrate certain human qualities, which have been chosen with careful references to the main theme. Thus, Isabella stands for saintly purity; Angelo stands for self- righteousness; the Duke represents a psychologically sound and enlightened ethic; Lucio represents indecent wit; and Pompey and Mistress Overdone symbolize professional immorality. Each character, therefore, illumines some facet of man’s morality or immorality; and the play strives to define what is moral and just.
The entire atmosphere of the play is one of religious and critical morality. In the beginning of the play, Isabella is a novice at St. Clare. The Duke disguises himself as a Friar, exercising the divine privileges of this office towards Juliet, Barnardine, Claudio, and Pompey. In fact, the Central idea of Measure for Measure can easily be stated in Christian terms: “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Since Angelo is not a conscious hypocrite, it is easier to forgive even him. Self-deception and pride drive him. When desire for Isabella overcomes him, Angelo even struggles against it and prays to heaven. Since he is weak, the struggle is short-lived; Angelo soon gives in to his desires and becomes an utter scoundrel.