The duke of Vienna meets with his aged advisor, Escalus, to discuss his own imminent departure and a commission that he has for Escalus. The duke's appointment of Angelo to take his place is mentioned, Escalus agreeing that Angelo is worthy of the honor. The latter arrives and is appointed to rule Vienna in the duke's absence in spite of his own suggestion that he be further tested before being so honored.
The duke declines the offers of Angelo and Escalus to escort him part of the way on his journey. Commenting on his distaste for crowds, he departs. Escalus and Angelo leave together to discuss their respective duties in the duke's absence, and the scene closes.
Lucio and two other young gentlemen, lounging in the street, exchange wisecracks in a vulgar tone. Mistress Overdone, a whorehouse keeper known to the three, approaches and tells them of the fate of a mutual acquaintance. Young Claudio, arrested for getting Juliet with child, is to be executed some three days hence, at the command of the new deputy, Angelo. Lucio and the others leave to "learn the truth of it" (I. ii. 82).
Claudio now comes onstage, guarded by the provost and his officers. Juliet is also listed in the stage directions as entering at this point. Lucio and his companions return to question Claudio about his arrest. Through Lucio, Claudio sends for his sister Isabella, who is on the point of entering a convent. It is the young man's hope that she will be able to persuade Angelo to be lenient.
The duke, seeking refuge at a monastery, explains his purpose to Friar Thomas. Having led Angelo and his people to think he has gone to Poland, he now wishes to disguise himself as a friar in order to go unrecognized among his subjects. He has allowed the "strict statutes and most biting laws, / The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds" (I. iii. 19-20) to go unenforced over a period of several years. The laws have been openly flaunted and must now be brought to bear. When the friar gently suggests that it is for the duke himself, rather than his deputy, to do so, the duke agrees. However, since the fault is his for allowing the people too much scope, he feels it would seem "too dreadful" in him to turn suddenly strict. For this reason, he has deputized Angelo. He now wishes to observe his deputy's rule. As the scene closes, the duke implies that, having reason to doubt Angelo's character, he has made this a sort of test.
In a convent of the sisterhood of Saint Clare, Isabella is about to take her vows. She is interrupted in a conversation with Sister Francisca by a man's voice outside. The nun leaves Isabella to open the door to Lucio, who has come to tell her of Claudio's plight. Although at first she doubts her ability to sway Angelo's judgment, Lucio convinces her to go to him and plead for mercy.
Three characters are introduced, including two of the three major ones: the duke and Angelo. Scene 1 establishes the structure within which the action of the play will go forward. A wise monarch is leaving the city in the charge of a younger, less experienced man who is known for his virtue and worth, but who, by his own account, is untested.
Escalus, an elderly lord, stands high in the esteem of his duke. The nature of the commission that he is given to carry out in the duke's absence is unclear, due apparently to a missing bit of text in the duke's first speech.
Angelo is highly praised by both the duke and Escalus. This praise and the man's own modest reluctance to take over the city's highest post combine to portray Angelo as a virtuous and capable man who will work for the good of the people. In a frequently quoted speech (I. i. 30-41), the duke compares him to a torch that is lighted not for itself but for the light it can give to those around it.
The duke is characterized by his own speeches as a man of intelligence and sensitivity who has the good of his people at heart. He announces that he will leave privately: "I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes" (I. i. 68-69). The speech expressing a respect for the people but a dislike for mob attention was probably added for the benefit of King James, at whose court the play was first performed. James was well-known for his dislike of a throng.
In deputizing Angelo, the duke tells him that he has the scope to "enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good" (I. i. 66-67). That the deputy has the authority to qualify or modify the law and does not exercise it is one of the sources of the play's tragedy.
In Scene 2, the reader learns that Angelo will be a stern deputy. In the duke's absence, he has revived laws governing sexual morality that have not been enforced for nineteen years, by Claudio's count. Not only are all whorehouses surrounding the city to be destroyed, but Claudio, having gotten Juliet with child, is to suffer the full measure of the law.
Claudio, introduced in Scene 2, speaks with sensitivity and wisdom of his imprisonment, causing Lucio to quip that he "had as lief have the foppery of freedom as the morality of imprisonment" (137-39). Claudio is also eloquent in his description of his sister. Altogether, the impression he leaves is that of a calm, intelligent young man.
Although Juliet is mentioned in the stage directions as entering with Claudio in Scene 2, the subsequent dialogue makes her presence seem unlikely. It would be odd of Claudio to speak so openly before her of his crime. Further, in discussing the matter with Lucio, he speaks of Juliet as if she were not present:
Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed:
You know the lady: she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. (149-53)
Possibly the inclusion of Juliet in the stage directions is an error, or she may have had some part in the scene in an earlier version.
The action of the play takes place on two levels. The main plot unfolds in the polite world; a parallel minor action occurs among the vulgar characters of the play. Scene 2 introduces the reader to two of the low characters, Mistress Overdone and Pompey. Claudio is another character of the main action, on a level with Angelo, the duke, and Escalus. Lucio serves as a sort of go-between, a gentleman born to the polite world, whose lifestyle and activities have led him into an acquaintance with the vulgar. Pompey and Mistress Overdone, as well as the "two Gentlemen," speak entirely in prose, while Claudio's lines are delivered exclusively in poetry. Lucio alternates between prose and poetry, depending upon the seriousness of his tone and the persons with whom he is speaking. Shakespeare sets off the two levels of action by this distinction of poetry from prose.
The action of the low plot parallels that of the main. The characters of both are suffering from Angelo's sudden enforcement of the city's morality laws. Claudio is to lose his life, Mistress Overdone her livelihood. The subplot also offers humor to provide a contrast to, and relief from, the tragic vein of the main plot. Lucio, the two gentlemen, Mistress Overdone, and Pompey exchange witticisms loaded with puns and word plays in the true Shakespearean style.
The repetition of the story of Claudio's arrest and the failure of Mistress Overdone and Lucio to acknowledge it, although they are clearly aware of it, indicate that some revision may have taken place, confusing the issue. It is also possible, however, that Shakespeare used this posture of ignorance to allow for additional witticisms on sex.
In Scene 3, the duke's character is further delineated by an admission of his failure to provide discipline for his people. The liberties described have apparently been allowed because of his love for "the life removed" (8). His preference for a withdrawn life has allowed the abuses to go on over a length of fourteen years, by the duke's account, although Claudio, in the previous scene, makes it nineteen years. The duke expresses the belief that too much liberty must lead to restraint. He has given the people too wide a scope and must now strictly enforce the laws to bring his city back under control. This is a recurrent theme of the play.
The closing lines of Scene 3 are worthy of note as indicating a suspicion on the part of the duke that Angelo is not as virtuous as he appears to be:
Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone; hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (50-54)
Here is evidence for those who view the deputy as a hypocrite rather than an honest man fallen from virtue.
Introduced to Isabella in Scene 4, the audience finds her in conversation with a nun, desiring that upon entry into the convent, she should be subject to stricter restraints. Her religious devotion makes the privileges of the sisterhood seem too liberal.
Lucio greets her in a somewhat jocular tone but becomes sober upon learning that she is the Isabella he is seeking:
I would not--though 'tis my familiar sin
With maids to seem the lapwing and to jest,
Tongue far from heart--play with all virgins so:
I hold you as a thing ensky'd and sainted,
By your renouncement an immortal spirit,
And to be talk'd with in sincerity,
As with a saint. (31-37)
He speaks to her throughout in a respectful tone, using poetry, not prose. Isabella is a devout woman, capable of inspiring respect even in Lucio, who before and after this scene shows himself a thoroughly disrespectful man with more wit than virtue.