Escalus attempts to convince Angelo that he should treat Claudio's case with mercy, but Angelo remains adamant. Calling in the provost, he orders him to see to Claudio's execution early the following morning.
At this point, Elbow, a constable, enters with the pimp Pompey and Froth, a gentleman bawd. Elbow accuses the two of some villainy. They respond to Escalus' questioning with an account of their activities so tedious and nonsensical that Angelo withdraws in disgust, leaving Escalus to judge the affair. The elder statesman at last excuses Pompey and Froth with a warning, and upon learning that Elbow has served in his office over seven years, Escalus determines to appoint a new constable in the ward.
The provost comes to Angelo to verify his order for Claudio's execution on the following morning. Angelo angrily reiterates the command.
Accompanied by Lucio, Isabella arrives to beg the deputy to reconsider her brother's sentence. Angelo stands firm but finally suggests that Isabella return on the following day. After her departure, his closing soliloquy reveals that he has been shaken by the temptation her maidenhood represents.
The duke, in his role as a friar, comes to the provost in the prison to offer his services to the prisoners there. Juliet enters, and the duke plays his role by questioning her repentance of the sin she has committed with Claudio. He then promises to go to Claudio "with instruction" before his execution.
Scene 4 opens with a soliloquy by Angelo on the subject of his inability to pray sincerely while tempted by Isabella's appeal. That lady then arrives to ask whether he has relented toward her brother. Angelo tells her subtly that Claudio must die unless she will yield her body to him. She fails to understand and Angelo speaks plainly. Isabella refuses, threatening to expose Angelo, who says he will deny her charges. Isabella leaves to tell Claudio he must prepare himself for his execution.
Escalus' role as a foil to Angelo is evident in the first few lines of Scene 1. The elder pleads the cause of mercy, but the deputy remains unmoved. Angelo is determined to make an example of Claudio by applying the letter of the law that has so long been disregarded.
Ironic foreshadowing pervades the opening conversation in Scene 1. Escalus asks Angelo to consider that had time and place ever been right, he might himself have been guilty of the crime of which Claudio stands accused. Angelo, however, argues that to contemplate a crime is one thing and to commit it another: "'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall" (17-18). Angelo tells Escalus not to argue mercy for the criminal but rather to challenge him to demand the same punishment for himself should he be guilty of the same offense. The law should show no mercy, but treat each one the same: "Let mine own judgment pattern out my death" (30). Ironically, Angelo does commit (or attempt to commit) the same crime later in the play and does, in fact, ask that the full measure of the law be dealt him.
The entry of Elbow, Froth, and Pompey in Scene 1 provides comic relief to the grave discussion that opens the scene. The conversation of Elbow, the constable, is laden with malapropisms. He uses "benefactors" when he means "malefactors," declares that he "detests his wife before Heaven" when he means "protests," and calls a house of ill-repute "respected" ("suspected").
Accused of some crime against the constable's wife, Froth and Pompey carry on at length, describing the circumstances in such detail that Angelo wearies and leaves the matter to Escalus. At last, in despair of ever getting to the bottom of it, Escalus advises that Elbow allow Pompey to continue in his trade until his crime can be more certainly discovered. Warned to stay away from bawds, Froth exits. Pompey engages in a debate with Escalus on the subject of legislated morality. He concludes that sex is a markedly general crime: "If you head and hang all that offend that way but for ten year together, you'll be glad to give out a commission for more heads" (251-53). Pompey is threatened with a whipping, but he too escapes with no more than a warning.
The interlude is a humorous one, portraying rich characters with human foibles. Pompey is a frank bawd, matter-of-fact about lust and his willingness to exploit it. Elbow's earnest righteousness and his murder of the English language are equally endearing. And Froth joins in a dialogue with Pompey that smacks heavily of vaudeville.
After Elbow departs, Scene 1 returns to the melancholy topic of Claudio's execution. Shakespeare has Escalus invite a justice to dine with him, apparently for the purpose of closing the scene with a dramatic reference to the impossibility of swaying Angelo from his determination to apply the law literally.
Escalus' light treatment of the vulgar bawds who flaunt Vienna's morality laws presents a strong contrast in this scene to Angelo's relentless punishment of Claudio's similar crime. Escalus's response to the situation seems the more reasonable one. As Pompey comments, only gelding all of Vienna's youth will keep them from their bawdy activities.
In Scene 2, in his great reluctance to execute Claudio, the provost dares to ask Angelo whether he may have reconsidered the sentence. In a brief soliloquy spoken before he is conducted into the deputy's presence, he echoes Pompey's sentiments: "All sects, all ages smack of this vice; and he / To die for't!" (5-6). Angelo, however, is unmoved and chides the provost for his impertinence.
Isabella arrives with Lucio to plead with Angelo on her brother's behalf. The provost, still present in the room, wishes her good fortune in asides spoken to himself, while Lucio backs her up as a sort of one-man cheering section. He criticizes her cool approach and urges her to show more fire.
In Isabella's arguments on her brother's behalf and Angelo's response to them, the reader again finds a foreshadowing of the deputy's fall from virtue and the events of the final scene. Isabella suggests that had Angelo been guilty of Claudio's crime, the latter would have been capable of mercy. Commanded to be gone, she is moved to an outburst:
I would to heaven I had your potency,
And you were Isabel! should it then be thus?
No; I would tell what 'twere to be a judge,
And what a prisoner. (II. ii. 67-70)
Unwittingly, she exactly describes the order of things to come, for, Angelo, having committed Claudio's act, is at the mercy of his young sister. And she, true to her statement here, saves his life by her merciful intervention.
In Scene 2, lines 72 through 79, Isabella makes direct reference to Christran forgiveness. Christ, she declares, who was in a position to judge us all, showed mercy: Angelo should do likewise. The allusion to the Sermon on the Mount is clear: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Mark 4.24). But it is the law, according to the deputy, that condemns Claudio.
Isabella then turns to the aspect of the case mentioned earlier in this same scene by the provost: "Who is it that hath died for this offence? / There's many have committed it" (88-89). Still, Angelo is determined to enforce the law, which he says has been long asleep. Isabella's grief drives her to fine tragic poetry. She compares Angelo to a tyrannous giant. "Man, proud man, / Drest in a little brief authority" (17-18) is too proud of his power to show mercy.
Again the foreshadowing surfaces. Isabella asks Angelo to consider whether he has not some guilt similar to her brother's. Here begins Angelo's temptation in a series of remarks by Isabella that are subject to dual interpretation. Urged to consider his own lusts, Angelo first considers Isabella as a woman. In an aside, he confesses that his senses are stirred. Immediately, she suggests that she will bribe him, and he no doubt leaps to the conclusion that she is offering him her body, although she goes on to say that her prayers for him will serve as bribery. She offers him predawn "prayers . . . / From fasting maids whose minds are dedicate / To nothing temporal" (153-55), presenting the image of pure, maidenly bodies striking pleading attitudes in the darkness. At this point, he abruptly dismisses her, telling her to wait upon him tomorrow.
In the soliloquy that closes Scene 2, Angelo is amazed at the stirring of his own lust, admitting that it is Isabella's very purity that tempts him from virtue: "What is't I dream on? / O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, / With saints dost bait thy hook!" (179-81).
Scene 2 juxtaposes mercy with strict interpretation of the law. On the side of mercy stand the provost, Isabella, and, in the background, Lucio, while Angelo stands for the letter of the law. The scene is one of major importance to the play since the passages of eloquent tragic poetry spoken by Isabella rank with those found in the great tragedies of this period. Mercy here comes to the fore as the play's major theme. Isabella achieves the nobility of character that has been attributed to her by her brother and Lucio. Angelo stands firm for the law, and the coming triumph of mercy is seen in the dramatic foreshadowing of his fall.
The very brief Scene 3 provides the duke with entrance to the prison and an opportunity to see Claudio, which he needs in order to intervene in the affair.
In Scene 4, Angelo's opening soliloquy recalls that of King Claudius in Hamlet. His attempts to pray are frustrated by his fascination with Isabella. Struggling with his conscience, he finds that his moral gravity has grown tedious and he longs to surrender to his lust, which has been aroused by Isabella's purity. Some critics see Angelo as a thoroughly evil hypocrite who merely masquerades as the moral and staid servant of the state. His moral struggle, portrayed in the opening lines of this scene, seems to deny this interpretation. Another apparent reference to King James' dislike of crowds is found in lines 27-30, when Angelo compares the blood rushing to his heart with the "obsequious fondness" (28) of a crowd mobbing its monarch.
Announced by a servant, Isabella arrives to ask Angelo's decision with regard to her brother. Angelo at first states that he must die, then hints subtly that he may yet be saved. His hints become broad, but still Isabella fails to take his meaning. Finally, the deputy asks what Isabella would do if by surrendering her body she might save her brother. In her response, the reader sees again the fine tragic poetry that Shakespeare gave Isabella in the earlier scene between herself and the deputy: "As much for my poor brother as myself: / That is, were I under the terms of death, / The impression of keen whips I'ld wear as rubies" (II. iv. 99-101).
Asked by Angelo why she earlier condoned her brother's offense and now speaks vehemently against Angelo's like intent, she points out that she would excuse the act of her brother because of her love for him. And again she touches on the theme of the universality of the crime. He is not, she points out, without fellows in his lapse. Claudio suggests that women too are liable to succumb to their desires and plainly offers Isabella her brother's life in exchange for her body. He demands her answer upon the following day and exits.
Isabella is trapped. She cannot accuse him openly since his reputation would back up his denial. She has no choice but to go to her brother with the story so that he may prepare himself for his execution.
It is important in interpreting Isabella's refusal of Angelo's offer to note her reason for it: "Better it were a brother died at once, / Than that a sister, by redeeming him, / Should die for ever" (106-108). The reader should remember that Isabella, deeply religious, is on the verge of entering the convent. To her, life is a mere prelude to eternity. In considering Claudio's demands, she is not weighing her brother's life against her virginity, but Claudio's life on earth against the everlasting life of her immortal soul. Further, to submit to Angelo's demands would constitute a sin against God, to whom she is ready to devote her life. Her decision may seem a harsh one from Claudio's standpoint, but by her stern religious values it is logical and right. Isabella firmly believes that her brother will agree with her estimation of the situation.