Measure for Measure: Act Four plot synopsis

When we left Measure for Measure at the end of Act Three, the fruke (that’s FRiar-dUKE Lodowick/Vincentio to you, buddies) had a plan to leave Claudio “saved, (Isabella’s) honor untainted, the poor Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled” (III.i.251-2). That’s a heck of a to-do list; thank goodness the fruke has that ol’ standby from All’s Well That Ends Well, the Bed Trick, up his sleeve to help pull this off. In the six-scene Act Four, the plan is put in motion, but that doesn’t mean that things go as planned.

The act begins at “the moated grange (where) resides this dejected Mariana” (III.i.262-3), where she is listening to a boy sing about unrequited love. When she sees the fruke approach, she calls him “a man of comfort, whose advice // Hat often stilled my brawling discontent” (IV.i.8-9), to whom she is “always bound” (IV.i.24). He has her goes inside her home as Isabella approaches, and Claudio’s sister tells the fruke that she has set up the planned assignation with the deputy duke Angelo.

The fruke hasn’t broken the plan to Mariana yet; he calls her back out so that Isabella can meet Mariana. When she comes back, the fruke asks her if she feels he respects her, and when she says yes, he sends Mariana and Isabella off so that Claudio’s sister can tell her the plan. After a quick six-line soliloquy by the fruke, the maidens return, and all is agreed. The only request Isabella has for Mariana is a simple one: “say, // When you depart from him, but soft and low, // ‘Remember now my brother’” (IV.i.67-9). Of course, Angelo would expect a statement like this to come from Isabella (after all this assignation is meant to save his life), but the irony is delicious: remember that the reason Angelo abandoned Mariana was because her dowry was lost when her brother was lost at sea.

The fruke ends the scene assuring Mariana that what she’s about to do is “no sin” (IV.i.22), as Angelo “is (her) husband on a precontract” (IV.i.21).

Act Four, Scene Two takes us back to the prison, where the provost asks Pompey the clown, who is now an inmate, an unexpected question: “Can you cut off a man’s head?” (IV.ii.1-2). The prison’s executioner “lacks a helper” (IV.ii.9), and with the impending executions of “Claudio and Barnardine” (IV.ii.8), this position needs to be filled. The provost is willing to cut a little time off Pompey’s sentence for (state-sanctioned murderous[ly]) good behavior. Pompey is willing but he needs “to receive some instruction” (IV.ii.16).

Enter the executioner, the wonderfully named Abhorson. He is not exactly pleased to learn that his new assistant used to be a bawd, as “he will discredit our mystery” (IV.ii.26). There’s some banter and wordplay between master and apprentice, and when all is agreed, the executing pair exits as the provost calls in the pair to be executed. And, with apologies to the Thunderdome, two men leave but only one man enters.


The provost shows Claudio the death warrant that calls for his execution “by eight tomorrow” (IV.ii.62). Now, earlier in the play, Angelo had called for the execution to happen by “nine” (II.i.34). I’m not sure if this change is to help a sense of plot acceleration or if it’s an early sign that Angelo can’t be trusted, but regardless, this can’t be good. The provost asks where the second prisoner Barnadine is, and before leaving, Claudio informs him that the other prisoner is sleeping.

The fruke arrives and asks, “Who called of late?” (IV.ii.72), obviously thinking there’s a message from Angelo calling off the execution coming momentarily (or maybe already there). No note since curfew. The fruke asks if Isabella has visited (again hopeful that she might deliver the news of the pardon herself); again, no luck. The fruke even hints that before morning, they will hear good news for Claudio. As they speak, a messenger arrives with a note from Angelo. Both the fruke and provost think this is the pardon, but again, no such luck. Instead, the note moves up the execution to four o’clock in the morning, and demands that the head of Claudio then be delivered to Angelo “by five” (IV.ii.121). Any failure will be at the provost’s “peril” (IV.ii.126).

The fruke doesn’t freak out. He thinks. He asks about Barnardine, and learns that he’s been in prison for nine years, is usually drunk, hasn’t flinched when told that he is to be executed, and hasn’t left when “give(n) leave to escape” (IV.ii.146). The fruke then asks the provost to give Claudio “four days’ respite” (IV.ii.158), and when the provost balks, noting the instructions, the fruke has a plan: chop off Barnardine’s head and send that to Angelo. The fruke promises that he will vouch for the provost, and beyond that the duke will, too.

Say what? The fruke then shows the provost a letter with the duke’s seal; the fruke says the letter tells of “the return of the duke” (IV.ii.191). Moreover, he says the duke will return within two days, and that Angelo doesn’t know this. “All difficulties are but easy when they are known” (IV.ii.199-200), he tells the provost. He then directs the provost to call the executioner and, after the fruke gives the prisoner advice for the next world, “off with Barnardine’s head” (IV.ii.201).

The third scene of the act is still in jail, as we get a witty opening soliloquy by Pompey who discusses life as an executioner. Abhorson comes and orders Barnardine to enter. When the prisoner finally enters (after much refusal), he tells his executioners, “I have been drinking all night; I am not fitted for (execution)” (IV.iii.42-3). Even the arrival of the fruke does nothing to convince Barnardine it’s time to die; in fact, he leaves the fruke to go back to his cell, telling the fruke, “If you have something to say to me, come to (his cell), for thence will not I today” (IV.iii.61-2).

This is bad. Luckily, the provost arrives with good news:

There died this morning of a cruel fever
One Ragozine, a most notorious pirate,
A man of Claudio’s years, his beard and head
Just of his color.
  • IV.iii.69-72

The fruke calls it “an accident that heaven provides” (IV.iii.76), the very definition of a deus ex machina. He tells the provost to keep both Claudio and Barnadine in “secret holds” (IV.iii.86) for two days, and the provost exits to do this. Alone, the fruke soliloquizes that he will write Angelo a letter that the provost will deliver, saying that the duke is returning in two days, and that he wants to “enter publicly” (IV.iii.96) and a welcoming in front of the city gates.

The provost returns with head of the pirate, with which he exits to deliver to Angelo.

Out goes the provost and a head; in comes Isabella, wanting to know about her brother’s pardon. The fruke tells her of the execution…of her brother. He doesn’t tell her about his new plan to hide Claudio, but rather plays it off as if the accelerated execution order had been, well, executed. He also tells her of the duke’s impeding return, and the plans for Angelo and Escalus “to meet him at the gates, // There to give up their power” (IV.iii.131-2). He promises that if she can be there, then she’ll get her desire “on this wretch (Angelo), // (and the) Grace of the duke” (IV.iii.134-5). Furthermore, he gives her a letter to give to Friar Peter, directing him to get Isabella and Mariana to the duke’s welcoming. He apologizes, however, that he is “combined by a sacred vow // And shall be absent” (IV.iii.144-5). How convenient.

Lucio arrives, commiserating with Isabella over her brother’s death and delivering her news that the duke returns tomorrow (news travels fast in Vienna, I guess), concluding, “If the old fantastical duke of dark corners had been at home, (Claudio would) have lived” (IV.iii.156-7). Isabella leaves, and before the fruke and Lucio do, too, they exchange words regarding the absent duke, with Lucio mantaining his slanders.

At this point, the scenes in the act shorten and the pace picks up.

In Act Four, Scene Four, we see the reaction of Escalus and Angelo to the letters sent by the duke, letters that seem to contradict each other to the point that Angelo wonders if the duke’s “actions show much like to madness” (IV.iv.3). They also discuss the other direction they’ve received: “if any crave redress of injustice, they should exhibit their petitions in the street” (IV.iv.8-9). You can see where this is going, right? And so can Angelo, it seems, for as he is left alone on stage, he soliloquizes over his worries that Isabella will “proclaim her maiden loss” (IV.iv.22), as well as the guilt he feels for deflowering her and regret of having Claudio executed. The combined irony (Isabella’s still a maiden, and Claudio still breathes) and his feelings of guilt and regret, almost engender sympathy toward him. Almost, but not quite.

The short Act Four, Scene Five, has the duke (no longer fruke) meeting with Friar Peter. He has explained his plot to Peter, and confided in him that the provost knows the plot as well.

In the almost-as-short final scene of the act, Isabella and Mariana speak of their roles in the plot. Isabella says that she feels it should be Mariana who accuses Angelo, but since she trusts the fruke, she will go along with his plan. And there’s not much else to say, as Friar Peter comes to take them to the welcome party outside the city gates.

The dominos are in place, waiting for the one and only scene in Act Five.