Measure for Measure: Act Three plot synopsis

When we left Act Two of Measure for Measure, things looked dark: Claudio was awaiting execution, and not only had his sister Isabella been rebuffed in her pleas of mercy from the deputy duke Angelo, but he had demanded sex from her in exchange for her brother’s life, threatening a more torturous death if she refused. As Act Three begins, we’re in the prison as the true duke, now disguised as a friar, meets with doomed man and is taking what I suppose would be confession. I say “would be” because it’s less a listening to and whole lot more like a talking at.

The duke (I almost want to call him “fruke” to mix his friar disguise and his duke identity) spends nearly 40 lines advising Claudio to “be absolute for death; either death or life // Shall thereby be the sweeter” (III.i.5-6), concluding that “in this life // Lie hid more thousands death; yet death we fear, // That makes these odds all even” (III.i.39-41). The argument works for all intents and purposes, and Claudio seems as if he is ready for death.

Enter Isabella. When the fruke (OK, I’m going with it) learns that the visitor is Claudio’s sister, he asks the provost if they might listen to the siblings speak; this agreed, the two withdraw. When Claudio asks what comfort she brings him, she coolly outlines Claudio’s comfort in the heaven to which Angelo is going to make her brother “his swift ambassador” (III.i.57). When Claudio asks if there is any remedy, Isabella only says that there is but

  • “to save a head, // To cleave a heart in twain” (III.i.61-2)
  • “will free your life, // But fetter you till death” (III.i.65-6)
  • “perpetual durance, a restraint // Though all the world’s vastidity you had” (III.i.67-8)
  • “bark your honor from that trunk you bear, // And leave you naked” (III.i.71-2)

all the while Claudio asks what that remedy might be.

When she finally tells him, “If I would yield him my virginity, // Thou mightst be freed!” (III.i.97-8), he responds as I’m sure both the fruke and Isabella would hope, as a man prepared for death, “O, heavens, it cannot be…Thou shalt not do’t” (III.i.98,102). She tells him that if it were “but (her) life, // (She)’d throw it down for (his) deliverance // As frankly as a pin” (III.i.103-5). Claudio is astounded by the deputy’s request, and he tries to work out how this “can make (Angelo) bit the law by the nose” (III.i.108).

It makes no sense to Claudio. Why would the “prenzie” (III.i.93), or precise, Angelo make such a request? Unless “it is no sin, // Or of the deadly seven it is the least” (III.i.109-110). He muses about “why would (Angelo) for the momentary trick // Be perdurably fined” (III.i.113-4), punished forever, even after death. And this gets him thinking about his own death, and any comfort and resolution the fruke had brought him is tossed out the window. “‘Tis too horrible” (III.i.127), he concludes, and then begs,

 Sweet sister, let me live.
What sin you do to save a brother’s life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.
  • III.i.132-35

Nature will forgive Isabella, he pleads, if she does this to spare his life.

This does not go over well. Calling him “beast…faithless coward…dishonest wretch” in just over the course of two lines (III.i.135-6), she leaves him, saying, “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death, // No word to save thee” (III.i.145-6). She won’t even listen to his pleas for her to listen, she wants to go. She’s stopped by the fruke, however, who tells her he can help, and then tells Claudio in an aside not to worry about Angelo as

only he hath made an assay of her virtue to practice his judgment with the disposition of natures
  • III.i.159-62

Yeah. Right. Regardless, he tells Claudio to prepare for death then speaks with Isabella, telling her that he had overheard what she had told her brother. She laments that the duke left Angelo in charge and wishes for his return so she can tell him. In response, the fruke says,

I do make myself believe that you may most uprighteously do a poor wronged lady a merited benefit, redeem your brother from the angry law, do no stain to your own gracious person, and much please the absent duke, if peradventure he shall ever return to have hearing of this business.
  • III.i.197-202

When she agrees, Friar Exposition, er, the fruke tells her the tale of one Mariana, the sister of a soldier Ferdinand who died at sea. Well, it seems that good ol’ Angelo had been betrothed to Mariana, but when Ferdiand’s boat sank, not only was Ferdinand killed, but the dowry lost as well.

of course, my question is: did the duke know all this before? and if so, why did he still leave the douchebag as his deputy?

Without the dowry, Angelo called off the wedding, “left her in tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort” (III.223-224). Angelo, according to the fruke, “a marble to her tears, is washed with them, but relents not” (III.i.227-8). And Isabella, the fruke says, can help right these wrongs.

The fruke’s plan:

Go you to Angelo, answer his requiring with a plausible obedience, agree with his demands to the point. Only refer yourself to this advantage: first, that your stay with him may not be long, that the time may have all shadow and silence in it, and the place answer to convenience. This being granted in course, and now follows all: we shall advise this wronged maid to stead up your appointment, go in your place. If the encounter acknowledge itself hereafter, it may compel him to her recompense; and here, by this, is your brother saved, your honor untainted, the poor Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled.
  • III.i.241-52

That’s one heck of a plan, and completely original, too. Oh, wait, isn’t this plot a little like the one in our last play, All’s Well That Ends Well, with its wacky Bed Trick? Yep. Regardless, Isabella agrees, and the fruke says that he will head off to “the moated grange (where) resides this dejected Mariana” (III.i.262-3), and Isabella exits.

What’s interesting about the shift from Act Three, Scene One to Scene Two is that there isn’t really one. While Isabella does leave the stage, the fruke doesn’t and he immediately interacts with the constable Elbow and the clown Pompey as they enter. The fruke asks what offense Pompey has done. “He hath offended the law” (III.ii.13), Elbow says, and this is enough for the fruke to chastise the clown for being “a bawd, a wicked bawd” (III.ii.17). When the fruke says that Pompey must be taken to prison, he sounds like nothing more than Angelo. Pompey attempts to get help from Lucio who enters, but really does nothing more than make jokes at Pompey’s expense… and to tell him, “I sent thee hither (to prison). For debt, Pompey” (III.ii.61). Great friend, that Lucio.

After Elbow and Pompey exit, we get a most unusual conversation between Lucio and the fruke. Lucio laments the “mad fantastical trick” (III.ii.88) of the duke to leave Vienna. Some rightful Angelo-bashing by Lucio follows, but then he turns his verbal onslaught to the absent duke, whom Lucio claims “had some feeling of the sport, he knew the service” (III.ii.113-4) of prostitution. When the fruke comes to the duke’s defense, Lucio doubles-down on his portrait of the duke, saying “he would be drunk, too” (III.ii.121), implying Lucio knows this because he was “an inward” (III.ii.124) or confidante of the duke’s.

The fruke tells Lucio if the duke ever returns, the fruke will reveal to the duke what Lucio has said; Lucio is non-plussed, proclaiming, “Sir, my name is Lucio, well known to the duke” (III.ii.152). And you can feel another domino being put into place. When the subject turns to Claudio, Lucio repeats his sadness over the duke’s absence, as he would have spared Claudio. And Lucio leaves the scene.

Before the fruke can leave the stage, however, he is met with the provost, Escalus, and a new prisoner, the bawd Mistress Overdone, who claims that it’s “Lucio’s information against (her)” (III.ii.189-90) that sends her to prison. Escalus recognizes the name of “a fellow of much license” (III.ii.195), and says that Lucio will be brought before the court. The officers take Overdone away, leaving the fruke and Escalus free to discuss the world and justice. When the fruke enquires over the abasent duke’s “disposition” (III.ii.220), Escalus describes a man who given to the pleasure of “rejoicing to see another man merry, (more) than merry at anything which professed to make him rejoice” (III.ii.225-7). A good man in Escalus’ estimation.

They speak of Claudio, and Escalus explains how he has argued for mercy in this case to no avail, as he says, “My brother justice have i found so severe that he hath forced me to tell him he is indeed justice” (III.ii.241-3). It is obvious Escalus has more positive feelings for the absent duke.

Escalus leaves, and the fruke ends the third act with a soliloquy, criticizing Angelo (“Twice treble shame on Angelo” [III.ii.257]), and recapping his plan to bring him down.

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