Measure for Measure: Act Two plot synopsis

When Act Two of Measure for Measure begins, we’re back to our men of power, the deputized duke Angelo, and his lieutenant, Escalus. The first of the act’s four scenes opens with a philosophical debate between the two men regarding the purpose of laws and punishment.

Angelo argues that “we must not make a scarecrow of the law” (II.i.1), just letting it stand there until the “birds of prey” (II.i.2) treat it like “their perch and not their terror” (II.i.4). Escalus, on the other hand, looks for the law to be more surgical, “keen and rather cut a little” (II.i.5). Escalus argues on behalf of an unnamed (at this point) party who “had a noble father” (II.i.7). Before his speech is done, it’s obvious that this line of argument isn’t working because Escalus changes tack, and asks Angelo to look at the case differently–as if he “had not sometime in (his) life // Erred in this point which (he) now censure(s)” (II.i.14-5) the man in question. Angelo’s response is first to allow that “the jury passing on the prisoner’s life // May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two // Guiltier than him they try” (II.i.19-21), but then to say that if he were guilty as this man, “Let mine own judgment pattern out my death // And nothing come in partial” (II.i.30-1). He reiterates the man’s sentence and we learn that this man “Claudio (will) // Be executed by nine tomorrow morning” (II.i.34-5).

Into this philosophical discourse come new arguments, in the form of Elbow the constable, Froth a foolish gentleman, and Pompey the clown. What follows is a sequence that feels like a bit of a retread of Much Ado About Nothing’s Dogberry interrogation scene (especially with his confusion of words), only here Elbow has brought Froth and Pompey into court to try them for more sexually-based offenses, especially for those against Elbow’s wife. Angelo’s patience is tested, however, and he departs “hoping (Escalus will) find good cause to whip them all” (II.i.131).

The scene continues in its verbal humor, with Escalus reiterating to Pompey that prostitution will end in Vienna. Pompey wonders if they “mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city” (II.i.219-20). When Escalus says no, Pompey says it won’t matter if the brothels are torn down, the youth “will to’t then” (II.i.222). Escalus warns that there are “pretty orders beginning” (II.i.225) that will bring beheadings and hangings. Pompey explains how this would be bad for the economy and that within ten years, they’ll be allowing prostitution again just to increase the population of Vienna.

Escalus then sends them off with a warning that if they ever appear in his court again, he will “have (them) whipped” (II.i.2398). On the plus side, this is better than the death Claudio faces, and a death that “grieves” (II.i.267) Escalus.

In Act Two, Scene Two, we are back to Angelo in his office as he reiterates to the provost that Claudio must die the next day. Lucio and Isabella arrive to plead for mercy, and what follows is her fairly convincing (to the reader at least) arguments for pity, Lucio’s semi-comic asides to spur on Isabella, and Angelo’s cold response. Isabella states, “O, it is excellent // To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous // To use it like a giant” (II.ii.107-9). At this point, something interesting happens: Angelo stops responding. For almost forty lines, Angelo says nothing (save to ask why she is continuing); then in an aside he says, “She speaks, and ‘tis // Such sense that my sense breeds with it” (II.ii.141-2). And don’t think that verb “breeds” isn’t telling. He sends her away, and then like Olivia to Viola/Cesario, asks that she return tomorrow. Isabella even says that she’ll bribe him… with “true prayers” (II.ii.151).

When she and Lucio leave, however, Angelo is in turmoil. Alone, he “desire(s) her foully for those things // That make her good” (II.ii.173-4). He wonders “do(es he) love her, // That (he) desire(s) to hear her speak again, // And feast upon her eyes” (II.ii.176-8). Isabella, “this virtuous maid // Subdues (him) quite” (II.ii.184-5).

In the short third scene, Duke Vincentio, in the guise of a friar, visits the prison to “minister // To (the prisoners) accordingly” (II.iii.7-8). He meets Juliet, and learns of their love and their sin “mutually committed” (II.iii.27). If a friar’s job is to bring comfort, the duke hasn’t gotten that part of the job down yet: he tells Juliet that Claudio “must die tomorrow” (II.iii.37), and leaves her lamenting “a life whose very comfort // Is still a dying horror” (II.iii.41-2).

The fourth and final scene of the second act takes us back to Angelo’s office, where we learn that the intervening time as been filled by Angelo with “pray(ing) and think(ing)” (II.iv.1). He has sent “empty words” (II.iv.2) to Heaven, but his mind “anchors on Isabel” (II.iv.4). Now, if this was the ending of a fun comedy, he would reveal is love to Isabella by freeing her brother, she’d fall in love with him, and cue weddings overseen by our disguised duke. But this isn’t the end of a fun comedy, but rather the rising action of a so-called “dark comedy.” So prayer and thoughts have given way to more physical desires: “Blood,” he laments, “Thou art blood” (II.iv.15).

is it the next day? that same afternoon? I’m not sure.

Enter Isabella. She has come to know if Angelo has changed his mind; the deputy’s answer: “Your brother cannot live” (II.iv.33). And yet he also says that while Claudio must die, he “may… live a while, and it may be as long as” (II.iv.35, 36) either Isabella or Angelo. She’s confused, and Angelo is less than helpful, bemoaning “these filthy vices” (II.iv.41). Finally, in a moment when Shakespeare seemingly invents the “Would you rather?” game, Angelo says,

 Then I shall pose you quickly:
Which had you rather, that the most just law
Now took your brother’s life, or to redeem him
Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
As she that he hath stained?
  • II.iv.50-54

He even couches the offer as “a charity in sin” (II.iv.62), but Isabella sees this only in terms of damnation and souls, saying if asking for mercy was a sin, Heaven would allow it for Isabella; if pardoning her brother is a sin, then she will pray for Angelo every morning. It’s obvious that she isn’t quite getting the picture, as he tells her, “Your sense pursues not mine. Either you are ignorant, // Or seem so, crafty, and that’s not good” (II.iv.73-4). When it’s clear that her mind simply doesn’t work the way his does, he becomes more blunt:

Admit no other way to save his life—

 but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer,
What would you do?
  • II.iv.87, 94-7

So bluntly put, she finally understands, and chooses death for her brother before “(she)’s yield // (Her) body up to shame” (II.iv.102-3). Angelo takes on another tack, saying that if she’s a woman, she should “show it now, // By putting on the destined livery” (II.iv.136-7) of sexual service for her (or in this case, any) man. When this doesn’t work, he professes, “I love you” (II.iv.140). Isabella then goes on the offensive, threatening,

I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for ’t.
Sign me a present pardon for my brother
Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud
What man thou art.
  • II.iv.150-3

And it is now that Angelo drops the bomb that was a bomb then and is still a bomb today: “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (II.iv.153). In a page straight out of the sexual harasser’s (and date rapist’s) playbook, he states that his “unsoiled name… will so (her) accusation overweigh” (II.iv.154, 156) that she will seem like the guilty party. If we had any grain of sympathy for the conflicted Angelo, it is gone, especially when he now says that unless she give in to his “sharp appetite” (II.iv.160), not only will her brother die, but “his death (will) draw out // To ling’ring sufferance” (Ii.iv.165-6) and torture. He leaves her with one last gloat: “As for you, // Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true” (II.iv.168-9).

The scene and act end with Isabella coming to the realization Angelo (and all of his ilk) wants her to: “To whom should I complain? … Who would believe me?” (II.iv.170, 171). She leaves us, knowing that all she can do is now go to her brother and “fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest” (II.iv.186). At the end of Act Two of Measure for Measure, this is looking like a very dark comedy, indeed.