As Measure for Measure opens, we are in Vienna where Duke Vincentio is discussing his impending absence with an aged lord and adviser Escalus. We learn that he is planning to leave the government of the city to a deputy, Angelo. The duke asks the lord, “What figure of us think you he will bear?” (I.i.16). Escalus responds that
To undergo such ample grace and honor,
It is Lord Angelo.
When Angelo enters, the duke concurs with Escalus, saying, “there is a kind of character in (Angelo’s) life” (I.i.27), virtue that needs to “go forth” (I.i.34) from him into the world. The duke tells Angelo,
Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart. Old Escalus,
Though first in question, is thy secondary.
Angelo is to be the duke’s substitute, but the duke warns that while Angelo can take a man’s life by words–the actions of his tongue–mercy needs to live in his heart. Escalus, even though he is of a higher rank, will become Angelo’s deputy. And at this point, I’ve got to wonder why then Angelo is given the job. Angelo shares that doubt, asking that “more test be made of (his) mettle” (I.i.48) before he be given such power.
The duke will hear nothing of it, however, and tells him that while the duke will write to Angelo occasionally to tell him how “it goes with” (I.i.57) the duke, he is leaving immediately. So quickly, that he’s not even making his exit public, saying,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes.
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and aves vehement,
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it.
He loves the people, and it seems that they love him in return–so much so that a “man of safe discretion” should be wary of it.
Once the duke exits, Escalus asks to have a discussion with Angelo as to the limits of his own power (and by extension, Angelo’s). Angelo agrees as the scene ends.
In Act One, Scene Two, we’ve gone from the corridors of power to the public streets where we meet some gentlemen and Lucio (described in the character listing as “a fantastic,” or “One who has fanciful ideas or indulges in wild notions” [“fantastic, B. n.; 1”Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 5 October 2015.]). Though Lucio begins by giving the impression that the duke is leaving Vienna for military talks with the King of Hungary, this is the last we hear of a possible conflict. Of course, subjects change quickly for the fantastic Lucio, and his conversation bounces around: pirates (foreshadowing alert!), the Ten Commandments, soldiers, grace, religion and velvet. All this is on his path to bawdiness, complete with allusions to venereal disease. The trip to Bawdy-ville is complete with the entrance of a bawd (or brothel madam), the wonderfully named Mistress Overdone. As Lucio and the gentlemen continue to speak of diseases, Mistress Overdone tells them that “there’s one (man) yonder arrested and carried to prison” (I.ii.58-9) who is better than any of them. Meet Claudio. We learn that this man is not only being taken to prison, but that “within these three days his head (is) to be chopped off” (I.II.67). His crime? “getting Madam Julietta with child” (I.ii.71).
At this point, the gentlemen talk of the recent “speech(es)” (I.ii.76) and “proclamation(s)” (I.ii.78). It seems that these kinds of arrests have only recently begun taking place. Might this be the result of our new deputy duke?
As Lucio and the gentlemen go to see Claudio, Pompey, a clown (theatrical term, not his job…he is actually, we shall learn, a tapster for Overdone), enters with more information: “All houses (of prostitution) in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” (I.ii.94-5). Of course, this is bad news for Overdone. Upon her and Pompey’s exit, Lucio and the gentlemen re-enter, now escorting Claudio, the Provost taking him to jail, as well as some officers and Juliet (though she doesn’t speak in this scene). Prison is bad enough, but Claudio complains that he’s being paraded through the streets on his way to prison, only to be told that this shaming comes from “Lord Angelo by special charge” (I.ii.118). While Claudio sees his imprisonment as “just” (I.ii.122), the rest is because of a “demigod Authority” (I.ii.119).
When Lucio speaks with Claudio, we get more background information. Juliet and Claudio are engaged (she is “fast [Claudio’s] wife” [I.ii.146]), but their wedding had been delayed because the “dower” (I.ii.149) was not yet ready. But now with Juliet visibly pregnant (“character too gross … writ on Juliet” [I.ii.154]), it’s obvious that Claudio is guilty, and is being punished for the crime of fornication, a law that had not been enforced in nearly two decades–“nineteen zodiacs” (I.ii.167)–but a law that “the new deputy” (I.ii.156) is now executing.
This is pitiable, and Claudio asks that Lucio go to the “cloister” (I.ii.176) where Claudio’s sister is about to enter the sisterhood, and convince her to beg mercy from “the strict deputy” (I.ii.180). And with a sense of urgency the second scene ends.
The third scene of the opening act takes us to a friar’s cell in Vienna where Duke Vincentio and Friar Thomas enter in the midst of a conversation. The duke needs “secret harbor” (I.iii.4) from the friar and it seems that Friar Thomas has questioned why the duke would need this, even suggesting that it might have something to do with matters of “love” (I.iii.2). The duke denies this, saying his reasons are “more grave” (I.iii.5).
The duke’s reasons concern “the strict statutes and most biting laws” (I.iii.19) that he has “let slip” (I.iii.21), and into Angelo’s hands he has left them. The duke doesn’t want to seem “too dreadful” (I.iii.34) in executing the law, leaving it for Angelo. But it seems that he’s having some misgivings, and asks the friar to “supply (the duke) with the habit … (of) a true friar” (I.iii.46, 48), so that he might “behold (Angelo’s) sway” (I.iii.43). Though he still believes “Angelo is precise” (I.iii.50), the duke does say, “Hence shall we see, // If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (I.iii.53-4).
In the fourth and final scene of the first act, we are taken to the the cloister where Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is about to enter into the sisterhood. Like Angelo in the first scene, she wonders on the limits of her “privileges” (I.iv.1), not because she feels that she would be given too few rights, but rather she wants “a more strict restraint” (I.iv.4). When Claudio arrives, we get an idea of those restraints: once she is in the sisterhood, she is told that she will only be able to speak to men if her face is hidden, or “if (she) show(s her) face, (she) must not speak” (I.iv.14).
Lucio delivers the sad news of Claudio’s situation, and tells her,
Unless you have the grace by your fair prayer
To soften Angelo. And that’s my pith of business
’Twixt you and your poor brother.
She agrees and we end the first act of Measure for Measure with the plot in place: a brother endangered, a deputy harsh, a sister to the rescue, and an absent duke watching it all.