Act III Scene 1 Summary:
The Duke, disguised as a friar, goes to see Claudio in jail. Claudio says that he is still hoping that he will not have to die, though the Duke tells him to count on death; that way, if he lives, life will be even sweeter to him. Claudio heeds his words, and resigns himself to death if that is what's to come. Isabella enters, and the Duke withdraws to somewhere he can hear her conversation with Claudio. She tells him initially that Angelo has made up his mind not to spare Claudio, then says there is one condition that will leave Claudio without any honor if he takes it. Claudio wishes to know what this condition is, and Isabella tells him not to fear death, since this is probably what will become of him tomorrow.
Isabella tells him that to save him, she would have to sleep with Angelo; at first he says that she should not do it, but then he considers his fear of death and the finality of it. He then asks his sister to agree to Angelo's terms in order to save his life. Isabella becomes angry that he would even consider her shame to be less weighty than his death; she is almost asking her brother to martyr himself for her pride, which is wholly unreasonable.
But, just then the Duke, dressed as the friar, asks for a word with Isabella. He tells Claudio that Angelo's proposition to Isabella was merely a test, and not to count on the possibility of his deliverance. Then, he tells Isabella that he found out about Angelo's proposition somehow, and has a plan that will free her brother without any negative effects to her.
The Duke tells her of Mariana, a maid that was engaged to Angelo, who Angelo dumped when he found out that her dowry was lost. The Duke says that Isabella should go to Angelo immediately, agree to his terms, and ask that the whole thing happen in darkness and be brief. Isabella will send Mariana in her stead, which means that Angelo will have to marry her after all, once it is revealed that he has taken her maidenhood. Isabella agrees heartily to this plan; she will go see Angelo, while the Duke fetches Mariana, and convinces her to go along with the ruse.
The Duke shows great wisdom in his speech about life and death to Claudio; he gives Claudio good advice on how not to cling desperately to life if he is to lose it, and also how to think of death so that it does not grieve him too badly. His speech seems almost like an optimistic alternative to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech; the Duke says that riches are negated by death, as is misery and trouble, so do not fear the long sleep to come.
Isabella takes on the issue of Angelo's reputation versus his real nature with boldness; she says that though he is "outward sainted" he is really a "devil," the paradox telling how far his appearance is from what he really is, according to Isabella's appraisal of him. Isabella is clearly exaggerating Angelo's badness in order to make his proposition seem more unpalatable to her brother; to call Angelo "a pond as deep as hell" is vast overstatement of Angelo's flaws. These exaggerations are actually very self-serving, for if her brother believes that Angelo is really evil, Claudio is less likely to ask Isabella to sleep with Angelo.
Claudio's "ay, but to die, and go we know not where" speech is yet another echo of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" in its consideration of the uncertainty and the unknown that is death. His images of the soul stuck in "fiery floods" or stuck in "thick-ribbed ice" are a bit terrifying, as are his statement that perhaps death is being suspended in nothingness.
Claudio's fears about death are completely justified, and far more realistic than Isabella's careless lack of consideration of what death actually is, and what she would be condemning her brother to. Isabella's reaction to Angelo's proposal is still at the level of a knee-jerk response, though a keenly felt one; any shame which she would bear would be insignificant next to the fact that her brother is alive, and she is too. Isabella's anger is again selfish, and also a knee-jerk reaction. Claudio is right, that if she committed this sin in order to save him, it would almost be a virtue on her part. Perhaps he is overstating this to try and convince her, but he is far more sensible in his appraisal than she is.
What are the Duke's motives exactly when he lies and says that Angelo's proposition was merely a test, and that he knows this to be true? The Duke is obviously covering for Angelo to some extent, and perhaps getting Claudio to lower his hopes a bit, in case he really does have to be executed. The fact that Isabella does not object at all to another woman being sullied by this trick shows again how selfish she is about her own virginity, but that she doesn't extend the same logic and protections to other women.
Act III Scene 2 Summary:
Here is another scene of comic relief, involving Elbow, Pompey, and the Duke; Elbow again charges Pompey with breaking the law, and possibly even being a thief. The Duke upbraids Pompey for being a "bawd," meaning making his living off of money earned by prostitutes, and orders Elbow to take Pompey to prison right away. Just as Elbow is about to lead Pompey off to prison, Lucio comes along and asks what is happening. Pompey tells him he is being dragged off to prison for being a bawd, and asks Lucio to post bail for him; Lucio happily says he will not, and wishes Pompey a good time in prison.
Lucio then asks the Duke, still disguised as a friar where the Duke may be; the Duke ironically answers that he does not know. Lucio then says that severity will never drive sin out of Vienna, for human nature means that people will always be vulnerable to sin. He says Angelo is inhuman though, and cannot understand that regular people sometimes fail; Lucio says he wishes the Duke were back, because the Duke liked drink and the pleasures of the flesh, and so understood the failings of others.
The Duke, in disguise, insists that the Duke wasn't as dissolute as Lucio makes him out to be; he becomes very defensive, defending "the Duke" so vigorously and with such conviction that it becomes almost clear that this is the Duke in disguise. The Duke asks if Lucio would say all this again, to the Duke's face, when he eventually returns; Lucio says he will, and that is the end of their ironic, humorous exchange. The Duke repents that even he, as a relatively good person, is not immune from public slander
Escalus and the Provost enter, with Mistress Overdone in their custody; she has been arrested for being a bawd because Lucio informed against her, though she says Lucio got Kate Keepdown pregnant, and she has kept Lucio's child all this time. Mistress Overdone is taken to prison, but Escalus says that Lucio will have to answer to him too.
Escalus says that he has been pleading with Angelo to let Claudio live, but in case Angelo does not give in, Claudio should be prepared to die. The Duke, as a friar, tells Escalus he has been counseling Claudio, and he is prepared. Escalus leaves to visit Claudio. The Duke then makes a speech about the virtues and moderation of a good ruler, and laments that Angelo does not have these qualities; but, he also knows that Angelo will get his just punishment when he has to marry Mariana and is exposed as a hypocrite.
Lucio's keen sense of humor becomes clear through him comparing Pompey's entanglement to being "at the wheels of Caesar," and alludes to Pygmalion to ask if Pompey has been dabbling with ideally beautiful women, meaning, prostitutes. The Caesar comment might also be a jab at Elbow, who is as far from being heroic and competent as is possible for an officer of the law. Ironically, Lucio then asks the friar the whereabouts of the Duke; perhaps Lucio knows it is the Duke in disguise, or perhaps this is put in for good humor.
Lucio knows a bit more than he appears to, for here he tells the Duke what the Duke will soon learn; that "severity," as the Duke calls for, will not cure Vienna of all its vices. He says that as long as there is "eating and drinking," there will be sin, for people are naturally weak and disposed to fall every now and then. Another irony is that Lucio still insists that Angelo is less than human in this regard; little does he know that Angelo has fallen, just like Claudio and the rest of the sinners of the city.
Whether Lucio knows that he is speaking to the Duke in disguise when he says that the Duke likes prostitutes and liquor is unclear at first; either way, the exchange is played for humorous effect, as we find out later that, conveniently, Lucio did not know he was talking to the Duke. The dramatic irony of this exchange is especially amusing for the audience, since they can delight in knowing that Lucio actually is insulting the Duke, and wonder whether Lucio really has any idea who he is speaking to. Again, the theme of disguise means that the Duke is in a privileged condition, able to see, hear, and influence things that he would not have access to as a ruler, separated by power and position from his own people.
Although the Duke has said that severity was the way to enforce laws in Vienna, here he states that Angelo was indeed not the right man for the job. His speech presents many of the conclusions and themes of the text: that a ruler must govern with an eye for the faults of human nature, make just punishments, and never punish other people for a fault that he is indulging in himself. The Duke also laments the disparity between appearance and nature in Angelo, and that Angelo can appear to be so upright while he is as corrupt and flawed as any other person.
The Duke tells Isabella that she will not succeed by denouncing Angelo publicly; instead, he proposes a solution that will save Claudio, please the absent Duke, preserve her purity, and help out another woman who has been wronged by Angelo: Mariana, his ex-fiancée. Mariana, the Duke explains, was engaged to Angelo, but after she lost her brother and her dowry in a shipwreck, Angelo callously called off the engagement. However, Mariana still loves Angelo. For this reason, the Duke suggests that Isabella could arrange a rendezvous with Angelo, and then Mariana could go in her place and consummate her aborted marriage. Isabella agrees to this plan. The Duke tells her to go to Angelo and promise to meet with him, while he contacts Mariana.
The Duke’s solution offers far too convenient a resolution to Isabella’s predicament. Instead of forcing Isabella to grapple with two compelling and fundamentally irreconcilable issues of virtue, Shakespeare introduces an unknown character, Mariana, who is perfectly suited to defusing this crisis in a way that lets Isabella preserve both her sexual purity and the life of her brother. Granted, the issues at stake in Isabella’s dilemma are colossal in scope, but the introduction of Mariana is a quick fix to the conflict that is often regarded by critics as a weak point in the play. Also deserving of some scrutiny is the way in which the two women’s social roles are used to chart their courses of action. Mariana, abandoned by her fiancée, is unable to fit into a socially-prescribed niche unless she complies with the Duke’s plan—and, of course, the only reason Mariana is necessary in the first place is because Isabella’s so-called maidenly obligations prevent her from sleeping with Angelo.