Act I, scene i

Synopsis of Act I scene i

The Duke of Vienna, who is ruler of the city-state, has decided to leave for a while. He talks to his trusted councillor, Escalus, about his plan to put in charge, in his place, a man called Angelo, who has, apparently, a pure mind and a spotless reputation. Angelo enters, and the Duke announces his plan to leave and to give Angelo complete power over the life and death of his citizens. Angelo asks to be tested further before being given such a position, but the Duke remains firm in his decision. The Duke then leaves the city privately, while Angelo and Escalus go off to discuss their new powers.

Commentary on Act I scene i

Escalus … Of government the properties to unfold - The fact that the Duke first consults Escalus indicates to the audience that Escalus is a significant figure. The Duke's first comments immediately introduce the important theme of how to rule, and he tells us that Escalus knows a great deal about how to be an effective governor.

The terms For common justice y'are as pregnant in - Escalus thoroughly knows the laws. ‘Pregnant' here means ‘weighty' and hence ‘full of knowledge', but for Shakespeare's audience, as for a modern one, it would also have had the additional meaning of ‘fertile; bearing a child' and so introduces the important theme of sexual relations (see also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity.)

Henry VIII's Angel , copyright to Classical Numismatic Group, available through Creative CommonsWhat figure of us, think you, he will bear? - The Duke is asking whether Angelo will make a good substitute for himself as ruler, but he uses an image suggesting the ‘stamp' of a ruler's face on a coin.

More on coinage i): In Shakespeare's time there was a coin bearing the picture of an angel, so there is a clear link here with Angelo's name, and the image of coins is used elsewhere in the play. (See also Imagery and symbolism > Money and materialism.)

We have with special soul Elected him - As the play progresses it becomes clear that the Duke has selected Angelo in order to test him, and to make Angelo aware of his own spiritual weaknesses.

Lent him our terror, dressed him with our love - The Duke stresses that he expects his substitute ruler to show ‘love' to the citizens as well as inspiring ‘terror' in wrong-doers. However, Angelo later seems unwilling to show kindness or mercy.

If any in Vienna be of worth … It is Lord Angelo - This remark is ironic in view of what we later discover about Angelo. It also presents us with a problem when we learn in Act III sc i how Angelo callously abandoned Mariana – an act which seems to have been well known, at least to the Duke.

Your Grace's will - ‘Your Grace' is a courtesy title, equivalent to ‘My Lord', but together with other titles such as ‘Your honour' it also has wider significance in the play, since the question of heavenly grace is a very important theme. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The role of government.)

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do - The Duke means we should show our virtues in our actions. This is a reference to Luke 8:16 – ‘No-one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed.' (TNIV). It is the first of many biblical references within the text. (Note that the title of the play is a biblical quotation) (see also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.)

Mortality and mercy in Vienna - The Duke explicitly tells Angelo, as he had earlier told Escalus, that he gives Angelo power of life and death (‘mortality') but he also indicates that he may show mercy. He reinforces the point again before the end of the scene:

Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good.

Let there be some more test made of my metal…stamp'd upon it - Again Shakespeare uses the idea of a coin with an image stamped on it. He puns on the idea of metal (the substance) and mettle (character).

More on coinage ii): Reference to Angelo's image suggests the idea of the coin known as an angel, which was current in Shakespeare's time. It had on it the image of the Archangel Michael standing on the dragon, or Satan, which he is piercing with his spear. As such, it is an emblem of spiritual battle and the defeat of sin.
Coins were often forged, or counterfeited, so the idea of testing a coin to see whether it was really worth what it appeared to be is a significant image when applied to Angelo and the Duke's testing of him throughout the play.

I … Do not like to stage me - King James I, who was on the throne of England (and Scotland) at the time when Measure for Measure was written, shared with the Duke a dislike of crowds and the public. He also believed in ‘the divine right of kings' (see also Religious/philosophical context > Divine right of kings).

The heavens give safety to your purposes - Another example of dramatic irony: Angelo cannot know at this point that the Duke's ‘purposes' are to test his apparent virtue. The reference to ‘heavens' suggests to the audience that the Duke's role may have divine significance. (See also Introduction; Religious/philosophical context > Divine right of kings; and Characterisation > The Duke.)

I'll wait upon your honour - As with the reference to ‘your grace' above, the title has greater significance than at first appears; the audience will find that reference to Angelo's ‘honour' will develop ironic implications.

Investigating Act I scene i
  • Why do you think Shakespeare begins the play with this discussion?
    • What themes seem to be introduced here?
    • Note down any references to the qualities and powers of a ruler which you find in this scene.
    • Note the impressions you form of Angelo and the Duke by the end of this scene.
      • Later, consider whether your impressions have changed as the play progresses.
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