Act II, scene iv

Synopsis of Act II scene iv

To himself, Angelo admits how much Isabella has affected him, which is intensified as she arrives for another interview. Angelo tells her that Claudio will die the next day, then tests her by asking how far she would go in order to save her brother – would she countenance sinful behaviour such as Claudio is being punished for (unlawful sexual intercourse)?

Isabella and AngeloIsabella admits that if saving her brother from the justice of the law is sinful, she is prepared to suffer the consequences of God's judgement. However, when Angelo presses her with the idea of saving the life of Claudio by sacrificing her own virginity, Isabella refuses.

Angelo reminds her of Claudio's imminent execution and challenges her to reconsider. Isabella admits her own weakness, and, hoping she will give in, Angelo declares his desire to sleep with her, which would save Claudio's life.

Horrified, Isabella threatens to expose Angelo's duplicity unless he pardons her brother, but Angelo retorts that no-one would believe her. He leaves and, feeling desperate, Isabella acknowledges that, because of his reputation he is right. She must deliver the dreadful news of Angelo's ‘bargain' to her brother, and, certain that he would not countenance her loss of honour, prepare him for the fact that he must die.

Commentary on Act II scene iv

Enter Angelo – Angelo's soliloquies enable the audience to see into his mind and soul. (See also Shakespeare's Language > Language as a weapon.)

Heaven hath my empty words – Angelo is aware that prayers which do not reflect the real feelings of the supplicant are just ‘empty words'.

More on prayer in Shakespeare: Shakespeare uses the same idea in ‘Hamlet', where Claudius, who has murdered his brother, realises that it is useless to attempt to pray unless genuinely penitent. Claudius comments: ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.'

Heaven in my mouth, / As if I did but only chew his name – Angelo compares simply saying words to God, without really meaning them, to taking the bread at communion, or mass, while in a state of sin.

The strong and swelling evil of my conception – By ‘conception', Angelo means ‘thoughts'. However, as the term can also mean ‘conceiving a child' and as he also uses the idea of ‘swelling', the sexual innuendo is obvious.

My gravity / Wherein – let no man hear me – I take pride – Pride is traditionally the worst of the ‘seven deadly sins' (see also Themes and significant ideas > Judgment on earth and in heaven; The nature of humanity). Angelo here admits that he takes pride in his reputation as a virtuous and serious man.

Monk by RembrandtO place … How often dost thou with … thy habit … tie wiser souls To thy false seeming – Angelo comments that authority and power (‘place') can impress others with a false image (‘seeming') of virtue. The word ‘habit' has here two meanings: a custom, but also a robe, particularly that of a monk or friar.

Let's write good angel on the devil's horn – ‘Tis not the devil's crest – Angelo comments that, even if the devil has the words ‘good angel' written on him to deceive people, it will not hide the devil's real, evil nature. This is part of the imagery of ‘seeming', or false appearances, which runs throughout the play. (See also Imagery and symbolism > Money and materialism.)

Yet he may live awhile – Angelo starts to broach his proposal that Isabella could save Claudio by agreeing to Angelo's sexual demands.

That ... his soul sicken not – Isabella is more concerned for Claudio's soul than for his body. If he is to die, she wants to ensure that he is spiritually prepared.

Coin … mettle - A pun already used in Act I. Angelo suggests that creating an illegitimate child is like creating a forged coin. He goes on to suggest that using ‘mettle' (physical strength', with a pun on ‘metal') to create an illegitimate child is as bad as taking away a life – i.e., murder.

‘Tis set down so in heaven but not in earth – Isabella indicates her acceptance of the fact that there may be a difference between the laws of heaven (under which all humans are sinners) and those of earth (which differentiate between murderers and fornicators).

I had rather give my body than my soul – The soul is immortal; Isabella would not risk eternal damnation. The body has a limited life-span, and she would willingly give her body to death as long as her soul was not harmed.

A charity in sin ... Please you to do't – Isabella assumes that Angelo is suggesting that it might be sinful to pardon Claudio, because it would go against the law. She says that, if such mercy is sinful, she will be prepared to carry the burden of guilt. At this point Isabella does not understand what Angelo is suggesting. As he says, ‘Your sense pursues not mine.'

Equal poise – An image of weighing in the balance which reflects the play's title (see also Introduction).

Graciously to know I am no better – Self-knowledge is an important idea in the play (see also Characterisation > Isabella; Angelo). Isabella feels that, through the grace of God, she can be aware of her own sins. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven).

Th'impression of keen whips I'd bear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for - Isabella violently rejects the idea of giving her body to save her brother – but notice that the imagery she uses is extremely sensual, even sexual. What might this suggest about Isabella's psychological state?

Lawful mercy / Is nothing kin to foul redemption – The term ‘redemption' is a reminder of Christ's salvation of the world. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.) Using terms which remind us of God's mercy, Isabella points out to Angelo that there is a difference between showing unconditional mercy, and offering freedom at a price.

We are all frail – Angelo seems at this point to be agreeing that Isabella has weaknesses, especially in the lines of her argument; but in fact his words remind us that all humans, Angelo included, are potentially sinners.

Women? ... call us ten times frail – Isabella acknowledges that women are the weaker sex. In this she is referring to Genesis 3:1-24, where Eve succumbs first to the temptation of the serpent, thus bringing sin and mortality into the world. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven; The nature of humanity).

Believe me on mine honour ….Little honour, to be much believ'd – Isabella's retort, that, if she is to believe Angelo, he is dishonourable, reminds us of the number of times he has been addressed as ‘Your honour' – which we now see as ironic.

Seeming, seeming! – The idea of false appearances is a dominant theme in the play, and is reflected in imagery of disguise and clothing. (See also Imagery and symbolism > Disguise and seeming.)

My unsoil'd name, th' austerness of my life … and my place in the state – Angelo will rely on his reputation and his position to defend himself against any accusation; this again suggests the themes of false appearances and of the corruption of power.

Redeem thy brother – ‘Redeem' means ‘buy back'. Angelo is apparently offering Isabella a chance to save Claudio's life. However, to Shakespeare's Christian audience the word would have other connotations, since Christ died on the cross to redeem the world. Angelo's foul proposal is therefore couched by Shakespeare in words which are almost a blasphemous parody of God's mercy. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.)

Thy unkindness shall his death draw out to ling'ring sufferance – This threat that Claudio will die a slow and painful death reveals a particularly cruel streak in Angelo, indicating how far his appearance of virtue is from some aspects of his real nature.

Answer me tomorrow – Another day is to pass before Claudio's execution, originally scheduled for the day when this scene takes place. (See also Structure > Time-scale.)

My false o'erweighs your true – This image of weighing on scales reflects the idea of ‘meting out', or quantifying, a measure, which is found in the quotation from Matthew 7:1-2 that gives Shakespeare his play's title. (See also Introduction.) It is one of many references to weighing and measuring in the play.

More on coinage iii): Angelo's remark may also suggest a reference to images of coins and forgery, where a false coin might be expected to weigh less than a real one; Angelo thinks that, because of his reputation, his lies will be more believed than her truth.

To whom should I complain? – Isabella here begins her only soliloquy in the play. (See also Shakespeare's language > Language as a weapon > Soliloquy). Shakespeare allows us a glimpse into her beliefs which prepares us somewhat for her outrage when Claudio asks her (in Act III sc i) to agree to Angelo's demands.

Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour … Another example of dramatic irony, since we are soon to find out that Claudio sees things differently.

Abhorred pollution – Isabella's first comment to Angelo had been ‘There is a vice that most I do abhor' (Act II sc ii) The word ‘abhor' suggests ‘to shrink from with dread', and implies a very strong reaction; Isabella expresses utter revulsion at the idea of the sexual act as ‘pollution' of her body.

Then Isabel live chaste, and brother die. / More than our brother is our chastity Isabella's assumption about Claudio's willingness to die shows us how much she rates the soul above the body – or, more explicitly, as we see in this declaration, her soul above her brother's body. Her chastity is more important to her than anything or anyone. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity.)

Investigating Act II scene iv
  • How have your impressions of Angelo developed during this scene?
    • Consider his opening soliloquies as well as his exchanges with Isabella.
  • Read again Isabella's soliloquy. Make a summary of the main points of her argument
    • Does she ever consider agreeing to Angelo's demands?
  • Read again Isabella's soliloquy and look at her choice of language
    • What impression does this speech give the audience of Isabella?
    • Do you find her attitude admirable or self-centred?
  • Isabella and Angelo are at cross-purposes for some of the time in this scene, as Angelo says, ‘Your sense pursues not mine.' Summarise the main arguments put forward by Isabella and Angelo during their exchanges - from her arrival until Angelo starts to ‘speak more gross' (about line 84, depending on editions).
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