Act III, scene i

Synopsis of Act III scene i

The Duke, disguised as a friar (calling himself Friar Lodowick, as is revealed in Act V) has arrived at the prison and is offering spiritual comfort to Claudio. The ‘friar' argues that life is not worth having, and that Claudio should therefore welcome death. Claudio (at this point) agrees with him. Isabella arrives to tell Claudio about Angelo's demands; the Duke / friar asks the Provost to let him overhear their conversation.

Claudio and Isabella by Holman HuntIsabella tells Claudio what Angelo has proposed. At first Claudio is outraged, but then he starts to see hope for himself; in spite of what he said to the ‘friar', he desperately wants to live. He asks Isabella to agree to Angelo's wishes. She is horrified, violently angry, and bitterly scornful of what she sees as her brother's dishonourable weakness.

As she leaves, the disguised Duke asks to speak to her. First, he goes back to see Claudio. Telling Claudio that he has overheard their conversation, the Duke says that he is confessor to Angelo and knows that he was only testing Isabella, and did not mean what he said. Consequently, the Duke tells Claudio, there is no hope of a reprieve and he must prepare to die.

The Duke then speaks to Isabella, asking her what reply she is going to make to Angelo. When Isabella confirms that she will reject the Deputy's demands, the Duke tells her that he knows a lady who was once Angelo's fiancée, but Angelo deserted her when she lost her dowry. The Duke will suggest to her that she goes to sleep with Angelo in Isabella's place; this will give the lady a further claim on Angelo, while sparing Isabella and also securing Claudio's reprieve. Isabella readily agrees.

Commentary on Act III scene i

No other medicine / But only hope – Another side of the disease imagery which runs through the play. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity).

Be absolute for death – The Duke, disguised as a friar, puts forward a series of arguments as to why life is not worth living.

More on attitudes to life and death: All the Duke's arguments suggest that life is intolerable – but it is interesting to note that, although he is pretending to be a religious friar, not one of his arguments mentions the idea of life after death. We later see how much Claudio wishes to live; he is also the father of a child – a point which draws the audience's attention to ideas of creation. Attitudes to both Death and life after death and Creation are examined throughout the play (see under Themes and significant ideas).

To sue to live, I find I seek to die – Claudio's words are a version of Jesus's message to his disciples in Matthew 16:25.

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (TNIV)

Here's your sister – Isabella is not only Claudio's sibling but also about to become a nun: a sister. In theatrical productions she is often dressed as a novice –  new nun – thus giving as visual reminder of her vow of chastity.

Devilish mercy – A paradox, since mercy is an attribute of God.

Fetter you till death – Claudio thinks she means ‘life imprisonment', but she is really referring to the way his soul and conscience would be burdened if his sister were to agree to Angelo's demands.

A restraint … to a determin'd scope – Again, he thinks she means imprisonment. However, the words ‘restraint' and ‘scope' significantly echo Claudio's comment on his own sexual behaviour and ‘too much liberty' when talking to Lucio in Act I sc ii.

Bark your honour … a perpetual honour – The idea of honour and dishonour, and the expectation of honourable behaviour from gentlemen, is frequently referred to throughout the play. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The role of government).

If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride / And hug it in mine arms – Claudio's words echo those of Isabella to Angelo in Act II sc iv, where she says she would ‘strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for.' Claudio, however, knows what it is to experience sexual passion.

This outward-sainted deputy … is yet a devil – An irony, that a man whose name ‘Angelo' once seemed to reflect his nature, is really devilish; Isabella's words also remind us again of the theme of Appearance and reality and ‘seeming'.

‘tis the cunning livery of hell – Another Clothing image (see under Imagery and symbolism > Disguise and seeming); Isabella suggest that devils ‘dress' themselves in ‘guards' (trimmings) which make them appear virtuous, in order to deceive and trap human souls.

O were it but my life … Thanks, dear Isabel – Isabella, as we have seen earlier, values her soul more than her body. The brevity of Claudio's response seems to suggest that he does not share her views; it would be difficult to say his line with any suggestion of enthusiasm.

Death is a fearful thing – In complete contrast to the Duke's speech at the start of the scene, Claudio now starts to express his real feelings, showing his more human and natural response to his situation.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where – While Isabella thinks about her immortal soul, Claudio's vision of Life after death does not feature any of the Christian ideas of heaven. He has no such certainty as Isabella has about what happens to the soul after Death. Instead, he has terrible fears, and all his images of life after death involve physical pain.

O you beast! – This is not just a term of abuse. Isabella is saying that Claudio is less than a real man; he is a lower form of life on the Chain of Being (see under Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity.)

Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair – In her rage, Isabella suggests that Claudio cannot be the son of their honourable father. This comment, and the idea that for Claudio to be saved by Isabella having sex would be ‘a kind of incest', shows the extremity of her bitter anger.

Thy sin's not accidental but a trade – Isabella equates Claudio's sexual behaviour with Juliet to the behaviour of pimps and prostitutes. Since we know that Claudio regards Juliet as ‘fast my wife', and since Isabella was a school friend of Juliet (Act I sc iv) this accusation is totally unjust, as Isabella must realise.

Vouchsafe a word – The scene now moves into prose, marking a contrast with the impassioned speeches of the earlier part. (See also Shakespeare's Language > Blank verse, prose & rhyme.)

I am confessor to Angelo, and know this to be true … tomorrow you must die – Of course, the Duke, is not confessor to Angelo, and the Duke's words are lies. His advice to Claudio to be prepared to die tomorrow may also appear strange as the Duke is about to set in motion a plan which should result in a reprieve for Claudio.

More on mortality: The idea that all humans should be prepared for death, and that an awareness of mortality can lead to new self-knowledge, is an important point of discussion in the play. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.)

But O, how much is the good Duke deceived in Angelo! – Dramatic irony, since, firstly, Isabella does not know she is speaking to the Duke. More significantly, we are about to discover that the Duke has all along known that Angelo's character is flawed; the Duke will now tell Isabella (and the audience) about a previously unmentioned lady, Mariana, whom Angelo dishonourably deserted. This sudden revelation adds to the ‘problem' nature of the play. (See also Structure.)

Was affianced to her oath … the contract – As Mariana had exchanged vows with Angelo, they would be considered almost married; after such a contract, if their union were to be physically consummated, they would be regarded as married. (See also Social/political context > The Stuart monarchy).

Pretending in her discoveries of dishonour – Had Mariana actually behaved in an immoral way, this would have been a genuine reason for Angelo to break the betrothal contract. However, Angelo has invented this excuse because Mariana has lost her dowry. Consequently, he has grossly slandered her reputation.

What a merit were it in death to take this poor maid from the world! – As with Claudio, Isabella seems to assume that others see death as preferable to life.

More on the use of Mariana in later works of art: ‘There at the moated grange resides this dejected Mariana' – The 19th century poet Tennyson wrote a poem about Mariana in the moated grange, and there is also a famous painting depicting her, based on that poem – (see also Resources and further reading.)
Investigating Act III scene i
  • Make a list of the arguments which the Duke puts forward against the desire to live
  • Paraphrase Claudio's fears about life after death
  • Read aloud Isabella's speech beginning ‘O you beast'.
    • How does Shakespeare's choice of language mould the way the speech is delivered? (See also Shakespeare's Language, and see Critical analysis for further comments on Shakespeare's use of language.)
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