The Provost

The Provost, or keeper of the prison, appears to have a minor role, yet his character is of considerable significance. Throughout the play he acts with integrity and charity, and, though he is an officer of justice, he is considerate and merciful. He has no power, yet, as far as he can, he exemplifies the balance of justice and mercy which the Duke has asked Angelo (Act I sc i) to show,


‘to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good.'

The Provost's sympathy for Claudio and Juliet

The first time the Provost appears on stage (Act II sc ii) he has a short soliloquy in which he expresses his sympathy with Claudio:

He hath but as offended in a dream;
All sects, all ages smack of this vice, and he
To die for't!
  • His sigh, ‘Alas', reveals his sorrow at Claudio's situation.
  • His amazement that Claudio is ‘To die for't' shows that he thinks the punishment too harsh.
  • Yet he calls lechery a ‘vice', indicating that he has a clear moral sense.
  • He is not over-liberal, but he does realise that all people are potential sinners – ‘all sects, all ages smack of this vice.'

These few words, then, show that the Provost condemns the sin but not the sinner (which the audience would recognise as an echo of Jesus' attitude when confronted with the woman taken in adultery John 8:3-11.

The Provost's humanity

  • When Angelo enters, the first thing the Provost does is to ask whether Claudio really is to die – an indirect appeal for mercy which incurs Angelo's wrath and threat of dismissal: ‘Do you your office, or give up your place.'
  • When this appeal fails, the Provost asks for permission to have care arranged for Juliet, who will shortly give birth – ‘She's very near her hour.'

In these exchanges the Provost calls both the young people by their name, whereas Angelo refers to Juliet as ‘the fornicatress'. The humanity and concern of the Provost continue to be shown to the audience throughout Isabella's attempt to persuade Angelo, since Shakespeare gives the Provost an aside to reveal his feelings: ‘Pray heaven she win him.'

The Provost's attitude to other prisoners

When we next meet the Provost (Act II sc iii), it is in the prison, but yet again Shakespeare stresses his concern for the prisoners:

  • When the disguised Duke asks for permission to visit ‘the afflicted' spirits in gaol, and to ‘minister / To them accordingly', the Provost replies: ‘I would do more than that, if more were needful,'
  • At the end of this short scene, in which he has to break the news to Juliet that Claudio's death is imminent, he remarks with sadness, ‘'Tis pity of him.'

Yet the Provost is not unwisely liberal:

  • Like Escalus, he knows that, in human society, ‘Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so' (Act II sc i)
  • Although he offers Pompey the chance to work as an executioner, this is out of necessity, not as a soft option, and he has no doubt that Pompey is a villain:
Here is in our prison a common executioner, who in his office lacks a helper; if you will take it on you to assist him, it shall redeem you from your gyves: if not, you shall have your full time of imprisonment, and your deliverance with an unpitied whipping.'
  • The Provost is well able to distinguish between those who are undeserving – he tells Abhorson the executioner that he is no better than Pompey: ‘a feather will turn the scale' - and those who, like Claudio, deserve mercy.

The Provost's part in the saving of Claudio

Disillusion with Angelo's legalism

  • Later in the play (Act IV sc ii) we find that the Provost has given up hope of a reprieve for Claudio, since ‘it is a bitter deputy', and Angelo has publicly announced that he will not send a reprieve.
  • The Provost is further disappointed and surprised – as are the audience and the Duke, who know of Angelo's bargain with Isabella – when Angelo not only sends the Provost a reminder to execute Claudio ‘whatsoever you may hear to the contrary', but also brings forward the time of the execution and asks to have Claudio's head sent to him.
  • From this point on, although he knows that, if he disobeys Angelo, he may ‘make my case /As Claudio's', the Provost nevertheless agrees to help the ‘friar' by ‘delaying death' for Claudio.

Obedience vs. conscience

The Provost does need some persuasion, for, although he dearly wishes to save Claudio, he is conscious that disobedience of the Deputy is ‘against my oath'; but once he is convinced that the Duke will approve, he becomes the friar's accomplice, telling him (Act IV sc iii) ‘I am your free dependant'. It is clear throughout the final scene that he is fully aware of the Duke's plot, since when the Duke asks, ‘Provost, how came it Claudio was beheaded / At an unusual hour?' he goes along with the deception, pretending that only Barnardine has been saved – until re-entering with the ‘muffled' Claudio.

Throughout the play, then, the Provost appears as an honourable and well-meaning man, who is instrumental in helping to bring both justice and mercy to Vienna.

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