Sample essay answer

What does this extract contribute to our understanding of Angelo?

This is the first soliloquy spoken by Angelo and the first time he has examined his own nature and feelings. Previously, especially in his conversations with the Duke and Escalus, he has seemed completely confident in his own virtue and the reputation for probity which he enjoys – a reputation brought to the audience's attention by the comments of both Lucio and Claudio in Act I. Now, Angelo's encounter and discussion with Isabella has forcibly changed his viewpoint.

This is immediately apparent from his initial comment in response to Isabella's departing politeness – ‘God save your honour'. Picking up the double meaning – ‘Your honour' is not just a title, but a quality of character – Angelo is forced to admit to himself that he is tempted to act dishonourably. He is utterly bewildered and confused by this revelation that he is not, as his name suggests, angelic, but is as fallible as others. The number of question he hurls at himself suggests his amazement at this dawning of a different understanding of his own nature.

At first, he tries to escape a sense of guilt, wondering if he can shift the blame onto Isabella: ‘The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?' He has, it appears - perhaps because of the number of prostitutes in Vienna – seen all females as having ‘woman's lightness'. (Later we discover that he has besmirched Mariana's reputation in just this way.) However, he is soon forced to acknowledge that Isabella herself is full of ‘virtue'.

Consequently, he has to admit to himself that it is he who is ‘corrupt'. He uses a graphic image: he is like ‘carrion', rotting alongside a ‘violet in the sun'. He knows immediately that his intentions towards her are ‘evil' – another telling image, of destroying a sanctuary and creating ‘waste ground' to pitch a tent, suggests the destructive nature of his lust. The homograph ‘pitch' may even add a suggestion of defiling tar. In addition, the hard consonants of ‘Dost thou desire her', followed by his choice of the graphic, stressed word ‘foully', show his awareness of the nature of his desires.

He is appalled to discover that he is weak, as other men are. He contrasts his previous attitude ‘when men were fond' with how ‘I' behaved. But now he uses the inclusive pronoun – our sense', ‘shall we desire', ‘goad us on' - surely not here an example of a ‘royal plural' but an awareness of his common humanity.

But Angelo does not find it easy to accept this common humanity. This is shown by exclamations and repetitions, such as ‘O fie, fie fie!', and by his many questions which continue throughout – ‘What, do I love her?' ‘What is't I dream on?' He starts to realise that his opening response to Isabella's ‘God save your honour' may be more than a form of words – he realises that he is battling with the devil, the ‘cunning enemy' who will attempt to lure him to destruction. Angelo here uses two images to suggest what he is up against: the devil (or Satan, whose name means ‘enemy') will ‘bait (his) hook' to catch a sinner, and ‘goad us on' towards hell. Angelo's phrase ‘to catch a saint' suggests that this is how he has previously seen himself: as saintly.

Angelo acknowledges that he felt proof against the obvious temptation of the ‘art' of the painted prostitute, but is confused by the paradox of the ‘virtue' of Isabella acting as a temptation. The use of ‘Never', ‘but' and ‘ever' after caesuras in the last six lines stresses the contrast he feels between his former security in his sinlessness and his current situation where he is completely - ‘quite' - ‘subdued' by Isabella.

Yet, even as he seems to come to some real self-awareness during this soliloquy – and it is noticeable that there are no further questions in the last eight lines – the audience remains aware of a significant failure: he does not seem able to distinguish between love and lust. ‘Do I love her?' he has asked himself, but his response to his own question is to dwell on her physical attributes such as her eyes; his desire to ‘feast' on them is revealing, as this is very much the image of physical fulfilment. It is not surprising then, that, when he next encounters Isabella, he faces her with his infamous bargain while telling her ‘I love thee, Isabel'.

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