Act I, scene ii

Synopsis of Act I scene ii

The scene changes to a street (or, as often played on stage, an ale-house) as we move away from the court of the Duke to meet some of the more disreputable inhabitants of Vienna (usually known to critics as ‘the low-life characters').

We first meet Lucio, a dissolute young man who, while a gentleman in rank, is corrupt in character. He is discussing with two other young men the rumour that the Duke has left Vienna to negotiate a peace-treaty with the King of Hungary. They tease each other about contracting venereal disease at brothels such as the one run by Mistress Overdone, who enters to tell them the news that their friend Claudio has been arrested. This is because Claudio has got his fiancée Juliet pregnant; Angelo, as the Deputy Duke, has introduced rigorous laws against any sexual immorality. Pompey, who is a bawd who works for Mistress Overdone, enters to tell her that all the brothels are to be demolished.

Claudio is brought along the street on his way to prison. He explains to Lucio what has happened to him, accepting that he has lacked restraint in his sexual behaviour but pointing out that he regards Juliet as his wife. He asks Lucio to go to find Isabella, who is Claudio's sister; she is about to enter a nunnery. Claudio wants her to go to Angelo and to plead for mercy for her brother.

Commentary on Act I scene ii

Went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scrap'd one out – Lucio jokes that, just as pirates ignore the biblical command in the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not steal' (Exodus 20:15) so soldiers don't like to pray for peace as they prefer fighting (when they would get paid).

Family saying grace before a mealWhere grace was said … Grace is grace … despite of all grace – The men joke and pun about the word ‘grace' which can refer to a prayer of thanks for food said before a meal. However, ‘grace' is also an important word in the serious discussions of the play about justice and mercy, since ‘grace' also means ‘the undeserved forgiveness of God' offered to repentant sinners. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.)

Velvet… three-pile…French velvet…French crown…dolours – Another group of puns with more serious undertones, suggesting that they all suffer from sexually-transmitted diseases.More on sexually transmitted diseases?

Within these three days his head to be chopped off … the proclamation – Angelo has started to impose strict morality laws, and Claudio is the first to suffer under them. It is ironic, however, that Claudio, who is in love with Juliet, and totally faithful to her, should suffer when he is surrounded by people like Lucio, Pompey and Mistress Overdone who manage to escape the rigour of the law.

What has he done? A woman..Groping for trouts – The coarseness of Pompey's language immediately shows the audience his gross attitude to sexual morality.

The demi-god, Authority – Claudio comments on the enormous powers held by earthly rulers, which in Shakespeare's time were often seen as God-given. This was particularly a view held by James I. (See also Religious/philosophical context > Divine right of kings).

Make us pay down for offence by weight – Claudio suggests that punishments are in proportion to the crime, but the title of the play suggests that, for this very reason, we should be wary of judging others, since we too will be judged. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.)

The word of heaven; On whom it will, it will. / On whom it will not, so – A reference to Exodus 33:19 where God says:

‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.' (AV)

Claudio says that although God may choose to show mercy, Claudio acknowledges that it is ‘just' for him to suffer for his sins.

Too much liberty … every scope by the immoderate use / Turns to restraint – Claudio accepts that his sexual freedom has now led to his lack of liberty. The play examines such issues in detail: both Isabella and Angelo seem at times to demand of themselves an excess of ‘restraint'. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The role of government; and Settings > The prison; and Characterisation > Angelo; Isabella; Claudio.)

What but to speak of would offend again – Claudio has a delicacy of mind and speech which is far removed from that of coarser characters such as Lucio and Pompey.

Upon a true contract I got possession of Julietta's bed ... she is fast my wife – Although technically they are not married, Claudio has made faithful promises to Juliet, which he regards as binding; he acknowledges her as his wife.

More on marriage: In Shakespeare's time, a promise of marriage made before witnesses, when followed by physical consummation of the relationship, constituted a legal marriage. It is this practice which gives also Mariana a particular claim on Angelo later in the play. (For further details, see Social/political context > The Stuart monarchy).

Our most mutual entertainment – Unlike Angelo's threat to Isabella, which is akin to rape, Claudio and Juliet have both wanted to sleep together. Shakespeare makes it quite clear that Angelo condemns Claudio for offences of which he, Angelo, is guilty – and in fact Angelo's are much worse.

Nineteen zodiacs have gone round – These laws about sexual morality have not been enforced for nineteen years. This is one of the problems of the play: what do we think of the Duke who has allowed vice to become widespread in Vienna because of his own laxity?

This day my sister should the cloister enter – By depicting Isabella as a young woman who wants to become a nun, Shakespeare introduces a new range of ideas. Her insistence on purity and physical chastity is important, and her outrage at the idea of sexual relations becomes more significant; (see also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity).

More on the terminology used of relationships: As Isabella is a ‘sister' both in the sense of a nun and a sibling, and as the Duke is dressed as a friar, or ‘brother', while Claudio is Isabella's sibling, Shakespeare is able to play on these dual meanings. (See also Shakespeare's Language > Language as a weapon.)

She hath a prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse – Isabella is depicted as a strong character who has considerable powers of rhetoric; in her theological discussions with Angelo she covers a range of significant points, putting her ideas very forcefully.

Investigating Act I scene ii
  • This is a scene full of contrasts – of characters, themes, language (including the use of prose as well as blank verse – see Shakespeare's Language). List examples of different types of contrast
    • What is the effect of these contrasts on the audience?
  • We have not yet met Isabella but by the end of this scene we have heard of her. What first impressions are the audience given of her?
  • What ideas about justice have been presented to the audience in this scene?
    • By what means?
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