Act I, scene iii

Synopsis of Act I scene iii

FriarThe Duke has not, in fact, left Vienna. He goes to see Friar Thomas, and asks to be given the disguise of a friar's costume. As the scene opens, Friar Thomas has obviously suggested that the need for a disguise is something to do with a love-affair, but the Duke strongly denies this.

He explains how he has given power to his deputy, Lord Angelo, and has asked Angelo to re-instate firm laws which have been neglected. Friar Thomas points out that the Duke should have reinstated them, but the Duke explains that, having neglected to impose them for so long, he felt unable suddenly to re-introduce them; he has given the task to Angelo instead. He is interested to see whether having great power will change someone who seems as virtuous as Angelo does.

Commentary on Act I scene iii

The dribbling dart of love – The Duke refers scornfully to Cupid's arrow, supposed to induce feelings of love. The Duke apparently feels above such petty emotions – but by the end of the play he declares his love for Isabella.

A man of stricture and firm abstinence – This is the view which virtually everybody in Vienna has of Angelo. However, the play examines whether such extremes of apparent virtue are consistent with sinful humanity; we are asked to look at ‘seeming', that is, the hypocrisy which may well characterise such an apparently good man.

This fourteen years – In Scene ii we heard that the laws had not been enforced for nineteen years. This is not the only such apparent inconsistency in the time-scale of the play (see also Structure > Time-scale).

Liberty plucks Justice by the nose. / The baby beats the nurse – The Duke's imagery suggests that, since the laws have not been enforced, the proper order of things has been completely turned upside down.

Sith ‘twas my fault to give the people scope … Therefore I have on Angelo impos'd the office … my nature never in the fight – The whole question of the Duke's character, and whether it is fair for the Duke to test Angelo by making him reintroduce such strict laws, while keeping in the background himself, is an important question to consider.

I will, as ‘twere a brother of your order – The Duke's conduct is questionable here too; is it right to disguise himself as a friar, especially when he uses his disguised role to listen into conversations and to hear confessions?

Lord Angelo ... scarce confesses that his blood flows – Angelo seems to deny that he has human nature and hence human weaknesses.

More on attitudes to humanity: In Shakespeare's day human beings were understood to hold a place within the scheme of creation which was lower than that of angels but above that of animals (Psalms 8:4-8). Angelo's name reflects the idea that he regards himself as above normal humanity, while Pompey and his associates are bestial in their behaviour. True humanity involved accepting humankind's proper position on the Chain of Being (see also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity.)

Hence shall we see, / If power change purpose, what our seemers be – The question of what people appear to be, and the impression they would like to give, as opposed to their true nature, is an important theme in the play. At first sight this question of hypocrisy seems to apply just to Angelo, but in fact the Duke's disguised role can also be considered in this light.

Investigating Act I scene iii
  • What new impressions have we gained of the Duke by the end of this scene?
  • What further ideas of justice and punishment are mentioned in this scene?
  • What ideas of clothing and disguise are brought to our attention in this scene?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.