Act I, scene iv

Synopsis of Act I scene iv

Isabella by Francis William TophamThe scene changes to a nunnery, where Isabella, Claudio's sister, is about to become a nun. The rules are strict, but Isabella would like them to be still stricter. Lucio arrives; those who have taken their final vows as a nun may not speak to a man, so Sister Francisca asks Isabella to answer the door. Lucio tells Isabella that Juliet is pregnant and that Claudio has consequently been sentenced to death. Lucio describes the cold austerity of Angelo, but asks Isabella to plead with him for Claudio's life. Isabella agrees to go.

Commentary on Act I scene iv

And have you nuns no farther privileges? – Francisca, and also the audience probably, assume that Isabella regrets the small amount of freedom she is to have, but Isabella soon makes it clear that she wants even stricter rules: ‘ a more strict restraint'. This reintroduces the theme of liberty versus restraint, seen in Act I scene iii. It also draws a parallel between Angelo, the ‘man of ... firm abstinence' and Isabella. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The role of government.)

You may, I may not – The strict rules governing the chastity of the nuns is in marked contrast to the life-style of the low-life characters of Vienna, and particularly of the prostitutes and pimps.

More on the life of nuns: Nuns, like monks and friars, had to make a vow promising chastity, poverty and obedience. Chastity meant that they would promise not to have any sexual relationships. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity).

Hail, virgin, if you be – Lucio's greeting is deliberately provocative, since all women in a nunnery would be expected to be virgins.

More on the word ‘nunnery': There is an additional implication here since, in Shakespeare‘s time, the word ‘nunnery' could be applied, in an ironic way, to a brothel.

For that which, if myself might be his judge, / He should receive his punishment in thanks - Lucio approves of sexual licence and fornication.

I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted – In spite of his provocative greeting, and his usual levity, Lucio makes it clear that he respects Isabella and feels that, as she is about to become a nun, she is especially saintly and to be revered. It is ironic that it is her very purity which later attracts Angelo.

That from the seedness the bare fallow brings / To teeming foison … full tilth and husbandry - Far from seeing Juliet's pregnancy as a sin or a crime, Lucio describes it as a desirable act of creation. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity.)

A man whose blood is very snow-broth … who never feels the wanton stings and motions of the sense – Angelo's apparent lack of sexual appetite seems unnatural to Lucio. Angelo prides himself on the absence of this human emotion, and the play shows him having to learn that he too is subject to such human instincts.

Unless you have the grace by your fair prayer / To soften Angelo – By ‘grace' Lucio means ‘fortunate quality', but the word ‘grace' has more important connotations, suggesting throughout the play the mercy and undeserved forgiveness of God for human sin.

Our doubts are traitors … But speedily – Here as later, when Isabella pleads with Angelo, Lucio has to urge her on. It is he who ensures that Isabella makes a real effort to save Claudio's life. This makes his character more complex, and our assessment of him more complicated. (See also Characterisation > Lucio.)

Investigating Act I scene iv
  • This is the end of the first Act and a good point to review your first impressions. What do you think of each of the characters who have been introduced?
    • Remember these first impressions as you continue through the play, so that you can be aware when and if they change.
  • What major themes have been introduced so far?
    • By what means?
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