Act II, scene i

Synopsis of Act II scene i

As Angelo and Escalus enter, they are discussing Claudio's case. Angelo is adamant that he should die, because the law must be applied. Escalus argues for mercy, saying that even Angelo himself might have offended in the same way had he had the opportunity. Angelo strongly resists this idea: he has not succumbed to temptation. If ever he does, then he too would deserve to die. Angelo then gives the order that Claudio is to die the following morning.

Elbow, a foolish constable, then enters, bringing in two wrongdoers. One is Pompey, the bawd who works for Mistress Overdone, and the other is Froth, a young man who has been a customer at her house. Escalus and Angelo start to question Elbow about Pompey and Froth and their activities, but it soon becomes evident that Elbow is not competent to deal with them.

Angelo leaves Escalus to continue the investigation, and Escalus makes it clear to Pompey, who tries to talk his way out of trouble, that he fully understands Pompey's character and life-style; he will not be able to keep getting away with his activities. However, Pompey is cynical about the law's ability to curb sexual immorality. Escalus takes steps to replace Elbow with a more competent officer.

Commentary on Act II scene i

We must not make a scarecrow of the law … Ay, but yet – These are the two sides of the argument: Angelo puts the case for strict justice, applying the law rigorously. Escalus argues for mercy, as all humans are potentially sinful, even someone as virtuous as Angelo. More on justice versus mercy?

Let but your honour know – Again, as in Act I sc i, the title used in courtesy by Escalus has ironic implications for the audience in view of Angelo's later dishonourable behaviour.

That in the working of your own affections, / Had time coher'd … - Another example of dramatic irony, since this is exactly what is to happen later, when Angelo plans to force Isabella to have sexual intercourse. (See also Structure > Dramatic irony.)

The resolute acting of your blood - Here, as often in Shakespeare, ‘blood' means ‘passions'.

‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall – Angelo sees himself as above normal human frailty.

When I that censure him do so offend, / Let mine own judgement pattern out my death / And nothing come in partial – Another example of dramatic irony. Because he is so sure of his own superior virtue, Angelo does not accept that he will ever be in need of mercy. By the end of the play he has had to learn that, as he himself tells Isabella in Act II sc iv, ‘We are all frail'.

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall – The perceptive Escalus realises that virtue itself, by leading to a sense of pride, one of the seven deadly sins, can cause people to fall into sin. These four lines are in verse, said almost as an epigram. They also mark a change from the blank verse of the previous dialogue to the prose used until almost the end of the scene. (See also Shakespeare's Language > Blank verse, prose & rhyme.)

I do lean upon justice … notorious benefactors – Elbow makes a joke about his name and leaning on an elbow; however, most of his contributions to humour are unconscious, as he constantly uses the wrong word. Here he says ‘benefactors' (people who do good deeds) when he means ‘malefactors' (criminals). Later he says ‘detest' when he means ‘protest' and ‘honourable' when he means the opposite.

More on word-play: This type of verbal error, which often has humorous consequences, is known as ‘malapropism', a term applied to it nearly two hundred years after Shakespeare, when Sheridan invented a character called Mrs Malaprop in his play The Rivals. She sees herself as well-read and well-spoken but constantly reveals her ignorance by her mistaken choice of vocabulary. Her name comes from the French phrase ‘mal à propos' - ‘inappropriate'. (See also Shakespeare's Language > Language as a weapon.)

Stewed prunes – A ‘stew' in Shakespeare's day was another word for a brothel; many of the terms in Pompey's story contain innuendo. Another ambiguous term he uses is ‘china', which could mean a woman, often a prostitute.

Hoping you'll find good cause to whip them all – Angelo is correct in thinking that Pompey is a rogue, but this line does show him making the assumption of guilt before the examination has been concluded; he seems keen to have punishment administered.

Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity? – Escalus rightly perceives that the criminal, Pompey, is much shrewder, and better able to bandy words, than the constable who is supposed to represent justice. His comment also brings to our attention again the whole question of how earthly justice can be successfully and fairly applied – a question which the entire play debates.

More on justice in drama: The idea of a contest between characters called Justice and Iniquity is a reflection of the kind of situation often depicted in medieval Morality Plays. (See also The Theatre.)

Overdone by the last – The crude joke about her name, reflecting the number of her supposed husbands, reminds us that Shakespeare chooses appropriately humorous names for several of the other characters: Froth, Elbow and Pompey, for example. Not all apt names are comical: later we meet the executioner Abhorson – and of course Angelo's name is also a reflection of his apparent attitude.

Is it a lawful trade? If the law would allow it, sir – This is an important point, since there may well be a difference between what is morally right or wrong, and what a state's laws define as acceptable or criminal. In Britain, many activities which were once deemed unlawful are now acceptable in today's society, and vice versa.

Lord Angelo is severe ... It is but needful. Mercy is not itself that oft looks so - It is perhaps strange that Escalus here seems to be agreeing with Angelo's earlier stance that the law must be rigorously applied; but Escalus has just encountered Pompey, whose ability to wriggle out of trouble has clearly shown Escalus that firmness is needed. However, the play as a whole suggests that there may be a difference between divine justice, which is always tempered by God's offer of mercy and forgiveness, and earthly justice, where showing mercy too often may be bad for society and lead to increased criminality.

Investigating Act II scene i
  • Look again at the two halves of this scene. How does the comical scene with Pompey and Elbow reflect the serious issues debated between Escalus and Angelo?
  • How does the language used by Pompey, Froth and Elbow add to the humour of the scene?
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