Act II, scene ii

Synopsis of Act II scene ii

The Provost, who is governor of the prison, arrives to ask Angelo whether he really should execute Claudio. Angelo angrily tells him not to interfere. The Provost then asks about arrangements for Juliet, who will shortly give birth.

Isabella arrives, accompanied by Lucio. She begins to plead for her brother, but at first does not speak firmly enough, until urged on by Lucio. She then becomes eloquent, passionately arguing with Angelo, to whom she points out that God shows mercy to all. Angelo argues the need for firm application of the law. Isabella tells him to consider whether he himself has weaknesses.

Eventually Angelo is so impressed by her that he tells her to return the next day. However, when he is alone, Angelo confesses that he has been surprised to discover feelings in himself which he had not expected; he loves and desires her.

Watch Act II, scene ii

Accompanying teaching resources

Commentary on Act II scene ii

Hath he a sister … of a sisterhood – The dual meaning of ‘sister' is brought to our attention here and throughout the play.

Save your honour … Your honour … Your honour hear me – By the end of this scene Angelo first starts to hint at his dishonourable thoughts about Isabella; this triple greeting of him as ‘Your honour' is therefore highly ironic.

There is a vice that most I do abhor – Isabella does not wish even to name the sin of fornication. (Her desire to become a nun underlines her desire for chastity.) Consequently she finds it hard to plead for her brother who has been condemned for sexual immorality.

Heaven give thee moving graces – The Provost, as we have already seen, would like Claudio to be spared, and hopes Isabella will have qualities (‘graces') to persuade (‘move') Angelo. The word ‘grace', however, has a more significant meaning, and reminds the audience of the forgiving grace of God which is stressed throughout the play.

O just but severe law – As Isabella is to remark at the end of the play, when she believes Claudio to be dead:

‘My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died.' However, the play stresses that all humans need the mercy of God, not strict justice, by which all would be condemned. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven).

You are too cold – You lack passion. Lucio is a rogue, as we see throughout the play, yet it is he who acts as a true friend to Claudio here, urging Isabella not to give up so easily.

No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs … As mercy does – Isabella points out that mercy is a quality which ‘becomes' (well suits) rulers. This reminds us that the Duke endowed Angelo with both ‘Mortality' and mercy in Vienna (Act I sc i). More on justice and mercy in Shakespeare?

If he had been as you – Escalus has already made a similar point to Angelo at the beginning of Act II; Angelo is unwilling to concede that he might have sinful desires.

I would to heaven I had your potency And you were Isabel! – A strong example of dramatic irony, since, by the end of the play, their roles will be reversed as Angelo needs the mercy only Isabella can plead for on his behalf.

Adam and EveAlas, alas! Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once … found out the remedy – Isabella refers to the biblical account in Genesis 3:1-24 that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world by giving way to temptation. Their ‘original sin' caused all humanity to inherit an essentially sinful nature, which deserved condemnation under the laws of God. However, by coming to earth in the form of Christ, and dying on the cross to save all people, God himself provided the solution, offering redemption to all. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.)

More on religion in Shakespeare's time: Such beliefs would have been held by all the Christian population of England at the time, and in fact all citizens were required by law to attend Christian churches. Under Elizabeth I and James I, only Anglican services were allowed; Catholics were persecuted. (See also Social/political context; Religious/philosophical context).

How would you be … judge you as you are – Yet another reminder to Angelo that he, like all mortals, will be judged by God. It is also another reminder of the source of the play's title (see also Introduction.)

Tomorrow? O that's sudden – Earlier in the scene Angelo has told the Provost to have Claudio executed by nine o'clock the next morning. By the end of this scene, Angelo tells Isabella to return at any time before twelve the next morning, implying to the audience that the execution will be postponed. As the play progresses, the time of Claudio's execution changes, partly because Angelo deceives Isabella, but there are certainly inconsistencies about the time within the text. (See also Structure.)

The law hath not been dead though it hath slept – As we have heard from the Duke himself in Act I sc iii, the Duke has specifically asked Angelo to re-impose laws which have not been enforced for many years. Since the resulting moral degeneracy in Vienna has been largely brought about by the Duke's own laxity, it raises the question of how far we can blame Angelo for his severity, and how far the Duke himself is culpable.

The law … Like a prophet / Looks in a glass that shows ... future evils – As Escalus has remarked, ‘Mercy is not itself that oft looks so.' Angelo feels that by enforcing the law he is preventing the spread of corruption and the commission of more crimes in the future.

Man, proud man, / Dress'd in a little brief authority – Isabella uses the image of clothing to suggest that human power is only temporary.

More on clothing imagery in Shakespeare: Such images of clothing are often used by Shakespeare to make this point. For example, Macbeth is said to find that his title of king hangs ‘loose about him like a giant's robe upon a dwarfish thief' (Macbeth, Act V sc ii) and Lear realises that, even though he is a king, under his temporary robes, which he calls, ‘lendings' he is a ‘poor, bare, forked animal'. (King Lear, Act III sc iv)

We cannot weigh our brother with ourself – Here Isabella is not just speaking of Claudio, but of humans in general. She says that we should not judge – or ‘weigh', a reference to meting out ‘measure for measure' – others by our own situation. The word ‘brother' is being used in the sense of ‘brother man' as well as ‘sibling'.

Authority, though it err ... skins the vice o'th' top – People in power can hide their corruption. This image is drawn from the idea of disease, where a scab forms over an ulcer which goes on developing underneath. It reminds us that throughout the play Shakespeare uses disease, especially venereal disease, to mirror spiritual corruption.

More on disease imagery in Shakespeare: The same use of images of physical disease reflecting spiritual corruption occurs throughout Hamlet. In Act V of Macbeth, Macbeth himself is seen as the ‘disease' corrupting his country, and Malcolm is called ‘the medicine of the sickly weal'.

A natural guiltiness – Isabella again reminds Angelo that all human beings, being descended from Adam and Eve, have a sinful nature.

‘Tis such sense that my sense breeds with it – On the surface, Angelo means that he finds himself agreeing with Isabella's argument. But Shakespeare makes Angelo express this point in words which have implications of sexual desire.

Not with fond sickles of the tested gold – Isabella stresses that what she values is spiritual and not material.

I, lying by the violet in the sun, / Do as the carrion does, not as the flower – Angelo acknowledges that, though he has been attracted by Isabella's purity, which has, ironically, aroused lustful thoughts in him, this is not due to anything corrupt in her but only in himself. (The image is of meat which is made rotten by the sun's warmth, whereas the same sun brings out beauty in a flower.)

What art thou, Angelo? – For the first time Angelo starts to examine his own human nature and its frailty.

O cunning enemy … with saints doth bait thy hook – The enemy is the devil, whose name, Satan, means ‘enemy' (of humankind). Angelo feels that Satan, having failed to tempt the ‘saint' Angelo to sin with prostitutes or women of loose morals, has resorted to tempting him through the means of Isabella's virtue. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven).

Investigating Act II scene ii
  • Briefly summarise the arguments put forward in this scene by Angelo about strictly enforcing the law
  • Briefly summarise the arguments put forward in this scene by Isabella about the need to show mercy
  • Look back over the scene and make brief notes about the comments of The Provost as he listens to the debate between Isabella and Angelo
  • Look back over the scene and make brief notes about the comments of Lucio as he listens to the debate between Isabella and Angelo
  • What does Isabella have to say about the nature of power and authority during the course of this scene?
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