Act IV, scene ii

Synopsis of Act IV scene ii

It is midnight. Pompey is in prison, but is offered the chance to become assistant to the executioner, Abhorson. There are two prisoners due for execution: Claudio and a man called Barnardine. Abhorson is not keen to have a bawd as his assistant, but eventually agrees to take Pompey. Claudio is called in to be told that the Provost has received the warrant for his death; he is to die by eight o'clock the next morning. The Duke, still disguised as Friar Lodowick, arrives. Since Mariana will soon return from the assignation with Angelo, the Duke expects Angelo to keep his part of the bargain by reprieving Claudio; consequently the Duke hints to the Provost that there will be news before the morning.

A messenger arrives from Angelo. Far from sending a reprieve, he brings forward Claudio's execution by four hours, to 4 a.m., and wants Claudio's head sent to him by 5 a.m. Barnardine, a murderer, is to be executed in the afternoon. The Duke asks about Barnardine, and hears that he has been a prisoner for nine years; he is also unrepentant for his crime, and a drunkard.

The Duke asks the Provost to delay Claudio's execution for four days, but the Provost points out that he must send Claudio's head to Angelo. The Duke suggests executing Barnardine earlier and sending his head instead, hoping that Angelo will not realise the substitution. The ‘friar' indicates that the Duke will approve of the Provost's actions and promises that the Duke will soon return – news which, he says, Angelo does not know about.

Commentary on Act IV scene ii

Where's Abhorson – The name is a mixture of ‘abhor', to hate, a term twice used by Isabella to describe her revulsion at the sin of fornication; and ‘whoreson' meaning 'child of a prostitute'. The name therefore has far from pleasant connotations.

You weigh equally: a feather will turn the scale – Another of the ‘measure for measure' images. More about life and death imagery?

He doth oftener ask forgiveness – Pompey is jokingly referring to the fact that the executioner would traditionally ask for forgiveness from the condemned man. However, there is a serious issue here, as the words ‘penitent' and ‘forgiveness' remind the audience of the message throughout the play that all humanity needs the forgiveness of God.

By eight tomorrow thou must be made immortal – Humans are mortal; their bodies are subject to death. The soul, however, is immortal, and when Claudio dies, and his soul is released from his body, it will exist in eternity. Isabella had shown concern earlier for both her soul and for Claudio's; she believes the soul is much more important than the body.

His life is parallel'd / Even with the stroke and line of his great justice – The Duke, however, knows that this statement about Angelo is not true. He is aware of Angelo's hypocrisy; as he says a few lines later, Angelo is ‘in such sin' as Claudio.

Were he meal'd with that which he corrects, then were he tyrannous – Since we now know that Angelo is indeed as guilty as the man he has condemned, we must judge him to be a tyrant. Isabella had warned him in Act II sc ii:

‘It is excellent to have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant'.

In the same scene, ironically, Angelo had told Escalus:

‘When I that censure him do so offend, let mine own judgement pattern out my death'.

He has so offended.

And here comes Claudio's pardon – Although the Duke knows that Angelo is guilty of sexual immorality, he has no idea of the depths to which Angelo will sink to protect himself: far from sending a pardon, Angelo is endeavouring to ensure that Claudio is dead before Isabella can claim a reprieve. The contents of the letter are a complete surprise to the Duke, as to the audience.

This is his pardon, purchas'd by such sin – These six lines are spoken in verse, suggesting an epigrammatic summary of a central issue of the play: the relationship between authority, justice and mercy.

Insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal – Barnardine does not think about the fact that he will one day die, and has no awareness that he has a soul which needs saving.

Claudio ... is no greater forfeit to the law than Angelo who hath sentenced him - The Duke now explicitly states what has gradually become evident to the audience. We now wait to see whether Angelo will be subject to the same penalty.

He this very day receives letters of strange tenour, perchance of the Duke's death – The Duke intends that Angelo shall believe he has not only got away with his appalling actions, but that he is to continue to exercise power in Vienna.

I will give him a present shrift, and advise him for a better place – ‘Shrift' here means the absolution, or forgiveness of sins, which a priest Last ritescould offer a repentant sinner. Many of Shakespeare's audience would believe that, without such final rites, a dying person could not enter heaven – the ‘better place' to which the Duke refers. However, as the Duke is not in fact a priest, and only disguised as a friar, his actions are decidedly problematic. We have already learnt that he has ‘often' acted as a religious advisor to Mariana (Act IV sc i). (See Characterisation: The Duke.)

Investigating Act IV scene ii
  • Go through the scene noting when speech changes from prose to blank verse, and verse
    • What might be the effect on an audience of hearing these different patterns of language? (For details about these forms, see Shakespeare's language.)
  • Hiding behind his disguise as a friar, the Duke has been attempting to control events. However, in this scene, his plan to reprieve Claudio has been thwarted by Angelo's treachery. What is your opinion of the Duke at this point?
    • Is he a good man attempting to see right prevail?
    • Or an interfering and deceitful manipulator?
    • Note your views now, and compare them with your earlier opinions
    • Note your views now, and compare them with your views of the Duke by the end of the play.
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