Act IV, scene iii

Synopsis of Act IV scene iii

Pompey comments on how many of Mistress Overdone's former customers he has encountered in gaol. Abhorson tries to get Barnardine ready for execution, but the drunken Barnardine insists he is in no fit state to die. The Duke, still disguised as a friar, also tries to prepare him for death, but Barnardine will not listen. The Duke agrees that it would be wrong to execute him when his soul is so unprepared.

This poses a problem, as he and the Provost had hoped to use Barnardine's head as a substitute for Claudio's. However, the Provost now reveals that another prisoner, a pirate called Ragozine, has just died and they can use his head; the Duke is very pleased about this. He tells the Provost to keep both Claudio and Barnardine hidden in secret cells; he is planning to write to Angelo to tell him to meet the Duke at the city gates.

Isabella arrives, hoping to hear news of Claudio's reprieve, but the Duke decides to let her think that her brother has been executed – as was indeed Angelo's plan. Isabella is distraught, but the ‘friar' tells her that the Duke is shortly to return to Vienna. She is to take letters to Friar Peter who will arrange for Isabella and Mariana to appear before the Duke to put their case against Angelo.

Lucio arrives, and commiserates with Isabella about Claudio's death. Isabella leaves. Lucio, not realising to whom he is speaking, again comments on the lax morals of the Duke. During this conversation, Lucio admits he lied to the Duke to escape the law when accused of fathering a child by a prostitute.

Commentary on Act IV scene iii

I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession – Pompey comically lists examples of the kind of rogues who might be found both in a whore-house and in prison. The fact that they are in prison seems to suggest that Angelo's strict enforcement of the law is having some impact on Vienna, a city in which formerly, as the Duke himself admitted in Act I sc iii,

‘Liberty plucks Justice by the nose.. and quite athwart goes all decorum.'

Photo by 4028mdk09 available through Creative CommonsBarnardine … I hear his straw rustle – Straw was commonly used as matting and bedding for humans, but this line also gives an image of an animal moving in its pen; this reinforces the idea that the grossly drunk Barnardine, who has no concern for his soul, is more like an animal than a human. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity).

Here comes your ghostly father – ‘Ghostly' means ‘spiritual'. Once again, the disguised Duke is about to pretend he is a priest and to give final confession.

A creature unprepar'd, unmeet for death – The Duke is aware that all human ‘creatures' – that is, beings created by God – have souls as well as bodies. Their souls are immortal, and will continue after death, coming before God for judgement. Hence every person needs to be spiritually prepared for the life after death. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven).

And to transport him in the mind he is / Were damnable – Those responsible for sending a man to his death before his soul is prepared commit an act so evil that they too could be damned.

More about killing the unprepared soul: In other plays Shakespeare also shows his revulsion at the idea of killing someone whose soul has not been prepared; it is worse than just the murder of the body:
  • In Hamlet (Act I sc v) the Ghost of Hamlet's father demands vengeance not just because he was killed but because he was ‘sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head.'
  • In Othello (Act V sc ii) when he is about to murder Desdemona, Othello tells her, ‘If you bethink you of any crime Unreconcil'd as yet to heaven and to grace,' she should ‘Solicit for it straight'; he ‘would not kill thy unprepared spirit.'

O ‘tis an accident that heaven provides – The Duke feels that the sudden death of the ‘notorious pirate' Ragozine is a providential act of God, enabling the Duke to save Claudio.

Ere twice the sun hath made his journal greeting – Before two days pass.

More on time in the play: As Act IV sc ii ended, it was almost dawn, and scene iii continues the same day. Yet in Act IV sc ii the Duke told the Provost he needed ‘four days' respite' to make all things clear, although now he seems to be planning to return within two. However, later in this same scene he tells Isabella that ‘The Duke comes home tomorrow'. (See also Structure > Time-scale).

But I will keep her ignorant of her good, / To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected – Another very problematic decision by the Duke. Withholding from Isabella the news that her brother is still alive seems particularly cruel; the idea that, when she eventually finds out, the news will give her ‘heavenly comfort' does not seem an acceptable justification. Of course, from the point of view of the plot, it is essential that Isabella should believe she is pleading for her brother's killer when she begs for Angelo's life.

O I will to him and pluck out his eyes – Isabella's first instinct is for vengeance, but by the end of the play she has learnt the importance of mercy – as has Angelo.

Damn'd Angelo – The juxtaposition of the name Angelo with the word damn'd encapsulates ideas of sinfulness and salvation in the play.

The old fantastical duke of dark corners – Lucio is again suggesting that the Duke was surreptitiously involved in sexual exploits; but for the audience, who has observed the Duke's role in disguise, there may well be the other implication of secret activity within the state.

You'll answer this one day – The Duke is referring to the fact that Lucio does not realise he is speaking to the very man he is slandering; Lucio will later have to face the Duke's wrath. However, there is also perhaps implicit in this remark the idea of the Last Judgement before God: the similarities and differences of judgement on earth and in heaven are a central issue of the play.

I was once before him for getting as wench with child … but I was fain to forswear it – Mistress Overdone has already mentioned (in Act III sc ii) that Lucio has fathered a child which he has abandoned. As we have seen in his denouncing of Pompey and Mistress Overdone, Lucio is quick enough to condemn others; by the end of the play he too will receive judgement.

Investigating Act IV scene iii
  • Barnardine seems at first to be introduced as someone whose head can provide a substitute for Claudio's, but in the end this is not the case. What might be Shakespeare's reason for introducing Barnardine?
    • Which issues and themes does this character allow Shakespeare to present to the audience?
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