Act IV, scene iv

Synopsis of Act IV scene iv

Angelo and Escalus have received letters announcing the Duke's return, and telling them to meet him at the city gates. Angelo is clearly unnerved by the news. When alone, he thinks of the horror of what he has done, as he thinks, to both Isabella and Claudio. He wishes he had not had Claudio executed.

Commentary on Act IV scene iv

Pray heaven his wisdom be not tainted – Angelo may well suspect that the Duke's return will result in exposure of his crimes, but he tries to convince himself (and Escalus) that the Duke's sudden return has no rational cause and is a sign of madness.

And why meet him at the gates ...? And why should we proclaim it ...? – Angelo's questions indicate his perturbation. He has not expected the Duke to return. (In Act IV sc ii the Duke had told the Provost that Angelo would receive letters suggesting the Duke would not be coming back.)

This deed unshapes me quite … How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no – This soliloquy shows us that Angelo is fully aware of the appalling nature of his actions. However, he still relies on his position of authority, and his previous reputation, to protect him.

He should have liv'd, / Save that … have ta'en revenge - Angelo's decision not to honour his promise to Isabella was taken out of fear of reprisal; a living Claudio would want to avenge his sister's dishonour. This shows Angelo to be cowardly, but at least not merely malicious.

Would yet he had lived – Angelo is beginning to repent of his evil acts – an essential precursor to receiving forgiveness. The play is so constructed that he is given the chance to ‘turn the clock back', when he finds out in Act V that, in spite of his wicked intentions, his crimes against Isabella and Claudio have not actually taken place.

Compare and contrast Macbeth, and the guilty Macbeth's comment about the murder of Duncan:
‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou could'st.‘

Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, / Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not – A couplet carrying various religious implications and echoes. ‘Grace' is an important word throughout the play (and indeed throughout Shakespearean drama); it suggests personal ‘graces' – i.e. good qualities or virtues, which is the primary sense in which Angelo uses it here. But it also, and more importantly, reminds the audience of the ‘grace of God' – that is, the forgiveness which God offers, through Christ, to all repentant sinners. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven.) Angelo's words ‘We would and we would not' would also remind the Shakespearean audience of a verse from the New Testament, Matthew 26:41.

Investigating Act IV scene iv
  • Read through Angelo's soliloquy
    • Paraphrase his ideas, making a numbered list showing the stages of his thought-processes here.
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