Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

In this Viennese street scene, Lucio and two other gentlemen are gossiping about their city's political future. Mistress Overdone, the madam of a brothel and from whom Lucio has "purchased ... many diseases," joins them and delivers some sobering news: the young gentleman Claudio has been sentenced to death, "his head to be chopped off" within three days." His only crime, she says, is getting his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant out of wedlock. Fornication is technically a capital offense under Viennese law, but until Angelo came into power, no one had enforced the statute for many years.

Pompey Bum, a pimp, wanders onstage and reports a new edict banning prostitution in the Viennese suburbs. Mistress Overdone, whose "house of resort" (i.e., brothel) is among those banned by the new law, frets about the future of her business. As Pompey attempts to console her, Claudio comes onstage, led by the Provost—a jail warden—and a group of guards. Juliet is being led to prison, too, but she keeps silent in this scene.

Recognizing how his situation must appear to onlookers, Claudio excuses himself by noting that he and Juliet were engaged at the time their child was conceived. Thus, it seems, he is going to be beheaded on a mere technicality. Even so, Claudio is at least embarrassed and perhaps contrite, as he refuses even to name his offense until Lucio presses him. He likens his behavior to that of rats that "raven down their proper bane"—gorging themselves on food which proves to be poisonous.

Claudio asks Lucio to send for Isabella, Claudio's sister, who may be able to persuade the "strict deputy" Angelo to commute his sentence. He describes his sister as particularly articulate and adept at words and logic ("reason and discourse"), skills which he hopes will give her a greater chance of success. Lucio, moved with pity for Claudio's plight, promises to call on Isabella "within two hours."

Analysis

This scene shows the effects of Angelo's policies on two sets of characters, who might be described as "high" and "low." The attitudes of these two groups clash conspicuously and help establish the complex moral terrain of the play. Claudio and his fiancée, Juliet, constitute the "high" side of the dichotomy. They are harmless young gentry who have made a reckless mistake. Because they know how highly their culture values chastity (or claims to, anyway), they are embarrassed—perhaps ashamed—to have succumbed to their lustful urges.

Pompey and Mistress Overdone, in contrast, are completely casual about the subject of sex, whether inside marriage or outside. As long as people are going to indulge their lust, they figure, there's no point in banning the sex trade. To them outlawing prostitution is as silly as outlawing the selling of food and drink. Connecting the two worlds is the rakish and somewhat airheaded gentleman Lucio, whom the play describes as a "friend to Claudio." Lucio's personal appetites bring him into contact with the bustling underworld of Vienna, but his social standing is closer to Claudio's. He sees the city's "punks" (prostitutes) as beneath him—even though, as is later revealed, he has fathered a child by one of them.

Angelo's harsh laws make no distinction among the "wrong place, wrong time" slip-up of the young lovers, the casual brothel-hopping of Lucio, and the blithely commercial behavior of Overdone and Pompey. In his view any sexual act outside marriage is a capital crime. Modern readers are inclined to see such punishment as excessively strict. This scene, however, forces audiences to consider why Angelo's policies are wrong. Is it because good-hearted characters like Claudio and Juliet get swept up in the same net as the more cynical Pompey and Lucio? Or is it, as others will later argue, because the death penalty is inherently too severe for such offenses?
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