Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary



This long scene takes place at Angelo's house and shows how his brand of justice is unfolding in Vienna. As the scene begins, Escalus is urging Angelo to show some leniency toward Claudio, suggesting "Let us be keen and rather cut a little / Than fall and bruise to death." But Angelo insists on being strict. Each man, Angelo says, is responsible for resisting temptation, and the law's task is to punish those offenders it can catch. The Provost of the prison enters, and Angelo orders Claudio "executed by nine tomorrow morning."

As the Provost leaves the room, the constable Elbow enters with two prisoners, the pimp Pompey Bum and his "customer" Froth. In a comical interrogation riddled with verbal slip-ups, Elbow attempts to charge the two men with involvement in the prostitution business. Escalus, who hears Elbow's report, is tolerantly amused, but Angelo loses his patience and leaves Escalus to handle the rest of the proceedings. Pompey, meanwhile, gives a glib but lengthy speech, hoping to establish he is a mere "tapster" (bartender) and no "bawd" (pimp). He also tries to get Froth off the hook by touting Froth's virtues as an honorable man.

Although Escalus sees through the ruse, he does not have the heart to punish the men. He lets Froth go with a warning and then takes Pompey aside for further questioning. He cautions Pompey about Angelo's insistence on "heading and hanging" those involved in the sex trade. Pompey protests the severity of this punishment and says it will depopulate the city. Escalus sarcastically thanks him for his opinion and then orders him to go: "for this time, Pompey, fare you well." After some parting words to Elbow, Escalus heads home to dinner, mulling over the harshness of Angelo's justice.


The scene opens by showing the contrast in attitudes between the moderate Escalus and the unyielding Angelo. Using the metaphor of cutting trees, Escalus explains it is better to "be keen and rather cut a little / Than fall and bruise to death." That is, it is better to trim a tree to keep it under control rather than let it go and have to chop it down.

Shakespeare, it seems, enjoyed making jokes at the expense of guards, policemen, and other "serious" minor officials. In his comedies these characters are often overly convinced of their own importance and oblivious to their own flaws. Constables in Shakespeare's England were not trained police officers but rather ordinary citizens selected to serve as part of a loosely organized night watch. Perhaps because of their lack of professionalism, they come in for a good amount of lighthearted disparagement in Measure for Measure and elsewhere. The textbook example of a bumbling constable comes from Much Ado About Nothing, where Dogberry and his assistant Verges engage in a veritable stand-up routine of verbal gaffes and grandiose legal terms. Yet another dimwitted constable appears in Love's Labour's Lost. Constable Elbow, in other words, is part of a proud fraternity of Shakespearean busybodies.

Apart from providing relief from the play's more serious plot developments, Elbow's antics help show another, less fearful, side of the law in Vienna. Until Elbow appears, the law has been an object of awe and terror, dispensed from above by the no-nonsense Angelo and his nameless officers. It's hard, however, to imagine being terrified of Elbow, a simple citizen who cannot even tell the difference between "detest" and "attest." The execution of his duties is so slipshod, in fact, that Pompey barely has to answer the questions in his supposed interrogation. Here again, Shakespeare's contrast between "higher" and "lower" society reveals two sides of the same coin.

However, for a few unfortunates, including Claudio, the law of Vienna operates with ruthless effectiveness, just as Angelo intends. Others, like Froth and Pompey Bum, are saved by the incompetence of Elbow and his kind or by the leniency of Escalus. This variety of outcomes is an implicit argument for mercy rather than strictness, since it shows how much a person's sentence can depend on luck.

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