Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Elsewhere in Angelo's house, the Provost has had some misgivings about his orders. A servant brings Angelo forth, and the Provost asks whether he really wants to execute Claudio so soon. Angelo impatiently threatens to fire the Provost if he will not carry out his orders. The Provost asks what should be done with "the groaning Juliet," who has evidently gone into labor. Angelo authorizes him to transfer Juliet to a "fitter place" for giving birth, with "needful but not lavish" accommodations.

The servant returns and introduces Lucio and Isabella, who are admitted to Angelo's presence. At first Isabella is shy and awkward in pleading for her brother's life, but when Lucio accuses her of "coldness" in her pleas to Angelo, her speech becomes more passionate and eloquent. She reminds Angelo of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, which she upholds as the ultimate example of mercy. Angelo remains unmoved and insists on the impartial nature of his justice, for "were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, / it should be thus with him."

By and by, however, he is convinced—not so much by Isabella's speech as by his growing recognition of his lust for her. He asks her to come back the next day, an invitation Isabella takes as an encouraging sign. Once she and the others have gone, Angelo reveals his desires in a soliloquy. Isabella's virtue, he is astonished to find, makes her more tempting than any "strumpet."

Analysis

Why is Isabella initially so "cold," as Lucio accuses her of being? One possibility is a simple lack of self-confidence. Isabella, a private citizen, now stands before the highest secular authority in the city-state of Vienna. Angelo is presented as a stern and intimidating person, and Lucio's inspirational remarks to Isabella encourage the reader to imagine her as shy and uncertain. Yet Isabella may also be "cold" because of her own moral strictness, as compared with the relative laxity she perceives in her brother. She may, in other words, be unsure of the rightness of her cause—and even partly convinced by Angelo's arguments in favor of executing Claudio. This possibility gains further support from Isabella's scornful treatment of Claudio in Act 4, Scene 1, where she rebukes him for having slept with Juliet outside of marriage.

Angelo, meanwhile, finds his own famous "coldness" thawing in a disturbing way. Importantly, he is not a simple garden-variety hypocrite who has been lustful all along while pretending to be chaste. Rather he seems genuinely surprised and confused by his own feelings for Isabella as he realizes "this virtuous maid / Subdues me quite. Ever till now / When men were fond, I smiled and wondered how." This lack of self-awareness, in turn, goes a long way toward showing why a little leniency is to be preferred to complete strictness. If Angelo had been aware of his own moral weaknesses, he would likely have been less quick to judge others for having the same flaws. Instead, by holding others to a strict accounting for their own lustful tendencies, he has left himself open to judgment by the very same "measure."

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