Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 2, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Back at his home Angelo is stewing in his conflicted feelings for Isabella. He has prayed for strength, but his prayers have evidently not been answered. A servant ushers Isabella into the room so she may hear Angelo's decision concerning her brother. In a painfully roundabout way, Angelo proposes a trade: her brother's life for "the treasures of [her] body." At first Isabella does not catch Angelo's drift, but when she does, she utterly refuses his offer. It is better, she says, for Claudio to die now than for her to condemn herself to hell by sleeping with Angelo.

Admiring her resolve, Angelo persists in trying to persuade Isabella to "redeem [her] brother." Instead she turns the tables, demanding a pardon for her brother and threatening to tell everyone about Angelo's corrupt and lecherous nature. Angelo, provoked, ups the ante by saying he will torture Claudio—rather than merely execute him—unless Isabella complies. He exits, leaving her to ponder his offer, but Isabella refuses even to consider trading away her chastity. Instead she decides to visit Claudio, reveal Angelo's treachery, and warn him to prepare for the worst.

Analysis

Shocked and angered by Angelo's proposal, Isabella does not for a moment consider accepting it. Instead she uses the language of martyrdom to show how thoroughly she despises the thought of selling her body as she reflects, "Th'impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield / My body up to shame."

In other words, Isabella would sooner die the most painful death than sleep with Angelo. She has not budged an inch from her pure-heartedness in the convent scene (Act 1, Scene 4), where she gladly embraces a strict lifestyle. She will be similarly demanding in dealing with her brother when they meet again in the next scene.

Angelo, meanwhile, seems to be living by the rule of "in for a penny, in for a pound." Having once revealed his baser nature—to Isabella and to himself—Angelo quickly completes his transformation into a villain. If stirrings of emotion troubled him in Act 2, Scene 2, they have quickly transformed into corrupt lust, and his act seems, particularly to modern audiences, far more punishable than Claudio's—particularly in light of his hypocrisy. Even as Angelo gives way to his own lust, he is unwilling to temper his harshness toward sexual behavior in general. This black-and-white way of thinking will make Angelo hate himself all the more passionately in the later acts of the play. When he is finally arrested by the Duke, he will beg for death rather than ask for a chance to redeem himself.

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