Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary



The Duke, still disguised, confers with Claudio in his cell and counsels him to "be absolute for death," meaning to abandon hope of being spared from execution. He gives a pious speech about the sorrows and travails of earthly life, from which death offers freedom. Claudio thanks him and announces his resolve to meet his fate with a clear mind.

Isabella is admitted to the prison and greets Claudio, while the Duke draws the Provost offstage and asks to listen in on the conversation between the siblings. Isabella eventually tells Claudio of the impossible choice Angelo has set before her. Initially Claudio is repulsed and offended by the idea of his sister giving up her virginity to save him. Gradually however, his fear of death gets the better of him, and he tentatively starts trying to persuade Isabella to accept Angelo's offer. Eventually he is reduced to out-and-out begging and tries to convince her that a sin "to save a brother's life ... becomes a virtue." Isabella recoils in disgust and anger at his cowardice. If she saves Claudio but he then fails to repent, she warns, her yielding to Angelo will be a doubly sinful act.

At this point the Duke reappears and tells Claudio not to hope for a reprieve. Claiming to be the priest who has heard Angelo's confession, he dismisses the temptation of Isabella as a trick intended to test her virtue. He then asks to speak with Isabella in private, offering her a chance to save her brother and expose Angelo. To accomplish this she must promise to meet Angelo for a tryst but then fail to keep the appointment. In her place, Angelo's spurned fiancée, Mariana, will show up. Angelo abandoned Mariana, to whom he was formally contracted, after her brother was shipwrecked along with her dowry. Thinking he is sleeping with Isabella, Angelo will instead consummate his marriage with Mariana and make it officially binding. Thus Claudio will be saved, Isabella's chastity preserved, Mariana avenged, and Angelo punished. Isabella agrees to the plan and sets out immediately to visit Angelo.


In this hefty prison scene, the play's central plot begins to take form. The Duke's manipulative double-talk continues in this scene as he warns Claudio to be ready for death and then divulges a plan to prevent the execution. Perhaps, as he insists elsewhere in the play, the Duke is merely looking after the spiritual well-being of his subjects. By ridding Claudio of his attachments to earthly life, he is—according to the value system of his time—doing the young man a favor. Claudio's soul will be fitter for judgment if he renounces the pleasures of this world before being forced to enter the next. Yet even if readers accept the virtuousness of this deed, they also will realize the Duke accomplishes this change of heart through indirection and dishonesty. Moreover there is something more than a little disturbing about the ease with which the Duke impersonates a priest. He uses his "clergy" privileges to gain access to the prisons, which is understandable given his aim of checking up on Vienna's justice system. But then the Duke starts exploiting other aspects of his disguise. In particular, he poses as a confessor to both Claudio and Isabella, who confide in him so readily because they believe he is a priest. This is not mere information gathering, but something more sinister that borders on voyeurism.

Claudio's reaction to his upcoming execution is a very human one. Isabella, certainly, cannot in any sense be blamed for her unwillingness to give in to Angelo's coercion. Her body, as she makes clear in Act 2, Scene 4, is hers to dispose of, and she will do so only in a way she believes is right. At the same time, it's hard to blame Claudio for his desperation here, because for all he knows, he is going to be dead within hours unless somebody intervenes. The siblings' conflict comes out of their essential natures. Claudio's moral sense about sex is an easy one. He feels little shame in his relationship with Juliet, whom he loves and was planning to marry. In other words, sex is no big deal. For Isabella, the future nun, it is. In fact she would give her life for her brother's, but not her moral virtue.

It is worth noticing that the relationship between marriage and sex is an ambiguous one. In Shakespeare's England, a formally betrothed couple was thought to be essentially married, and frequently such a marriage might be consummated before a formal church ceremony. Judged by Angelo, Claudio has committed a capital crime by having sex with his betrothed; however, through the Duke's eyes, Angelo will simply consummate his marriage by having sex (however inadvertently) with his own betrothed.

The Duke, in a roundabout way, is responsible for the conflict in this scene, for he has encouraged Claudio to view his death as a foregone conclusion. If he had simply told both siblings of his plan from the start, the ugliest parts of this scene could have been avoided.

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