Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 4, Scene 2 | Summary



Back in the prison the Provost offers to lighten Pompey's sentence if he will agree to serve as an assistant executioner. He is introduced to his new supervisor, Abhorson, who is reluctant to initiate a pimp into the "mystery" of his craft. The Provost orders the two to report at four in the morning, ready for a beheading.

As the executioner and his new apprentice exit, the Provost asks his officer to call in Barnardine and Claudio. The latter appears first, and the Provost informs him he must "be made immortal" by eight o'clock the following morning. Barnardine, meanwhile, has not yet been retrieved from his cell. The Duke, in his friar disguise, enters the prison and speaks briefly with the Provost about the fairness of Claudio's sentence. As usual, he insists the sentence is just. A messenger from Angelo arrives bearing strict orders to execute Claudio by four o'clock. Barnardine is then to be executed in the afternoon.

Who's Barnardine? asks the Duke. Barnardine, says the Provost, is a vicious and unrepentant death-row prisoner who spends most of his time getting drunk. Hearing this, the Duke hatches a plot: the Provost will execute Barnardine and have his head delivered to Angelo in lieu of Claudio's. By way of reassurance, he presents a letter with the Duke's seal and signature—his own seal and signature, although the Provost does not know this. Despite the great risk to his livelihood and perhaps his life, the Provost reluctantly agrees to follow the plan.


Barnardine and Abhorson, both newly introduced in this scene, add a darkly comic twist to Shakespeare's portrayal of the Viennese prison. Both men are "lifers" in different ways: Barnardine, a murderer, has been on death row for years pending confirmation of his sentence. The executioner Abhorson has made a career of dispensing capital punishment, and it is strongly suggested he lives on the prison grounds. Each has accommodated himself to prison life to an unusual degree, unsettling outsiders like Pompey Bum.

Barnardine, as will be seen more fully in Act 4, Scene 3, is a foil for Claudio. He has no remorse for his crimes and shows no fear of the death sentence with which he is constantly threatened. Claudio, in contrast, is downright ashamed of his much lesser offense and is, to his own further shame, terrified of being executed. In the warped logic of the Viennese justice system, Barnardine is actually likely to survive longer than Claudio because he is so uncooperative. Unrepentant and perennially drunk, he forces his jailers to decide whether they can kill a man whose soul is clearly unprepared for death.

Abhorson, whose unusual name is a pun on the Elizabethan insult "whoreson," combined with the word abhor, is a devoted master of his profession. His interactions with Pompey Bum are made humorous by his insistence on treating the executioner's trade as a "mystery," a respected craft similar to leatherworking or goldsmithing. The joke depends for its impact on the real-life existence of such "mysteries" in Shakespeare's day and of organizations devoted to practicing them and preserving their secrets. Also known as guilds, these associations were in fact a fixture of the early modern English economy and enjoyed considerable clout in local governments. Thus Shakespeare's overly serious Abhorson may be a dig at the self-importance of guilds and their leaders. In any case, there was no such organization as an "Executioner's Guild" in Shakespearean England, where executioners were seen as necessarily evils, not desirable members of society. Nor was there one in Vienna, where the executioner's trade was viewed as so unclean it was dangerous even to associate with executioners.

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