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Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 4, Scene 3 | Summary



Elsewhere in the prison Pompey remarks he is "well acquainted here as ... / in our house of profession. One would think it were Mistress / Overdone's own house, / for here be many / of her old customers."

Abhorson orders Pompey to summon Barnardine for execution. Pompey cajolingly tries to get Barnardine to come along, but the prisoner claims to be hung over and thus in no shape to be executed. The Duke, still posing as a friar, offers to help Barnardine prepare his soul for death, but Barnardine is no more obliging to him than to the executioners. Killing Barnardine in this state, says the Duke, would be a sin and a disgrace.

The Provost is now without a head to present to Angelo, thus threatening the plot to save Claudio. Fortunately, a pirate named Ragozine has just died of illness in the prison. His age and hair color make him a closer fit for Claudio anyway, so the Provost proposes sending Ragozine's head to Angelo instead. The Duke, delighted, orders Claudio transferred to a "secret hold" (solitary cell) to prevent his being detected in the meantime. He then discloses his plan to write to Angelo announcing his return to the city and his wish for a public reception.

Isabella enters, and the still-disguised Duke decides not to tell her about the plan to save her brother. The news, he argues in a brief aside, will be all the more comforting if it is a surprise. Thus, he lies to Isabella, telling her Claudio's "head is off, and sent to Angelo." She reacts with an outburst of rage and despair, but he urges her to have patience and bring her cause to the Duke when he returns. He hands her a letter and tells her to go to Friar Peter, who will secure her an audience before the Duke. Lucio arrives just as Isabella is exiting and engages the "friar" with more wild tales about the Duke.


Here, again, is the Duke with his cat-and-mouse routine. As the architect of the plan to save Claudio, he has good reason to hope the plot will succeed, yet he still withholds this potentially comforting information from Isabella. His rationale for doing so is even flimsier than in Act 3, Scene 1, where he warns Claudio to "be absolute for death." There, he at least had the excuse of helping Claudio purify his soul. Here, however, the Duke sees the news of Claudio's survival as a mere pleasant surprise, to be revealed to Isabella when he deems it appropriate. The Duke's real motive in playing these manipulative games is never quite made clear, although he may simply be enjoying this new variety of power he holds over his subjects. If so, he never admits it, instead doubling down on his claim to be acting with the best interests of others in mind. Isabella may well prefer not to be lied to, but her opinion is not consulted.

The Duke's unwillingness to kill Barnardine, a murderer already sentenced to death, is another point that seems to underscore his murky concept of justice. Like the general pardon in Act 5, the Duke's decision here puts Barnardine and Claudio on an even footing. In fact, it gives Barnardine a privilege Claudio lacks—that of being executed when he chooses, not when the law demands. It may be tempting to excuse the Duke by asking what right he has to kill one prisoner and let another live. Yet this is precisely the point—these decisions ultimately rest with the Duke, who has (and elsewhere uses) absolute legal authority in Vienna. The Duke has not only the right but also the responsibility to determine who lives and who dies. His legal system has given murder and fornication an equally harsh punishment, and it is now his prerogative to decide whether these punishments are fair.

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