Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 4, Scene 4 | Summary



Back at the deputy's house, Angelo and Escalus are puzzling over the seemingly contradictory letters sent by the Duke. The most recent letters tell of the Duke's wish to have his return to Vienna publicly announced and to have Angelo and Escalus meet him at the city gate. Moreover anyone who "crave[s] redress of injustice" is to be given a chance to petition the Duke as he re-enters the city. Escalus bids Angelo farewell and exits the stage. Alone now, Angelo gives vent to his guilt and anxiety over his sins. He has, so he believes, "deflowered" Isabella and killed her brother, who "should have lived." He comforts himself that Isabella will be too intimidated by his authority—and too ashamed of her deflowering—to denounce him publicly.


Morally speaking, Angelo hits rock bottom at the beginning of this act. He successfully, so he thinks, has coerced Isabella into parting with her virginity in exchange for Claudio's life. (This has happened offstage, sometime after Act 4, Scene 1.) But before the tryst was accomplished, he went back on his word and ordered Claudio's execution to be carried out sooner than scheduled. (Hence the letter received in Act 4, Scene 2). In this scene the enormity of Angelo's deeds starts to sink in. He first thinks of his violation of Isabella—"this deed unshapes" him—and he begins a painful struggle toward repentance. By the end of the play, he will not only repent but also perform a complete about-face from smug pride to abject self-loathing. Once so quick to dispense death to others, he will crave it for himself as the most merciful way to escape his guilty conscience.

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