Claudio responds that his intentions were honorable, and that he hoped to marry Juliet, but they were waiting for a better time to announce their engagement, because Juliet's family did not approve. However, their "most mutual entertainment," (I.ii.157) or consensual sexual intercourse, has led to Juliet's pregnancy, clueing the city authorities in to the now-illegal premarital sexual activity between the two lovers.
Claudio ponders the reasons for these new strict laws, guessing that Angelo may be governing brutally in order to declare his rule. Lucio encourages him to appeal to the Duke, but Claudio tells him that the Duke's whereabouts are unknown. Claudio asks Lucio to find his sister, Isabella, who has just joined a convent, in order to ask her to appeal to Angelo on his behalf.Read a translation of Act I, Scenes i-iii →
The major characters and situations are laid out. The plot revolves around the new leader's treatment of sexual offenses, particularly fornication, which is considered a sin. The characters also fit into groups depending on their opinions about sexual behavior. Claudio is the middle-of-the-road thinker, not involved in prostitution and possessing only noble beliefs about his relationship with Juliet, but unable to prevent himself from desiring her sexually and therefore culpable. His sister Isabella presents one extreme, abstaining from sexual activity entirely in order to become a nun. Mistress Overdone is at the other end of the spectrum, managing the prostitution business in Vienna.
The only mobile character on the spectrum is Angelo, who is here presented as a strict but virtuous leader who is given free reign in the Duke's absence. Angelo begins to enforce laws that have been dormant for some time. He hopes to clean up the city, shutting down brothels and requiring abstinence before marriage. This will make illegitimate births a thing of the past and protect the city's women, so it is not harmful in itself. He oversteps the framework of justice, however, when he sentences Claudio to death for having sexual intercourse with his lover before marriage. This is, of course, a very strict punishment considering the crime, and Angelo appears as an unwavering, unmerciful leader at this point.
The general atmosphere in Vienna seems to be one of merriment and disregard for the law. Claudio is to serve as an example in order to change this. It is perhaps this environment which prompts Isabella to join the nunnery, since she does not approve of fornication or prostitution and wants to be close to God and safe from male attention. The major conflict of the play already emerges at this point; it lies between Isabella and the other characters, religion and hedonism.