Summary: Act 1: Scene 1

The Duke calls Lord Angelo to grant him the temporary leadership of Vienna. Angelo modestly refuses, asking the Duke to test his skill in some smaller way first. The Duke tells him that his mind is already made up, and that he must leave right away.

Read a translation of Act 1: Scene 1.

Summary: Act 1: Scene 2

Lucio talks with two other gentlemen about recent events. They joke about the Duke's trip to meet with the King of Hungary and the war being carried out between Hungary and the Viennese city-state. The gentlemen, as soldiers, do not approve of the peace accord being proposed. Lucio compares them to a pirate going "out to sea with the Ten Commandments" having "scraped one out of the table" (I.ii.8-10): "Thou Shalt not Steal." The First Gentleman responds that it is against the pirates' nature to obey such a rule, and likewise it is against the soldiers' nature to wish for peace.

The three men are still joking about venereal disease when, quite appropriately, Mistress Overdone approaches. She tells them that Claudio has been carried off to prison for impregnating Juliet. Lucio and the Gentlemen go off to find out more, and Pompey the clown enters.

Pompey tells Mistress Overdone that Claudio has been taken to prison for sexual involvement outside of marriage. Pompey also tells her that a proclamation shutting down all brothels in Vienna's equivalent to a "red-light district" has been issued. Brothels in the city proper are to remain operational, thanks to the political influence of a wealthy investor. Mistress Overdone worries about her business, but Pompey tells her that she will always have customers. They decide to leave just as Claudio approaches, led by the provost.

Claudio asks the provost why he is being taken to prison, and the provost replies that he is only following the orders of Lord Angelo. Lucio asks Claudio what he has done; Claudio replies that he has taken too many liberties and is being punished. Lucio asks for the specific offense, and Claudio hesitates.

Lucio guesses the crime, starting with murder and then moving to lechery. When Claudio replies that he is correct, Lucio asks, "Is lechery so looked after?" (I.ii.147), surprised that the penalty should be so high.

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 1: Scene 2

Analysis: Act 1: Scenes 1 & 2

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 rein 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 that 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.