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”: namely, “Thou Shalt not Steal” (1.2.8–10). 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 continue their debate. They are making jokes 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 engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and that he will be beheaded for his crime. Pompey also tells her about a proclamation that has been issued to shut down all brothels in Vienna’s equivalent to a “red-light district.” 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 now being punished for them. When Lucio asks for the specific offense, Claudio hesitates.

Lucio tries to guess his friend’s crime, starting with murder and then moving to lechery. When Claudio indicates that he’s guessed correctly, Lucio asks, “Is lechery so looked after?” (1.2.140–41), 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” (1.2.151)—that is, their engagement in consensual sex—has led to Juliet’s pregnancy and so made visible their newly illegal sexual activity.

Claudio ponders the reasons for these strict new laws, guessing that Angelo may be governing brutally as a way to prove himself and establish a reputation. Lucio encourages him to appeal to the Duke, but Claudio says the Duke’s whereabouts are unknown. Claudio asks Lucio to find his sister, Isabella, who has just joined a convent, and to ask her to appeal to Angelo on his behalf.

Read a translation of Act 1, Scene 2

Analysis: Act 1, Scenes 1 & 2

Shakespeare introduces most of the play’s major characters and situations in the first two scenes of act 1. With the Duke having taken leave of Vienna, Angelo, who now has temporary authority over the city, sees an opportunity to prove his mettle as a leader. The general atmosphere in Vienna seems to be one of merriment and disregard for the law. It quickly becomes apparent that Angelo aims to make his reputation by stamping out all forms of immorality in Vienna, starting with the sinful crime of fornication. From what we in the audience can gather in scene 2, sex is happening everywhere in Vienna, thriving as much in the city center as in the suburbs. Not only is the brothel business booming, but the soldiers make casual jokes about how frequently they sleep with prostitutes and how often they suffer from venereal diseases. The fact that fornication is rampant in the city makes it a fitting target for Angelo. If he can eradicate this particularly egregious form of immorality, then he will surely prove his worth.

Yet it is also immediately clear that Angelo’s decision to outlaw fornication is cruel and unusual. For one thing, the law he’s reinstated has been dormant for a long time and thus has fallen away as a strict cultural norm. The suddenness of his order is thus unfair. For another thing, the punishment that comes with the crime of fornication is absurdly steep. Even for Shakespeare’s first audience in Elizabethan England, the idea that Claudio should be executed for getting his fiancée pregnant would have seemed rather extreme. (Indeed, folks who are familiar with Shakespeare’s biography will know that he married Anne Hathaway when she was already pregnant, indicating that the Bard himself had committed the sin of premarital sex.) Claudio reflects on the absurdity of his situation, referring to Angelo as “the demigod Authority” who, in his ridiculous overreaching, has shown himself to be a tyrannical ruler (1.2.116).

Whereas Angelo has made a strict proclamation about the unlawfulness of fornication, the characters thus far introduced inhabit a wide spectrum of positions regarding sexuality. Angelo has decided to make an example of Claudio, but it’s apparent that this man, though sexually active, isn’t entirely unrestrained in his desire. Claudio has indeed had sex with Juliet prior to their official marriage, but he has every intention of wedding his beloved. His devotion to Juliet makes him appear honorable compared to the sexually promiscuous soldiers. Likewise, he seems the very picture of morality when put in relation to the clown Pompey and the bawd Mistress Overdone. Not only does Mistress Overdone own and operate a brothel, but Pompey insists that she’ll have no trouble finding customers even with Angelo’s new law in place. The most powerful men in the city can always find a way to get around the law. On the other end of the spectrum stands Claudio’s sister, Isabella, whom we learn is just about to take orders at a convent and become a nun. Sworn to abstain from sexual activity entirely, Isabella is the only character who would seem to be behaving lawfully under Angelo’s draconian decree.