Summary: Act 1, Scene 3

The Duke goes to a monastery and asks Friar Thomas to hide him there. He tells the friar that he has good reasons for hiding, and that he has lied to Angelo about his destination. The Duke explains that for the past fourteen years the laws have been flagrantly disobeyed, with little reproach from the government. As the Duke explains it, when the law only serves to threaten, because the lawmakers do not carry out the punishments dictated, the government loses its authority and “the baby beats the nurse” (1.3.31). Since he gave the people liberties, he does not feel comfortable starting to punish them now. Even so, he worries about the state of affairs in Vienna. He therefore asked Angelo to take over, hoping that his strictness would succeed in cleaning up the city, all without tarnishing the Duke’s permissive reputation. With this plan in place, the Duke now wants to observe Angelo at work, and so he asks Friar Thomas to provide him with a disguise that will make him look like a visiting friar himself.

Read a translation of Act 1, Scene 3.

Summary: Act 1, Scene 4

At a convent, nun is introducing Isabella to the rules of the nunnery. A man approaches, and the sister asks Isabella to answer the door, since she is not sworn in yet and therefore still allowed to speak to men. Isabella obeys and finds Lucio at the door, calling for her by name. Isabella asks him to explain what has happened, and he tells her that Claudio has “got his friend with child” (1.4.30). Isabella does not believe it at first and tells Lucio not to mock her. Lucio says that he is indeed telling the truth, and Isabella asks if the woman is her cousin Juliet. When Lucio says yes, Isabella asks why they cannot simply marry. Lucio explains that the Duke has left and that the very logical and unemotional Angelo is serving as leader in his place. When Lucio reveals that Angelo wants to make Claudio an example by executing him, Isabella asks how she can help. Lucio instructs her to visit Angelo and use her feminine charms to convince him to have mercy on her brother. Isabella says she will leave right away.

Read a translation of Act 1, Scene 4

Analysis: Act 1, Scenes 3 & 4

The second half of act 1 offers a glimpse into the motivations of the Duke and introduces us to Isabella. Both of these characters clearly have good intentions and seek to improve the situation around them. In the Duke’s case, he wants to bring more law and order to Vienna, but he doesn’t know how to do it himself. He sees how his government’s failure to enforce existing statutes has led to widespread dismissal of the law. He also recognizes that it would be cruel for him to suddenly crack down on unlawful activity, given that he bears at least partial responsibility for the government’s permissiveness. To preserve his own reputation while also renewing Vienna’s commitment to law and order, he deputizes his power to Angelo, a fastidious moralist. Yet he also knows that Angelo’s tendency toward strictness could result in heartless tyranny. He therefore asks Friar Thomas to disguise him so that he might roam the city in secret and keep an eye on the man he’s selected to do his dirty work.

The Duke, who confesses to Friar Thomas that he has “ever loved the life removed” (1.3.9), finds a mirror in Isabella, who similarly seeks to retire from the affairs of daily life. We meet her as she’s in the process of joining a convent. In an amusing reversal of Vienna’s apparent excess of liberty, Isabella expresses surprise at the lack of restrictions in the convent: “I speak not as desiring more, / But rather wishing a more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood (1.4.3–5). But before she can be sworn into the sisterhood and enter a life of righteous purity, Lucio calls on her to leave the convent. He implores her to help save her brother, who has been condemned to die for a sin that he’s committed with Isabella’s own cousin and close friend. His request places her in a difficult position that requires her to suspend her beliefs about religious morality and sexual propriety. This is a key moment in Isabella’s arc, since it involves her to decide between retreating into the convent or returning to the world—that is, between her faith and her family.