Summary: Act 2, Scene 4

Alone onstage, Angelo considers his situation again, confused by the conflicting emotions he is experiencing regarding his laws about fornication and his desire for Isabella. His servant then enters to announce Isabella’s arrival.

Angelo tells Isabella that her brother will still die, but he seems less firm in his pronouncement. Isabella asks for clarification, and Angelo poses a hypothetical question, “Which had you rather, the most just law / Now took your brother’s life, or, to redeem him, / Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness / As she that he hath stained?” (2.4.54–57). In other words, would she rather lose her brother or sacrifice her virginity to save him. Isabella replies, “I had rather give my body than my soul” (2.4.59).

Angelo clarifies that he has sentenced Claudio to death, then he poses another question: “Might there not be a charity in sin / To save this brother’s life?” (2.4.67–68). Isabella again asks him to pardon her brother, saying that it would be worth the sin involved to do so. However, in saying this she innocently assumes that Angelo is speaking of the sin that he would incur for forgiving Claudio for his crime. Angelo tries to make her understand what he really means, saying that she is misinterpreting his words and thus either ignorant or crafty.

He again tries to make his proposition, beginning by saying that Claudio will die. Isabella understands this much, and Angelo says that his crime warrants such a punishment. Isabella agrees. Then Angelo states his question more clearly, asking whether she would be willing to have sexual relations with a man in order to save Claudio. Isabella says that she would rather die than commit such an act; therefore, her brother should die under the same conditions. Angelo replies that he will die. Isabella agrees to this, saying that it is better for him to die than for her soul to be tarnished by the sin. Angelo asks her whether she is not acting as cruelly as he is, and she argues that she cannot redeem her brother through further sin.

Now dispensing with all veiled language, Angelo tells Isabella that he loves her, and she replies, “My brother did love Juliet, / And you tell me that he shall die for ’t” (2.4.153–54). Angelo replies that Claudio will not die if Isabella agrees to his proposition. Isabel grows irate when she realizes he is sincere, and she says that she will blackmail him if he does not pardon her brother, telling everyone what he has asked of her.

Angelo replies, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (2.4.168). He speaks of his reputation and position in the state, suggesting that he has more power than she does. He tells her to be less timid and agree to his proposal, or else her brother will not only die but also suffer a long and painful death. He gives her until the next day to decide and then leaves.

Isabella is left to think about the situation by herself. She wonders who would believe her if she were to tell what has happened. She decides to visit her brother, sure that he will agree that she should not give up her chastity for his life. She also hopes to put his mind at rest before he dies.

Read a translation of Act 2, Scene 4.

Analysis: Act 2, Scene 4

Even though Isabella appears slow to realize what’s going on in this scene, the audience immediately understands that Angelo is attempting to coerce her into having sex with him in exchange for her brother’s life. Angelo can’t tell whether Isabella is truly being naïve or just playing coy, and this remains ambiguous for the audience as well (though different productions might emphasize one reading over the other). But regardless of the reason, Isabella strains Angelo’s patience. One of the reasons behind Isabella’s slow realization is that Angelo initially couches his proposition in hypotheticals. That is, he uses carefully veiled language that he hopes will communicate his desire without having to express them outright. Angelo’s strategy indicates his awareness that what he’s doing is morally wrong, though he evidently believes that he can skirt matters of morality through rhetorical means. However, Isabella’s misunderstanding—whether genuine or feigned—eventually forces him to announce his intentions plainly: “Redeem thy brother / By yielding up thy body to my will, / Or else he must not only die the death, / But thy unkindness shall his death draw out / To ling’ring sufferance” (2.4.177–81).

Yet even before she fully understands that Angelo is propositioning her, Isabella engages critically with his series of hypothetical scenarios. Her resistance to Angelo helps draw out the confusing conflation of secular and sacred law involved in his proposition. That is, he’s asking her to break her spiritual vow to chastity and commit a sin to save the life of her brother. However, this breach of sacred law is also, under Angelo’s authority, a breach of secular law. And what’s more, it is the secular law against fornication before marriage that has led to her brother’s being sentenced to death. What logic is there in saving her brother’s life by committing the same act that got him arrested in the first place? This question is even more significant, considering that Claudio and Juliet are truly in love, whereas Angelo and Isabella are not. Though Isabella doesn’t critique the absurd hypocrisy of Angelo’s proposal outright, she does reject his conflation of sacred and secular crimes when she concludes: “Better it were a brother died at once / Than that a sister, by redeeming him, / Should die forever” (2.4.114–16). Isabella clearly prioritizes sacred over secular law.

In addition to the muddled conflict staged here between law and religion, this scene also powerfully reflects on how male tyranny is related to the domination of women. As the scene draws to a close and Angelo realizes that Isabella won’t easily succumb to his desires, he resorts to a power play. He claims that, though all humans are frail, women are weaker than men. When Isabella agrees with him, he uses her agreement as an opportunity to assert his power. He tells her to stop speaking (“arrest your words”) and to act in accordance with her natural frailty: “Be that you are— / That is, a woman. If you be more, you’re none. / If you be one, as you are well expressed / By all external warrants, show it now / By putting on the destined livery” (2.4.145–49).

The “destined livery” meant here is frailty, but Angelo is also clearly implying that Isabella must submit to his will. When Isabella protests and threatens to go public about his immoral and unlawful behavior, Angelo counters again with the logic of power: “Who will believe thee, Isabel? / My unsoiled name, th’ austereness of my life, / My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state / Will so your accusation overweigh / That you shall stifle in your own report” (2.4.168–72). These lines remain chilling today, when powerful men continue to leverage their social and political power to suppress women’s allegations of sexual assault. For the audience watching this scene unfold, it’s perfectly clear that Angelo is in the wrong, and that his use of sexual tyranny to coerce Isabella is execrable. At the same time, given that we’re only just at the end of act 2, we also sense that Angelo, intoxicated as he is with his own power, is destined for a sobering comeuppance.