Summary: Act 2: Scene 4

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 enters to announce Isabella's arrival, and he is concerned about his feelings.

Angelo tells Isabella that her brother will still die, but seems less firm. Isabella asks for clarification, and Angelo poses the 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?" (II.iv.52-54). In other words, would she sacrifice her virginity to save her brother?

Isabella replies, "I had rather give my body than my soul" (II.iv.56). Angelo clarifies his question, saying that he has sentenced Claudio to death. He asks, "Might there not be a charity in sin to save this brother's life?"--hypothetically asking whether she would sin to save him (II.iv.63).

She asks him to pardon her brother, saying that it would be worth a sin, but innocently assuming that he is speaking of the sin of forgiving him 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, so 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.

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" (II.iv.143). Angelo replies that Claudio will not die if Isabella agrees to his proposition. Isabel grows irate when she realizes he is sincere, and 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?" (II.iv.144). 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 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

The very structure of this scene is frustrating. The audience is immediately aware of Angelo's intentions, but Isabella is either too naive to understand them or too desperate to avoid the actual proposition. She is obviously offended by the very notion of having sexual intercourse with Angelo, becoming furious at the suggestion. It may be her angry reluctance that makes her so desirable to Angelo. It would not be difficult for him to find a sexual partner, considering the prevalence of prostitution in Vienna, and later we discover that there is a woman readily available to him as a wife. He seeks to abstain from sexual activity, and only Isabella draws him out of this resolution.

Isabella is given apparent power over her brother's situation, and she genuinely believes that she could save her brother's life. She refuses the option instantly. In a way, she is handing this power over to God; her virtue and her soul are, for her, in God's hands, and by refusing to disobey his will she is only following along with his expectations of her. Her power is solely sexual, and so she refuses it. Although Isabella is fast in her determination to refuse, Angelo gives her a day to think about it. Dramatically, this gives Isabella time to discuss the proposal with her brother and the Duke time to formulate a plan. It also shows that Angelo believes she will relent with enough persuasion.

Two larger issues emerge in the exchange between Angelo and Isabella. Angelo brings up the topic of love, claiming to be in love with her. He does not promise to marry her, however, implying that he really feels solely lust. Isabella mentions that she would rather die than have intercourse with him, which becomes her primary justification for refusing. She formulates the opinion that death is favorable to shame, and decides that her brother's death is better than her own sinful act.