Summary: Act III, scene i

The Duke asks Claudio if he hopes to be pardoned by Angelo, and Claudio says that he still hopes he will be, but is ready to die. The Duke tries to resign him to death, saying that he should think of it as better than life. He describes how life is more frightening than death, because it has so many complications, and says that it is strange that we fear death more. Claudio thanks him and says that he is prepared to face death.

Isabella enters and says she wants to speak to her brother. The Duke asks the Provost to take him somewhere where he can hear their conversation without being seen. Claudio asks what happened, and Isabella tells him that there is no way for him to avoid death. Claudio asks if there is any way to change the sentence, and Isabella says that the only solution would require heartbreak. Claudio asks for more information, and Isabella tells him that Angelo has given him a way out of death which will imprison him for life. Claudio asks if the new sentence is life imprisonment, and Isabella says yes, only an imprisonment outside of jail.

Claudio asks for an explanation, and Isabella tells him that the punishment would be the loss of his honor. Claudio wants to know exactly what she means. Isabella evades the question, saying that she is afraid he would choose life. She tells him that death is more fearsome than painful, and that he should not think of it as a terrible thing. Claudio says that she thinks too little of him, and that he would embrace death if he had to. Isabella expresses her approval of this, saying that he is acting as their dead father would. She tells him that he must die because he is too noble to accept a shameful alternative.

Claudio curses Angelo, and Isabella agrees, finally telling him about Angelo's request. Claudio expresses his disgust, and then says, "Thou shalt not do't" (III.i.103). Isabella tells him that she would gladly give her life, but not her virginity. Claudio thanks her, and Isabella tells him to be ready to die tomorrow.

Claudio thinks about Angelo, wondering how he can have such desires and still enforce the law against them. He says that lechery is not a sin, or at least the mildest of the seven deadly sins. Isabella is surprised, and Claudio says, "Death is a fearful thing" (III.i.117). Isabella replies, "And shamed life a hateful" (III.i.118). Claudio describes a terrible view of death, and Isabella only says, "Alas, alas" (III.i.133).

Claudio changes his mind and asks his sister to give up her virginity for him, saying that a sin to save her brother's life would become a virtue. Isabella immediately grows angry, calling him a coward. She tells him that it is a kind of incest to require her to have sexual intercourse in order to save his life. Claudio tries to protest, but Isabella says that his sin was no accident, but a reflection of his general nature.

The Duke comes forward and says that he would like to speak with Isabella. First he takes Claudio aside and tells him that he has overheard their conversation, and that he knows Angelo well. He tells him that Angelo was not actually propositioning Isabella, but only testing her virtue. He was pleased with her response, but he would have killed Claudio either way. Claudio asks to forgive his sister, and the Duke sends him to do so.

The Duke asks the Provost if he can be alone with Isabella, saying that he is honorable because of his profession. The Duke tells Isabella that she is good and asks how she plans to convince Angelo to save her brother. She tells him that she would rather her brother die lawfully than give birth to an illegitimate child. The Duke says that Angelo was only testing her, and that he has a plan which will save Claudio without tarnishing her honor.

The Duke asks her if she has heard of Mariana, and Isabella says she knows the name. The Duke claims that Mariana was engaged to Angelo, but that he broke off the engagement when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. The Duke's plan is for Isabella to tell Angelo she will agree to his request, but to send Mariana in her place. Angelo will be forced to marry Mariana, having had sexual relations with her, and Claudio will be freed.

Read a translation of Act III, scene i


Isabella has no real reason to tell Claudio about Angelo's proposition if she has truly made up her mind. She either seeks approval from him, or she is unsure and wants to be convinced that she is wrong. Considering Claudio's reaction and Isabella's response, it seems that the former is more likely; her mind is set, but she wants his approval for her decision. She is reassured when he seems to agree, but she clearly does not have enough faith in him to think that he would agree with her no matter what. If that were the case, she could simply have stated the proposition immediately, knowing that he would agree with her. However, she sidles around it, first ensuring that they agree on moral grounds and then mentioning the specific circumstance.

Isabella should not be too surprised by his reaction, given that he obviously considers fornication to be less of a sin than she does, having committed it himself. He begins to look upon her as a selfish, naive figure as he tries to convince her to sacrifice virtue for the sake of pragmatism. However, he does realize the repulsiveness of the suggestion and feels ashamed for having tried to convince her otherwise.

Isabella's response to Claudio's willingness to let her accept the proposition is to criticize the act of sexual intercourse itself. She says, "Heaven shield my mother played my father fair" (III.i.141), suggesting that there was some sexual deviance in their own parents' relationship which caused him to become so cowardly and given to sinful behavior. At this point, Isabella wavers between virtue and foolishness. The play is sexually explicit in its plot and language, and Isabella emerges as a frigid, prudish figure for her willingness to sacrifice her brother's life to save her own honor. She will not be a martyr for him, and he does not wish to become a martyr for her.

The Duke's solution is an easy way out, and it ends the great moment of conflict between brother and sister with a pat and unlikely solution. Perhaps Shakespeare thought the question too large to answer in five acts, and so he discards it as open-ended, replacing it with an unlikely and somewhat illogical scheme instead of examining it in more detail.