Summary: Act 3, Scene 2

Outside the prison, the Duke meets Elbow and Pompey. The Duke asks what crime Pompey has committed, and Elbow tells him that the clown broke the law and is also a pickpocket. Pompey protests, but the Duke will not listen, telling him to go to jail.

Lucio approaches and asks what is going on. Elbow says that Pompey is going to prison for being a bawd. Pompey asks Lucio to pay his bail, but Lucio refuses and sends Pompey along. Lucio then asks the Duke, who is still disguised as a friar, if he knows the whereabouts of the Duke. Lucio says that Angelo is strictly upholding the law in the Duke’s absence. The Duke approves of this, but Lucio says that Angelo could afford to be more lenient on the matter of lechery. The Duke says that lechery is a widespread vice which should be eradicated. After insisting that there’s no way to “extirp” this vice completely (3.2.103), Lucio makes a joke about Angelo being so pure that he couldn’t have been conceived through sexual intercourse. Lucio also says that the Duke would not be so strict, since he himself enjoyed the pleasures of sexual relations with women.

The Duke contradicts him, and the two argue. Feeling insulted by Lucio’s words against him, the disguised Duke threatens to report him once the real Duke returns, but Lucio isn’t worried. Instead, he changes the subject and asks what will happen to Claudio. When the Duke affirms that Claudio is destined to die, Lucio again insists that the punishment for lechery is pointless and hypocritical. Then, after wishing for the merciful Duke’s return, he departs.

At this point, Escalus enters with the Provost and Mistress Overdone. He tells the Provost to send Mistress Overdone to prison for running a brothel. Mistress Overdone argues that the evidence comes from Lucio, who is himself guilty of fornication. According to her, he has an illegitimate child with a woman named Kate Keepdown. The child is now over a year old and has been abandoned by its father. Escalus calls for Lucio’s arrest, then sends Mistress Overdone off to prison.

Escalus then asks the Duke where he is from, and he replies that he is a foreigner. Escalus wants to know the news from abroad, and the Duke tells him that it’s the same everywhere: goodness has grown sick, and people yearn for little more than the latest novelty. Their conversation then turns to Claudio. The Duke tells Escalus that he’s helped prepare the prisoner for death. Escalus expresses gratitude and then says that he has done all he could to persuade Angelo to commute the execution. However, Angelo has remained unyielding in his idea of justice. When Escalus leaves the stage, the Duke remains and delivers a soliloquy in which he condemns Angelo and renews his commitment to trick him into sin.

Read a translation of Act 3, Scene 2.

Analysis: Act 3, Scene 2

In the second half of act 2, the Duke, still in disguise as a friar, encounters several more characters and continues to gather information about how Angelo’s turn in power is going. On the one hand, it’s clear that Angelo’s enforcement of the law has proven successful. The Duke sees evidence for Angelo’s effectiveness in the stream of criminals being delivered to the prison. In particular, he sees Pompey and Mistress Overdone placed under arrest for their involvement in running a brothel. The Duke chastises these figures for their immoral conduct, commanding them to reflect carefully on the wickedness of their “filthy vice” (3.2.24). Though speaking in character as a friar, and hence expected to make such a declaration, it’s also clear that the Duke is pleased to witness the restoration of law and order.

On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that Angelo’s enforcement of the law is excessively strict. The first person to expresses frustration with Angelo is Lucio. Lucio initially criticizes Angelo’s “transgression” on the grounds that there’s no way to entirely rid society of a carnal sin like fornication: “it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down” (3.2.96, 103–104). Later in the same conversation, Lucio puts his point a bit differently, arguing not that fornication can never be eradicated, but rather that virtually everyone is guilty of the sin—or, at least, of the desire to commit it. As such, Angelo’s relentless pursuit of criminals will eventually “unpeople the province” (3.2.175). However, the Duke doesn’t seem fully swayed by Lucio’s testimony, mainly because he feels insulted by the man’s suggestion that he—the supposedly absent Duke—is just as sexually inclined as everyone else. Stung by Lucio’s words, he dismisses his opinions about the law against fornication.

But things appear to change when the Duke encounters Escalus, who also reflects on Angelo’s cruelty. Escalus, being a judge, is clearly more trustworthy when it comes to matters of crime and punishment, and even he thinks the death sentence on Claudio is excessively severe. But even more significant than the severity of the sentence is Escalus’s account of Angelo’s tyrannical behavior: “my brother justice have I found so severe that he hath forced me to tell him he is indeed Justice” (3.2.253–55). In other words, Angelo views himself as the very archetype of Justice and demands others to affirm this view. Escalus, however, is evidently horrified by such an idea, and the Duke clearly is as well. Of course, by this point in the play, the Duke already knows that his deputy is a hypocrite. But as act 3 comes to a close, he explicitly denounces Angelo’s shameful behavior. As if to emphasize the gravity of the Duke’s denunciation, Shakespeare has him speak a final soliloquy in rhyming couplets written in iambic tetrameter:

Twice treble shame on Angelo, 
To weed my vice, and let his grow. 
O, what may man within him hide, 
Though angel on the outward side. (3.2.269–72)

With this speech, the Duke commits to a plot to teach Angelo a lesson.