Summary: Act 4, Scene 1

The Duke visits Mariana, where he has already arranged to meet Isabella. Isabella arrives after having set up a midnight meeting with Angelo in his garden. He has given her two keys and detailed instructions about how to access the garden. She told Angelo that a servant will be accompanying her, and that he thinks she is coming to speak about her brother. For that reason, their tryst will have to be quick.

Duke introduces Isabella to Mariana and asks her to inform Angelo’s former fiancée about the plan they have concocted. They go for a walk, and when they return, Mariana agrees to go to Angelo in Isabella’s stead. Isabella tells her to say very little, but to be sure to tell him, “Remember now my brother,” before she leaves. The Duke assures Mariana that she won’t be committing a sin, since Angelo is already her “husband on a precontract” (4.1.79).

Read a translation of Act 4, Scene 1.

Summary: Act 4, Scene 2

Meanwhile, back at the prison, the Provost asks Pompey if he will help execute Claudio and another prisoner. If he does so, the charges against him will be dropped. Pompey agrees, and the Provost introduces him to Abhorson, the executioner. Abhorson says that Pompey will discredit the execution trade. Pompey agrees to be his helper, though, and Abhorson is told to be ready at four o’clock the next day.

The Duke arrives, and the Provost asks if there is any hope of saving Claudio. The Duke says that a pardon may arrive before morning. A messenger arrives, and the Duke says that it is probably the pardon, but it contains instructions to execute Claudio by four o’clock and to send his head to Angelo by five. The message also instructs him to execute a man named Barnardine in the afternoon.

The Duke asks who Barnardine is, and the Provost tells him that he is a Bohemian who has been in prison for nine years. The Duke asks whether he is repentant, and the Provost says that he is as reckless and carefree as he has always been. The Provost says that he does not care that he is in prison and that has not been affected by news of his upcoming execution.

The Duke asks for Claudio’s execution to be postponed four days. The Provost asks how he could do such a thing, considering the precision of Angelo’s instructions. The Duke tells the Provost to send the head of Barnardine in place of Claudio’s. The Provost argues that Angelo will notice it is the wrong person, but the Duke tells him to shave the head and beard of Barnardine’s head to disguise it. When the Provost continues to hesitate, the Duke hands him a paper containing a message written in the Duke’s own hand and containing his official seal. The message indicates that the Duke will return to Vienna in two days’ time.

Read a translation of Act 4, Scene 2.

Analysis: Act 4, Scenes 1 & 2

In the opening scenes of act 4 we see the Duke more fully taking the reins as he orchestrates the plot against Angelo. Scene 1 shows him getting all the active players in the plot onboard. Isabella, who has already gone to speak with Angelo, has arranged a time and place for their midnight tryst. She has also established the necessary caveats that the Duke asked of her—namely, that their encounter should take place in darkness and in silence. These details would provide the necessary cover for him not to notice that the woman he’s having sex with is not, in fact, Isabella. However, for this plan to work, the Duke still needs to convince Mariana to agree to the plan. To achieve this, he deputizes Isabella, who takes her aside and explains the plan.

The fact that Mariana will agree to the plan only if the Duke, still disguised as a friar, counsels her to do so, introduces an important moral ambiguity. The only reason the Duke’s elaborate plan is necessary in the first place is that he gave authority to a tyrannical judge who sentenced a man to death for having sex before marriage. Though the Duke has come to disapprove of the severity of Angelo’s judgment, he at least tacitly agrees that Claudio committed a crime and should be punished for it. After all, it was out of a desire to restore law and order that the Duke deputized power to Angelo. But now the Duke makes precisely the opposite argument to convince Mariana to participate. He tells her, “To bring you thus together ’tis no sin, / Sith that the justice of your title to him / Doth flourish the deceit” (4.1.80–82). In other words, it isn’t sinful for them to have sex before marriage since the justice of their union will outweigh—or “flourish”—any moral burden. The Duke’s counsel to Mariana blatantly contradicts his earlier position. Yet it also demonstrates his willingness to accept a degree of moral relativism to avoid a gross miscarriage of justice.

For the Duke’s plan to work, however, he must also intercede in the execution of Claudio. This is his primary task in scene 2, where he works to convince the Provost to keep Claudio alive and trick Angelo by sending him a different man’s head. Once again, the Duke must persuade someone to go against the law. In this case, he instructs the Provost to ignore a direct order from the Duke’s deputy, whom he has sworn to obey. But the Provost isn’t as easy to convince as Mariana, who was swayed by his guise as a holy man. Whereas Mariana accepted the Duke’s apparent religious authority as being superior to that of the secular law, the Provost remains bound to his legal duty. Thus, the Duke is forced to play a trump card and give the Provost an official message written in the Duke’s own hand. Only such a document, which carries with it the force of legal authority, will convince the Provost to swap one man’s death for another’s.