Summary: Act 4, Scene 3

Pompey remarks that he is as well acquainted with the prison as with Mistress Overdone’s brothel. He adds that many of the same people frequent both places, and he goes on to list them.

Abhorson enters, telling Pompey to summon Barnardine for execution. Barnardine tells them that he has been drinking all night and does not want to die today. The Duke comes to offer prayer, and Barnardine holds firm, refusing to be put to death.

The Provost tells the Duke that a notorious pirate, of about Claudio’s age, died in prison the night before, and that they can use his head instead of Barnardine’s. The Duke says that “’tis an accident that heaven provides” (4.3.82). He tells the Provost to hide both Barnardine and Claudio and to send the head immediately to Angelo.

Isabella enters, asking if the pardon has arrived. The Duke tells her that her brother has already been executed and that his head has been dispatched to Angelo. Isabella wants to go to Angelo, but the Duke tells her that she will not be admitted. Instead, he says, she should wait until the Duke’s return and have Angelo punished by his superior. He gives her a letter to take to Friar Peter.

Lucio enters and tells Isabella that he is mourning her brother’s death. He also says that if the Duke had been in Vienna, Claudio would not have died. Isabella exits, and Lucio begins to talk about the Duke’s relations with women again. The Duke says that he does not want to hear more stories. Lucio tells him that he’d once been brought before the Duke for impregnating a woman, but that he denied it because he did not want to marry her. The Duke sets off, and Lucio insists on accompanying him down the road.

Read a translation of Act 4, Scene 3.

Summary: Act 4, Scene 4

Angelo and Escalus discuss the Duke’s letter. They do not understand why they have to meet him at the gates to the city. The letter also orders them to proclaim that anyone with a complaint should present a petition in the street, ostensibly to ensure that no one lodges a complaint against Angelo later on. Escalus leaves, and Angelo wonders what Isabella might say. He hopes that she will be too modest to tell what has happened. He also says that he would have let Claudio go, but was worried about later revenge.

Read a translation of Act 4, Scene 4.

Summary: Act 4, Scene 5

The Duke arrives outside the town, in his own clothes, with Friar Peter. He tells the friar to deliver some letters and also to bring Flavius to him. Varrius enters, and they walk together.

Read a translation of Act 4, Scene 5.

Summary: Act 4, Scene 6

Isabella and Mariana are standing by the city gate. Isabella is nervous about accusing Angelo, but Mariana tells her to obey the Duke and the Friar. Friar Peter approaches and tells them that he will find a place for them near the Duke.

Read a translation of Act 4, Scene 6.

Analysis: Act 4, Scenes 3-6

As the Duke continues to carry out his plans, it becomes increasingly clear that the extent of his plotting goes beyond what even we in the audience know. For instance, we are as much in the dark as Angelo and Escalus about why the Duke has asked them to meet him at the city gates. We are likewise clueless about what the Duke is arranging with minor characters like Friar Peter, Flavius, and Varrius. All we can glean from the Duke’s scheming is that some spectacular public performance is soon to take place.

Just as the scope of the Duke’s plotting begins to reveal itself, it also becomes very plain that Shakespeare is more interested in the resolution this plot will make possible than he is in exploiting all the possible comic and dramatic opportunities of its unfolding. Indeed, many of the major events he’s set up are now occurring offstage, as if to hasten the play toward its final act. We didn’t see Isabella’s second visit to Angelo to agree to his terms earlier in this act, nor do we witness the event in which Mariana disguises herself as Isabella and has sex with her former fiancé. The point is thus not to see these events but to establish the conditions for Angelo’s punishment.

The Duke is so bent on executing his plot that he must adapt to events when they don’t occur in quite the way he’s planned. For instance, he has to come up with a new scheme when Barnardine humorously refuses to be executed. He bases his refusal on the claim that he hasn’t properly comported himself for death. This is a legitimate complaint, as suggested by an earlier scene when the Duke, in religious guise, took pains to comfort Claudio and ready him for death. Yet Barnardine’s refusal to die also implicitly contradicts the Duke and the Provost, who apparently view his life as worthless. Thus, Barnardine’s refusal functions as a statement about the sanctity of life in general—a surprisingly moral claim from such a minor character, and yet one that registers as being quite profound in a play where the gravity of death has been either ignored or else subordinated to technical matters of law and religion.

If the Duke is cruel to think of substituting Barnardine’s death for Claudio’s, it isn’t the only harsh thing he does in these scenes. Consider his lie to Isabella, telling her that Claudio—who’s still alive—has in fact already been executed. This news will cause her great distress and anger, and the Duke knows it. He justifies the decision in the interest of making her even happier later: “I will keep her ignorant of her good / To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected” (4.3.116–18). Ostensibly, his deception is calculated to ensure that she’ll be flooded with happiness when she learns her brother’s alive—far more elated than she would be if he simply told her the truth now.

Yet the Duke's action here is manipulative and arguably conceals more selfish reasons. For one thing, he knows his plan can only work if Isabella gives a superlative performance before the public upon the Duke’s return. To ensure her ability to give such a performance, the Duke knows her righteous rage must be genuine. Thus, he makes her believe that her brother really is dead. For another thing, the Duke’s reference to Isabella’s “heavenly comfort” likely relates to a key part of his plan that as yet remains concealed. Namely, once his plan has played out and all the crimes of the play have found their proper punishments, the Duke will propose to Isabella. His manipulation here thus both foreshadows that event and is meant to set Isabella up for it emotionally. When she learns that Claudio is alive, she’ll be so ecstatic with joy that she’ll be inspired to accept the Duke’s proposal. Or so he seems to believe.