The provost goes to see Angelo, hoping to convince him to change his mind about Claudio. He mentions Juliet, saying that she is going to give birth soon.
A servant announces that Isabella has arrived. She tells Angelo that she abhors Claudio's vice, fornication, and that she is sorry to have to beg for his pardon. Yet she asks that Angelo condemn his fault instead of him. Angelo argues that the person who commits a crime must be punished for the crime. Isabella exclaims, "O just but severe law!" (II.ii.42), showing that she approves of the law and is already mourning her brother's death. Lucio whispers to her that she should not give up so easily and tells her to kneel before Angelo and act more warmly towards him. Isabella asks again if Claudio must die, and he says yes.
She continues to plead with him, and Lucio again tells her that she is too cold. She argues that Claudio would have mercy on Angelo if the roles were reversed. Angelo tells Isabella to leave. Lucio tells Isabella to touch Angelo more, and Angelo tells her that she is wasting her time. Angelo also argues that he would condemn even his own relative in the same way. Isabella continues to argue, speaking more readily, and Lucio tells her that Angelo is wavering. Angelo finally tells her that he will think about it, and that she should return tomorrow.
Isabella calls out, "Hark how I'll bribe you. . ." (II.ii.144), and Angelo grows interested, replying, "How?" (II.ii.147). Isabella responds that she will pray for him, and Angelo again tells her to come back tomorrow. Lucio tells her to obey, and Isabella agrees to return before noon.
The scene ends with a soliloquy in which Angelo realizes that he desires Isabella in a sexual way and ponders why. He says, "Dost thou desire her foully for those things that make her good? Oh, let her brother live. . ." (II.ii.173-174).
The Duke, disguised as a friar, visits the prison, saying that he wants to visit the prisoners. Juliet enters, and the Duke asks her if she repents her sin. She replies yes, and the Duke says he will help absolve her. He asks if she loves the man that impregnated her, and she replies that she loves him as much as she loves herself. The Duke figures out that their sexual encounter was consensual, and Juliet agrees. The Duke then tells her that she sinned more than her lover, and she says that she repents it. The Duke tells her that he is going to visit Claudio, who must die tomorrow, and Juliet expresses her sorrow.Read a translation of Act II, Scenes ii-iv →
Measure for Measure reaches its height of tension early, with the encounter between Isabella and Angelo and the issues that their meeting raises. Angelo find himself suddenly vulnerable to the same sinful desires for which he is having Claudio put to death. This changes his position completely; no longer on a moral pedestal, he must instead spend his time avoiding culpability rather than carrying out the law.
Lucio seems to comprehend Angelo's vulnerability from the start, encouraging Isabella to touch him and be less cold. Lucio is encouraging Isabella to exploit her femininity to convince Angelo. In a way, he is even encouraging her to offer herself as his sexual object in order to save her brother's life. Lucio may well know that Angelo would respond by propositioning her, and he may expect her to accept, just as her brother will when she explains the dilemma to him. Only Isabella understands fornication to be a deadly sin, which is why the thought is so repulsive to her.
The Duke enjoys his newfound power to absolve sinners as a friar. He shows natural sympathy towards Juliet, and it is clear that he would be more merciful in Angelo's place, but that he is not against Angelo's actions. Already we see the Duke's desire to operate power from the inside, investigating the various characters in his disguise and determining from the evidence they provide what the best course of action will be. The Duke is the only character who appears in almost every location in the play; his hand is active everywhere, and he is pulling most of the strings.