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 Pompey says he is a friend.
Lucio asks what is going on, and Elbow says that Pompey is going to prison for being a bawd. Pompey asks Lucio to pay his bail, but Lucio refuses. He 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 with regard to lechery. The Duke says that lechery is a strong vice which should be cured. Lucio jokes that there are rumors that Angelo was not conceived through sexual intercourse. He 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. Lucio says that he suspects the Duke had a secret reason to be shy, and is told to visit the Duke upon his return. He threatens to report Lucio, but Lucio says he does not fear it. Lucio changes the subject, asking what will happen to Claudio. Lucio leaves, and 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. Escalus informs the provost that Angelo has not changed his mind about Claudio.
Escalus asks the Duke where he is from, and he replies that he is a foreigner. The Duke asks after Angelo, whom Escalus says is, as always, temperate and unyielding. The Duke says that he will perhaps see the results of his strictness in his own life. The Duke is left alone, and he offers a soliloquy about how Angelo is to be fooled to pay for his sins.Read a translation of Act III, Scene ii →
Another primarily humorous scene, here we see the Duke interacting with both prisoners and law enforcement agents. Interestingly, all of the prisoners other than Claudio are quite laughable figures. Claudio emerges as the one offender for whom sympathy is felt naturally, as opposed to merely amusement.
The Duke encounters Lucio and shows himself to be mildly vengeful, trying to protect his honor despite his disguise. This, perhaps, suggests an ulterior motive in disguising himself: he wants to see how his subjects honestly feel about him and his methods of rule, and he can only do so through making himself functionally invisible to them.
Claudio's offense is also revealed to be much smaller than those of the other convicted criminals. He was involved in nothing truly decadent, acting solely out of love and lust. Angelo appears as a merciless figure for condemning him to death, and Isabella appears even stricter in her beliefs for her suggestion that the sentence is not entirely unjust. Perhaps it is this belief which motivates her to allow him to be killed instead of giving up her chastity.