Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012
On his departure from Vienna, Duke Vincentio deputizes Angelo to administer the laws of the city in his place and appoints the wise "old Escalus" as Angelo's assistant. The Duke, who is concerned that he has been too lax in keeping order in the city, in fact has no intention of leaving Vienna. Instead, he plans to disguise himself as Friar Lodowick so that he can monitor the effect that the "precise" Angelo's enforcement of the laws has on the citizens and to see whether the exercise of power causes any change in Angelo. The new deputy's first actions are to shut down all the brothels in the suburbs and to arrest and sentence to death young Claudio for impregnating his fiancée, Juliet. On his way to prison, Claudio is met by his friend Lucio, who promises to ask Claudio's sister, Isabella, to beg Angelo for her brother's life. Lucio seeks out Isabella at the convent, where she has recently become a novice, and tells her of Claudio's plight. Distressed at this news, she agrees to speak to Angelo.
When Escalus tries to persuade Angelo to reduce the severity of Claudio's sentence, the deputy refuses and instead instructs the Provost to have Claudio executed the next morning. Constable Elbow appears before Angelo and Escalus with the "bawd" Pompey and a gentleman named Froth in custody, and Angelo leaves it to Escalus to sort out Elbow's confusing complaint against his two prisoners. Meanwhile, Isabella arrives and pleads with Angelo for her brother's life, all the while being coached by Lucio to be more compelling in her entreaties. Aroused by Isabella's virtue, Angelo instructs her to return tomorrow for his answer. Meanwhile, the disguised Duke Vincentio visits the prison where Claudio and Juliet are being held and speaks with the loving but repentant Juliet. When Isabella meets the next day with Angelo, he tells her that she must have sex with him if she wants to save her brother. Outraged, Isabella declares that she will "tell the world aloud" about Angelo's hypocritical proposition, and he retorts that, thanks to his spotless reputation, no one will believe her accusations. Distressed and alone, Isabella refuses to submit to Angelo's blackmail. "More than our brother is our chastity," she concludes, and goes to prepare her brother for death.
Disguised as Friar Lodowick, Duke Vincentio visits Claudio in prison and reconciles him to his death sentence, but when Isabella tells her brother of the deputy's proposition, Claudio loses heart and, much to Isabella's disgust, begs her to submit to Angelo. "O Isabel! …" he exclaims, "Death is a fearful thing." The disguised Duke intervenes. He tells Isabella about Mariana, a lady who was once engaged to be married to Angelo but whom he shamefully rejected after her dowry was lost at sea. The Duke suggests a plan where Mariana, who still loves Angelo, would secretly sleep with Angelo in Isabella's place, thereby reclaiming her fiancé, saving Claudio's life, and preserving Isabella's chastity. Isabella gratefully agrees to this "bed-trick." Meanwhile, Pompey is arrested once more and taken to jail, and so is his employer, the brothel-keeper Mistress Overdone. Unaware that the friar is really the Duke in disguise, Lucio strikes up a conversation with him and—unwisely pretending to know the Duke well—claims that Vincentio is a fool, a drunk, and a libertine. The Duke closes Act III with a pronouncement on his deputy: "Twice treble shame on Angelo, / To weed my vice and let his grow!"
The disguised Duke, Mariana, and Isabella meet to confirm the details of their plan. But after Angelo sleeps with the woman he thinks is Isabella, he reneges on his promise to spare her brother and instead sends a note to the Provost, instructing him to deliver Claudio's head as proof of his execution. The disguised Duke plots with the Provost to save Claudio by substituting the head of Barnardine, a drunken criminal also condemned to death, for Claudio's head. As it turns out, Barnardine is too drunk to be executed. Fortunately, a pirate who resembles Claudio has died overnight in his sleep, so it is the pirate's head which is finally sent to Angelo. Isabella appears, and the disguised Duke tells her that Angelo has broken his promise and that her brother is dead. He then instructs the grieving Isabella to condemn Angelo in public when he goes to meet the returning Duke tomorrow at the city gate. Meanwhile, Angelo is feeling guilty about his treachery and wonders whether Isabella will dare to accuse him tomorrow in front of the Duke. He also regrets having insisted upon Claudio's execution but believes that, if he had been allowed to live, Claudio would have joined with his sister to expose the deputy's crime. "Alack," he cries, "when once our grace we have forgot, / Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not."
At the city gate, Angelo and Escalus welcome Duke Vincentio home. As instructed, Isabella accuses Angelo of being "a virgin-violator" and of murdering her brother—without as yet revealing that it was Mariana with whom he had sex. Calling Isabella insane, Angelo denies any wrongdoing. The Duke pretends to believe him and orders Isabella's arrest. Mariana arrives to declare that Angelo is by rights her husband, explaining that he slept with her, not Isabella. The Duke departs briefly, to return as Friar Lodowick and support Mariana's and Isabella's claims. Accused of bearing false witness, Friar Lodowick loses his hood as he is being arrested and is revealed to be Duke Vincentio. The Duke orders an immediate marriage between Angelo and Mariana, then afterward sentences his former deputy to death, declaring "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!" Although both Mariana and Isabella plead for Angelo's life, the Duke refuses to remit his sentence. All is at last resolved when Claudio is shown to be alive. The play ends as the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, pardons Angelo, reminds Claudio to marry Juliet, and orders the troublesome Lucio to marry a prostitute "whom he begot with child."
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