Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250
Context: Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, has for many years ruled with a tolerant hand. As a result the laws of the land, "Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,/ And liberty plucks justice by the nose; . . ." Convinced that he has permitted his people such a degree of freedom that the law commands no respect, he removes himself from office temporarily on the pretext that urgent political affairs have called him out of the country. In reality, he disguises himself as Friar Lodowick in order to observe the manner in which his appointed deputy, Angelo, will handle the situation. Although the deputy is expressly granted full authority to exercise mercy or to enforce the letter of the law, he assumes that only a rigid enforcement of decree will impress the populace. His initial command is to arrest Claudio, a citizen who has violated the long-unenforced decree of capital punishment for one who gets a woman with child out of wedlock. Refusing to consider the plea for mercy, to "be keen, and rather cut a little,/ Than fall, and bruise to death," he is determined to make an example of the unfortunate young man:
We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.
. . .
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.