William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 2

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— 2.2 —

In a room in the courthouse, the Provost asked a servant where Angelo was.

The servant replied, “He’s hearing a case; he will come here immediately after I tell him that you are here.”

“Good. Please tell him I am here.”

The servant departed to carry out his errand.

The Provost said to himself, “I will find out what Angelo wants to do; maybe he will relent and not sentence Claudio to death. Claudio has offended only as if he were in a dream! This is no true offense — and certainly not one that ought to be punished by death. All social classes and all ages have been guilty of committing this vice! Why should Claudio die because he committed it!”

Angelo entered the room and asked, “What’s the matter, Provost?”

“Is it your will that Claudio shall die tomorrow?”

“Didn’t I tell you that it is?” Angelo replied. “Haven’t you received the order for Claudio’s execution? Why are you asking me about Claudio’s execution again?”

“I am asking in case I obey the order too quickly,” the Provost said. “With your permission, let me tell you that I have seen the time when, after an execution, the judge has regretted pronouncing the death sentence.”

“Ha!” Angelo said scornfully. “Let me worry about that. Do your job, or quit. If you quit, we can easily find someone to take your place.”

“I beg your honor’s pardon,” the Provost said, adding, “What shall be done, sir, with the mourning and groaning Juliet, whom Claudio got pregnant. She is very close to her hour of giving birth.”

“Take her to some place fitter for giving birth,” Angelo said, “and do it quickly.”

The servant returned and said, “The sister of the man who is condemned to die tomorrow is here and wishes to speak to you.”

“Does Claudio have a sister?” Angelo asked.

The Provost answered, “Yes, my good lord; she is a very virtuous maiden. Soon she shall join a sisterhood and be a nun, if she has not done so already.”

Angelo said, “Well, bring her here.”

The servant left the room.

Angelo said to the Provost, “See that the fornicatress Juliet is moved. Let her have the necessities she requires, but don’t give her anything lavish. You shall receive an order authorizing you to do this.”

Isabella and Lucio entered the room.

“May God save your honor!” the Provost said.

He started to leave the room, but Angelo told him, “Stay here a little while.”

To Isabella he said, “You are welcome here. What do you want?”

“I am a woeful suitor to your honor,” Isabella said. “Please, your honor, listen to me. I want to ask you to do something.”

“Well, what is your suit to me?”

“There is a vice that I do most abhor,” Isabella said. “I most desire that this vice should meet the blow of justice. I would prefer to not plead for leniency for a person who has committed this vice, but I must do so. What I prefer to do and prefer not to do are at war.”

“What are you speaking about?” Angelo asked.

“I have a brother who is condemned to die,” Isabella said. “I beg you, let my brother’s vice be condemned, and not my brother.”

The Provost thought, Please, Heaven, give Isabella the ability to persuade Angelo to be lenient.

“Condemn the vice and not the person who committed the vice?” Angelo replied. “Why, every vice is condemned even before it is committed. I would only be pretending to do my duty if I were to condemn the vices and record them when they are committed and yet let the person who committed the vice go free.”

“Oh, the law is just but severe!” Isabella said. “I had a brother, then. I have no brother now because he is condemned to die. May Heaven keep and preserve your honor!”

Lucio whispered to Isabella, “Don’t give up so easily. Plead with him some more. Beg him. Kneel down before him, and grab and hang upon his judicial robe. You are too cold; if you should need a pin, you could not with a tamer tongue ask for it. Put some emotion in your voice! Plead with him, I say!”

“Does he have to die?” Isabella asked.

“Yes, maiden,” Angelo said. “Nothing else can happen.”

“I think that something else can happen,” Isabella said. “I think that you might pardon him. If you were to pardon him, neither Heaven nor humans would grieve because of your mercy.”

“I will not pardon him.”

“Could you, if you wanted to?”

“Whatever I will not do, that I cannot do.”

“But it is possible for you to do it, and if you did it, you would do the world no wrong,” Isabella said. “Wouldn’t you pardon him if your heart were touched with the compassion for him that I feel?”

“He has been sentenced; it is too late,” Angelo replied.

Lucio whispered to Isabella, “You are too cold. You aren’t showing enough emotion.”

“Too late?” Isabella said. “Why, no, it is not too late. I, after I speak a word, may call it back again. I can change my mind.

“Believe this: No insignia that pertains to great ones — not the King’s crown, nor the sword of justice that is given to mayors and governors, nor the marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe — become them with one half as good a grace as mercy does.

“Remember this proverb: It is in their mercy that Kings come closest to gods.

“If he had been as you and you as he, you would have slipped and committed a vice like he did, but he, if he had your position, would not have been as stern and severe as you.”

“Please, leave now,” Angelo said.

“I wish to Heaven that I had your power,” Isabella said, “and that you were me. If that were so, would things be as they are now? No. I would show you what it means to be a judge and what it means to be a prisoner.”

Lucio whispered to Isabella, “That’s the way to do it! Go after him! Hit him hard with your words!”

“Your brother has forfeited his life because he broke the law,” Angelo said. “You are only wasting your words.”

“This is evil,” Isabella said. “Why, all the souls that have ever existed were forfeited once; Adam committed original sin and sentenced all souls to Hell. Yet God, who could have carried out that sentence, found a way to redeem souls.

“How would you be — what would happen to you when you die — if God, who is the Supreme Judge, should judge you the way that you judge other people? Oh, think about that; and mercy will then breathe within your lips — you will be like a man who has been reborn.”

“Restrain yourself, fair maiden,” Angelo said. “It is the law, not I, that condemns your brother. Were he my cousin, my brother, or my son, he would still be sentenced to death. He must die tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” Isabella said. “Oh, that’s sudden! That’s too quick! Spare him! Spare him! He’s not prepared for death. Even for our kitchens we kill the fowl at the right time: after it has been fattened up. Shall we serve Heaven with less respect than we minister to our gross, Earth-bound selves? Shall we send unready souls to be judged? My good, good lord, think about this. Who has died for this offence? Many have committed it.”

Lucio whispered to Isabella, “Good point.”

“The law has not been dead, although it has slept,” Angelo replied. “Those many would not have dared to commit that evil offence, if the first person who disobeyed the law had been punished for his deed. Now that the law is awake, it takes note of what is done; and, like a prophet, it looks into a crystal or into a mirror that shows what future evils, either already newly conceived or soon to be conceived, will be committed because the judges have been remiss in punishing the guilty. These evils that have been in the process of being hatched and born will now have no futures. Before they begin to live, they are dead. The vices are stopped before they are committed.”

“Yet show some pity,” Isabella said.

“I show pity most of all when I show justice,” Angelo replied, “because when I show justice I pity those whom I do not know, people whom an unpunished offence would afterwards gall and harm. A criminal who is not punished will commit the same crime again. I also show pity and do right to an offender who, because he is punished for committing one foul wrong, does not live to commit another foul wrong. Be satisfied and restrain yourself. Your brother dies tomorrow. Reconcile yourself to his death.”

“So you must be the first judge who gives this sentence of death, and my brother must be the first who suffers it. Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant. Great power must be wisely used.”

Lucio whispered to Isabella, “That’s well said.”

“If great men could thunder as Jove, the Roman King of the gods, himself does, Jove would never enjoy quiet because every pelting, paltry, insignificant petty officer would fill Jove’s Heaven with thunder — nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven prefers to use the sharp and sulfurous thunderbolt to split the hard, gnarled oak rather than the soft myrtle, but man, proud man, who is dressed in a little and brief authority and who is most ignorant of what he’s most assured — the possession of his glassy essence, aka his soul, which mirrors God — acts like an angry ape and plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven that they make the angels weep, but if the angels had our fallible human nature, they would laugh themselves to death.”

Lucio whispered to Isabella, “Stay on the attack! Sic him, girl! He will relent. He’s coming round. I know it.”

The Provost thought, Please, Heaven, let Isabella persuade Angelo not to kill Claudio!

“We cannot regard our brother the way that we regard ourselves,” Isabella said. “The great have special privileges. Great men may joke with saints; this shows wit in great men, but if lesser men were to do the same thing, it would be regarded as foul profanation. Great men may also test saints to see if they are truly saintly, but again lesser men cannot do that.”

“You are in the right, girl,” Lucio whispered to Isabella. “Say more about that; drive the point home.”

“If a Captain swears, the Captain is regarded as simply angry,” Isabella said, “but if a soldier swears, it is regarded as outright blasphemy.”

“Well done,” Lucio whispered admiringly to Isabella. “I am surprised that you know such a truth.”

“Why are you telling me these things?” Angelo asked.

“Because people in authority, although they err like other people, always have a kind of medicine that will cover up their errors like skin that covers an abscess,” Isabella replied. “Go to your bosom and knock there, and ask your heart what it knows that is like my brother’s fault. If it confesses to a natural guiltiness such as his, then do not allow your heart to make your tongue pronounce a sentence of death upon my brother. You yourself must have felt the temptation that my brother felt.”

Angelo thought, What Isabella says makes good sense and is true. Her ability to make good sense is actually inflaming me with sexual desire for her. Her good sense is inflaming my senses.

He said, “Fare you well,” and turned to leave.

“My gentle lord, turn back,” Isabella requested.

Angelo said, “I will think about what you have said. Come back tomorrow.”

This was at least a short reprieve for Claudio. He would not be executed at least until after Angelo and Isabella had talked again.

“Listen to how I will bribe you,” Isabella said. “My good lord, turn back.”

This mention of a “bribe” surprised and shocked both Angelo and Lucio.

“What!” Angelo said. “Bribe me?”

“Yes, with such gifts that Heaven shall share with you.”

Lucio whispered to Isabella, “It is good that you are talking about Heavenly gifts. You would have ruined everything if you did not explain that.”

“I will not bribe you with foolish coins made of pure gold,” Isabella said, “or with jewels whose value rises or falls with the changes in fashion. I will bribe you with true prayers that shall go up to Heaven and enter there before sunrise. These prayers will come from preserved souls, from fasting maidens whose minds are dedicated to nothing temporal. The nuns in the religious order I will join will pray for you.”

“Well,” Angelo said. “Come to me tomorrow.”

“Good,” Lucio whispered to Isabella. “It is well. Let’s go now!”

“May Heaven keep your honor safe!” Isabella said to Angelo.

“Amen,” Angelo said, and then he thought, I am heading toward temptation. Isabella’s prayer and my prayer are crossed; they are opposite. She prays for my honor to be preserved, but the prayer in my heart is for her honor to become compromised. I want to sleep with her.

Isabella asked him, “At what hour tomorrow shall I come and talk to your lordship?”

“At any time before noon.”

“May God save your honor!” Isabella replied.

Isabella, Lucio, and the Provost left the room.

Angelo, now alone, said to himself, “May God save my honor from you and even from your virtue! What is this? What is happening to me? Is this her fault or mine? Who sins most: the tempter or the tempted? I can’t blame her. I can’t call her a tempter. This is my fault. I am near her the way that a piece of dead flesh is near a violet. The Sun shines on both the dead flesh and the violet. The violet is nourished, but the dead flesh rots. I do what the dead flesh does: I rot.

“Can it be true that a modest woman may more greatly sexually excite a man than a promiscuous or whorish woman? Is innocence sexually exciting? If we live in an area with a lot of wasteland, should we tear down a sanctuary so that we can build a whorehouse in its place? Plenty of prostitutes are willing to satisfy my sexual desire, so why am I sexually attracted to the chaste Isabella? Damn! Damn! Damn!

“What are you doing, Angelo? Who are you, Angelo? Do you sexually desire Isabella because of those things that make her good and make her a suitable candidate for a sisterhood of nuns?

“Oh, let her brother live! Thieves should go free despite their thefts when judges themselves steal.

“What! Do I love her? Is that why I desire to hear her speak again, and feast upon her eyes? What is it I am dreaming about? Oh, the Devil is a cunning enemy. In order to catch a saint, the Devil baits his hook with a saint! Often, the Devil uses a beautiful woman to entice a man to sin and forfeit his soul!

“The most dangerous temptation is the one that uses our goodness to entice us to sin.

“Never could the strumpet, with all of her duplicitous vigor, cosmetic art, and natural body, even once tempt me to sin, but this virtuous maid has subdued all my virtue.

“Until now, when I saw men who were foolishly infatuated with a woman, I wondered how that was possible.”

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