William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 2

— 4.2 —

The Provost and Pompey talked together in the prison.

“Come here,” the Provost said to Pompey. “Can you cut off a man’s head?”

“If the man is a bachelor, sir, I can, but if he is a married man, he is his wife’s head, and I could never cut off a woman’s head.”

Pompey was referring to Ephesians 5:23: “For the husband is the wife’s head, even as Christ is the head of the Church, and the same is the Savior of his body.”

“Come, sir, set aside your quibbles, and give me a direct answer,” the Provost said. “This morning Claudio and Barnardine are scheduled to die. Here is in our prison a common executioner, who in his job lacks a helper. If you will take it on yourself to assist him, it shall free you from your fetters; if not, you shall serve your full time of imprisonment and then you will be set free with a pitiless whipping, for you have been a notorious bawd.”

“Sir, I have been an unlawful bawd for longer than I can remember, but yet I will be content to be a lawful hangman. I would be glad to receive some instruction from my fellow partner.”

The Provost called the common executioner: “Abhorson! Where’s Abhorson?”

Abhorson, whose name combined the words “abhor” and “whoreson,” aka son of a whore, entered the room and asked, “Are you calling for me, sir?”

“Here’s a fellow who will help you tomorrow in your executions. If you think it suitable, make an agreement to employ him for the next year, and let him stay here with you. If you do not think it suitable, use him for the present and then dismiss him. Because he has been a bawd, he cannot plead that he is too good to be an executioner.”

“A bawd, sir? Damn him! He will discredit our mystery. He will discredit our skilled labor.”

In their society, “mystery” meant “skilled labor.” How to do the labor was a mystery to those who had not acquired the skills necessary to do it.

“Come on,” the Provost said. “Being an executioner and being a bawd have the same status — they weigh the same, and it takes a feather to make one side of the scales sink.”

The Provost exited.

Pompey said, “Please, sir, give me your good favor — and I am sure that you have good favor, although you have a hangdog look. Sir, do you call your occupation a mystery?”

“Yes, sir; it is a mystery,” Abhorson replied.

“Painting, sir, I have heard say, is a mystery,” Pompey said, “and whores, sir, being members of my occupation, use painting, thereby proving my occupation a mystery.”

The painting an artist does is definitely skilled labor, but the kind of painting referred to by Pompey was the use of cosmetics.

Pompey continued, “What mystery there should be in hanging, if I should be hanged, I cannot imagine.”

Abhorson repeated, “Sir, it is a mystery.”

“Give me proof,” Pompey requested. “Give me a good argument that it is a mystery.”

Abhorson attempted to do so:

“An executioner is a thief because he steals a man’s life.

“A thief steals clothing — and the executioner keeps the clothing of each person he executes.

“Every true man’s apparel fits the thief. If the clothing is too little [in size] for your thief, your true man thinks it big [valuable] enough. If the clothing is too big [in size] for your thief, your thief thinks it little [not as much as he would like to have] enough. Therefore, every true man’s apparel fits the thief.

“If the work of the thief is a mystery, then the work of the executioner is a mystery because the thief and the executioner are analogous.

“If the meaning of my words is mysterious to you, that is additional proof that the work of an executioner is a mystery.”

The Provost entered the room and asked Pompey, “Are you willing to be an executioner tomorrow?”

Pompey replied, “Sir, I will serve him. I find that being a hangman is a more penitent trade than being a bawd; he asks forgiveness more often.”

This was true. Before performing his duty, the executioner always asked the criminal to forgive him.

“You must provide your own chopping block and your own axe to do your duty — behead a criminal — tomorrow at four o’clock,” the Provost said to Pompey.

“Come on, bawd,” Abhorson said. “I will teach you the mysteries of my trade. Follow me.”

“I desire to learn, sir,” Pompey replied, “and I hope, if you have occasion to use me for your own turn, you shall find me ready; because truly, sir, for your kindness I owe you a good turn.”

One good turn deserves another. In their society, one of the meanings of the phrase “to turn” was “to execute.” Pompey was joking that if he ever had to execute the executioner that he would be ready to do it well.

The Provost ordered, “Tell Barnardine and Claudio to come and talk to me.”

Pompey and Abhorson departed to carry out the errand.

The Provost said to himself, “Claudio has my pity, but Barnardine, who is a murderer, gets not a jot of pity from me. If the murderer were my own brother, he would get no pity from me.”

Claudio entered the room, and the Provost showed him a document and said, “Look, here’s the warrant, Claudio, for your death. It is now exactly midnight, and by eight in the morning your body must die and you must become an immortal spirit. Where’s Barnardine?”

“He is as fast asleep as a guiltless laborer or a traveler with weary bones. He will not wake up.”

“Who can have any good effect on him?” the Provost asked, not expecting a reply. He added, “Well, go; prepare yourself.”

Knocking sounded.

The Provost said, “What is that noise?”

He then said to Claudio, “May Heaven give your spirits comfort!”

Claudio exited.

The Provost said, “Coming! I hope it is some pardon or reprieve for the most gentle Claudio.”

The Provost did not have to answer the door because Duke Vincentio, still in disguise, opened it and entered the room.

“Welcome, father,” the Provost said.

“May the best and most wholesome spirits of the night envelope you, good Provost! Who has come here recently?”

“No one has come here since the bell for curfew rang in the evening.”

“Isabella has not been here?”


“Some people will arrive, then, before too much longer.”

“Is there any possibility of a pardon or reprieve for Claudio?”

“There’s always hope.”

“Angelo is a severe and cruel deputy.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio replied, “No, no. Angelo’s life is consistent with the written and ruled decrees of his great justice. He subdues with holy abstinence the faults in himself that he spurs on his power to judge in others; were he stained with the same faults that he judges, then he would be a tyrant, but since he is without fault, he is a just ruler.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio knew that Angelo, like all men, had sinned. Unlike some men, Angelo was also a hypocrite. However, the disguised Duke Vincentio expected that a pardon for Claudio would come at any minute. He expected Angelo to keep the promise that he had made to Isabella.

Knocking sounded.

“Now some people have come,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. He thought that the pardon had arrived.

The Provost exited, and the disguised Duke Vincentio said to himself, “This is a good and gentle Provost. It is seldom that the hardened jailer is the friend of prisoners and treats them well.”

More knocking sounded.

The disguised Duke Vincentio said to himself, “What’s going on? That is quite a lot of noise. Whoever is wounding the unassisting and resisting back door with these strokes is possessed with haste and urgency.”

The Provost came back and said, “An officer will arrive with the key and let the knocker in. The knocker will have to stay outside until the officer arrives.”

“Have you no countermanding order for Claudio yet?” the disguised Duke Vincentio asked the Provost. “Is he still scheduled to die?”

“I have received no countermanding order.”

“It is close to dawn,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said to the Provost, “but I tell you that you shall hear some news before morning.”

“I hope that you know something good,” the Provost replied, “yet I believe that no countermanding order will come. We have had no examples of leniency. Besides, on the very seat of judgment Lord Angelo has publicly said that there shall be no leniency for Claudio.”

A messenger entered the room; the officer the Provost had summoned had let him in.

The Provost said, “This is Lord Angelo’s messenger.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio said, “And here comes Claudio’s pardon.”

The messenger gave the Provost a piece of paper and said, “Lord Angelo has sent you this note; and by me he has sent this further order, that you swerve not from the smallest article of it, neither in time, matter, or other circumstance. Good morning; for, as I take it, it is almost day.”

“I shall obey him,” the Provost replied.

The messenger exited.

The disguised Duke Vincentio thought, This is Claudio’s pardon, given by a pardoner who is guilty of the same sin as Claudio. Offense is quickly pardoned when high authority is guilty of that offense: When the guilty give pardons, a wide scope of pardons is given. Because the sin is loved, the sinner is befriended.

He asked out loud, “Now, sir, what is the news?”

“It is exactly as I said earlier: Claudio will be given no pardon,” the Provost replied. “In fact, Lord Angelo, who seems to think that I will be remiss in doing my duty, awakens me with this unwonted urging to do my duty. I think that this is strange because he has never done this before.”

“Please, read the note to me.”

The Provost read the note out loud: “No matter what you may hear to the contrary, have Claudio executed by four o’clock in the morning; and in the afternoon have Barnardine executed. To assure me that you have done your duty, send Claudio’s head to me by five. Let this be duly performed; be aware that more depends on it than we can tell you now. Therefore, do not fail to do your duty. If you fail to do it, you do so at your peril.”

The Provost asked, “What do you think about this, sir?”

“Who is this Barnardine who is to be executed in the afternoon?” the disguised Duke Vincentio asked.

“He was born in Bohemia, but he was raised here. He has been a prisoner for nine years.”

“Nine years! Why didn’t the absent Duke either set him free or execute him? I have heard that it was his custom to not long delay in such matters.”

“Barnardine’s friends constantly got reprieves for him, and until now, in the government of Lord Angelo, it was not definitely proven that he had committed the crime that he was accused of.”

“It has now been proven?”

“Most definitely, and he himself does not deny committing the crime.”

“Has he been penitent in prison?” the disguised Duke Vincentio asked. “How has he been affected by being in prison?”

“He is a man who fears death no more dreadfully than he fears a drunken sleep; he is without worries, and he is reckless and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come. He is oblivious when it comes to life and death, and he is in a state of mortal sin.”

“He is in need of spiritual counsel.”

The Provost replied, “He will hear none. He has always been free to roam around the prison. If he had the opportunity to escape, he would not take it. He is drunk many times a day, and for many days he is entirely drunk. We have very often awakened him, as if we were going to take him to the place of his execution and showed him what seemed to be a warrant for his execution. This did not affect him at all.”

“I will ask more about him soon,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. “I look at your brow, Provost, and I see honesty and resoluteness written there. If I am reading your brow incorrectly, my ancient skill and long experience is misleading me; however, with full confidence that I have read your brow correctly, I will take a risk and if I am wrong, put myself in jeopardy.

“Claudio, whom here you have an order to execute, is no greater forfeit to the law than Angelo is, who has sentenced him. Both of them are guilty of committing the same crime. To make you understand this with a clear demonstration that what I have said is true, I need a respite of only four days. To get me that respite, I want you to do for me both an immediate and a dangerous favor.”

“Please, sir, what favor?”

“I want you to delay death; I want you to not kill Claudio.”

“How dare I do that?” the Provost said. “The hour for his execution has been set, and I have a clear command, under penalty, to deliver his head to Angelo. Unless I carry out his order, I may find myself in Claudio’s position — Lord Angelo may have me executed!”

“By the vow of my order, I will protect you. Let my instructions be your guide. Let this Barnardine be executed this morning, and his head carried to Angelo.”

“Angelo has seen both Claudio and Barnardine, and he will know that it is Barnardine’s head.”

“Oh, death’s a great disguiser,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said, “and you can improve the disguise. Shave the head, and tie up the beard; and say that it was the desire of the penitent to have his head be so bared before his death. You know that before an execution the shaving of the head is commonly done — the person being executed wants the ax to quickly slice through the neck without being impeded by long hair. If anything should be the result of your action, other than thanks and good fortune, then by the saint whom I profess, I will plead against it with my life.”

“Pardon me, good father,” the Provost said. “Doing that is against my oath.”

“Who did you swear the oath to: the absent Duke, or the deputy?”

“To the Duke, and to his deputies.”

“Would you think that you have committed no offence, if Duke Vincentio were to avouch that what you did was just?”

“Yes, but what is the likelihood of that happening?”

“It is not a likelihood; it is a certainty,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. “Yet since I see that you are afraid, that my friar’s robes, integrity, and words cannot with ease persuade you to do this, I will go further than I meant to, so that I can pluck all fears out of you.”

He showed the Provost a document and said, “Look, sir, here is the handwriting and the seal of Duke Vincentio. You know his handwriting, I am sure; and his seal is not strange to you.”

“I know them both.”

“The contents of this document concern the return of Duke Vincentio. You shall soon read it at your pleasure, and you will find that within the next two days he will return here.

“Duke Vincentio’s return is something that Angelo does not know about because he this very day will receive letters containing extraordinary news. Perhaps he will read that Duke Vincentio is dead; perhaps he will read that Duke Vincentio has entered some monastery. However, he will not read that Duke Vincentio will return to Vienna in the next two days.

“Look, the morning star alerts the shepherd that it is time to take the sheep out of the fold and to pasture.

“Don’t allow yourself to be bewildered by all these things. Soon you will learn more, and you will understand. Call your executioner, and order him to behead Barnardine. I will give him an immediate confession and help prepare him to go to a better place.

“You are still bewildered, but soon all of your doubts will be completely resolved.

“Come, let’s go. It is almost clearly dawn.”

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