Scene by Scene Synopsis
Act I, Scene 1: After several years of being lax in his government duties, Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna decides that he will take a holiday from his office and leave his legally minded deputy, Angelo, in charge to clean things up. As he prepares to the leave, he place his trusted elder advisor Escalus as Angelo's second in command. A nervous Angelo receives the orders and tries to question the appointment but the Duke just praises him his life of devotion to duty.
Act I, Scene 2: Mistress Overdone, a Madame, interrupts the lewd banter of two of her customers, Lucio and a gentleman, to tell them that Claudio, a young well to do citizen both known to them, has been sentenced to death for having made his betrothed Juliet pregnant. Pompey, Mistress Overdone's main pimp, tells the Mistress of a new law that orders the for the destruction of all brothels within the city. Apparently Angelo has taken to his new job with a vengeance. He assures her that she will survive and that he will continue to work for her. The Provost, a deputy of Angelo's, appears and exhibits Claudio in the streets as part of his punishment. Claudio tells Lucio that he sleep with Juliet only in the belief that they would soon be married, but that her relatives ha held up her dowry. Then, after Juliet became pregnant, Angelo began to enforce a long neglected law making sexual immorality a capital offense. Claudio tells Lucio of his sister which is about to enter a convent, and asks Lucio to ask her to seek mercy from Angelo.
Act I, Scene 3: The Duke visits a friar and tells him that he placed Angelo in charge during a revival of disused morality laws. He fears that to revive these laws under his own authority might give them too great a force. By placing Angelo in charge, he can see how they are received and act accordingly. He intends to secretly return to Vienna and oversee the process, disguised as a friar.
Act I, Scene 4: Lucio visits Claudio's sister, Isabella, at the convent. He tells her of Claudio's predicament, and she agrees to plead for mercy from Angelo.
Act II, Scene 1: Escalus proposes mercy for Claudio, but Angelo refuses. Constable Elbow brings Pompey and Froth before the officials and in a comically confused speech he charges his prisoners with running a brothel for Mistress overdone and adds that they attempted to recruit his wife. Pompey's wittily long-winded reply drives Angelo away' he leave the case to Escalus. After further comical exchanges, Escalus releases Froth and Pompey with a warning that law enforcement is becoming stricter. Pompey leaves sassily.
Act II, Scene 2: Despite the Provost's pleas, Angelo orders Claudio's execution for the next day. Isabella arrives and egged on by Lucio pleads at length for mercy. Angelo promises only to reconsider and tell her of his decision the next day. Angelo, alone, reflects distractedly that he has fallen in love with Isabella and is tempted to sin by offering a pardon for Claudio in exchange for her love.
Act II, Scene 3: The Duke, disguised as a friar, ministers to the inmates of the prison. He encounters Juliet, urges her repentance, and promises that he will visit her condemned lover.
Act II Scene 4: Angelo soliloquizes that he cannot pray for strength against temptation because his thoughts are filled by Isabella. Isabella arrives and renews her plea. Angelo tells her he will have mercy on Claudio only if she will become his lover. She refuses, protesting her promise of chastity for her order, and he swears that he will have Claudio tortured. He gives her a day to change her mind and leaves. Alone, holding fast to her holy oath, she declares her confidence in Claudio. As a man of honor, he will agree that her avoidance of sin is more important than to save his life.
Act III, Scene 1: The Duke, as a friar counsels Claudio to prepare for death by considering the ills of life. Isabella arrives, an the 'friar' eavesdrops as she tells Claudio of Angelo's evil ultimatum. Though Claudio at first supports her refusal, he is overcome by fear of death and pleads with her to save him. Furious, she berate him and leaves. The 'friar' intercepts her and tells her he knows of Angelo's intentions. He proposes to her a plot. Angelo had once abandoned a woman he was supposed to marry named Mariana and that she still loves him. If Isabella arranges to have sex with Angelo on condition that the transaction be silent and in the dark, Mariana could actually keep the appointment. Isabella agrees.
Act III, Scene 2: Elbow brings Pompey tot he prison. Lucio appears and Pompey asks him for bail but is refused. Lucio speaks with the Duke, thinking that he is actually a friar. He claims to be an intimate of the Duke's, gossips about him slanderously and leaves. Mistress Overdone is jailed despite her claim that Lucio has informed on her because she keeps his illegitimate child. Before he leaves to visit Claudio, Escalus observes to the 'friar' that the absent Duke would not have been so merciless as Angelo. Alone, the Duke reflects on the virtues of these standards.
Act IV, Scene 1: The Duke, as the 'friar', visits Mariana. Isabella arrives and reports that she has agreed to meet Angelo that night in his garden. Mariana accepts her part in the plot.
Act IV, Scene 2: The Provost offers Pompey parole if he will serve as assistant to the executioner, Abhorson, in the beheading of Claudio and another man, Baranadine; he agrees. The disguised Duke arrives and predicts that Claudio will be pardoned. However, a messenger brings the order that Claudio is to be killed immediately and his head sent to Angelo. The 'friar' suggests that Barnadine's head be substituted for Claudio's. The Provost says he cannot do this because of his duty. The 'friar' confides that he known the Duke's intentions and produces letters from him as proof.
Act IV, Scene 3: Pompey and Abhorson summon Barnadine to be executed, but he refuses because he has a terrible hangover. The Provost appears, and the 'friar' observes that Barnadine is so unrepentant that if he is so unrepentant that if he died he would surely go to hell, placing a moral burden on his executioners; the Provost remarks that another prisoner has by chance died that morning, and they agree that his head can e used as the substitute for Claudio's. Isabella arrives, and the disguised Duke decides to postpone telling her of the plot to spare Claudio. He tells her instead that Angelo has demanded and received Claudio's head. He promises her revenge, she is to take a letter to a friar who will bring her to the Duke, and Angelo's guilt will be exposed. As she leaves, Lucio arrives, he brags that he has abandoned a pregnant women and claims to know the Duke has done the same.
Act IV, Scene 4: Angelo and Escalus discuss the Duke's peculiar instructions: they are to proclaim that any complaint of injustice should be made publicly and then meet him outside the city. Escalus leaves to send out the decree. Along, Angelo bemoans his guilty conscience. Not only did he deflower Isabella, he had Claudio killed for fear he would someday seek revenge. He regrets his decision and cries that one leads to more.
Act IV, Scene 5: The Duke visits the Friar again and plans his return to Vienna.
Act IV, Scene 6: Isabella and Mariana read themselves to encounter Angelo and the Duke; 'the friar' has warned Isabella that she must expect to be mistreated before she triumphs. The real Friar, Friar Peter, arrives to escort them to the Duke's ceremonial return.
Act V, Scene 1: The Duke returns, and Isabella demands justice. The Duke refuses to believe her tale and has her arrested, she claims that Friar Lodowick can support her. Friar Peter says that he will present the evidence of Friar Lodowick, who is sick. He calls Mariana, who reveals her role as Angelo's sexual partner. Angelo denies having seen her for years and accuses Friar Lodowick of plotting against him. The Duke sends the Provost for Friar Lodowick and orders Angelo and Escalus to handle the investigation while he leave briefly. The Provost returns with Friar Lodowick=the Duke in his disguise-who loudly declares Angelo's guilt. The Provost and Lucio attempt to arrest the disguised Duke for slander, and in the struggle his identity is revealed. Angelo realizes his guilt is known and confesses. The Duke orders him to marry Marian immediately., and Friar Peter takes the two away to be wed. When Angelo returns with his new wife, the Duke sentences him to death for having killed Claudio. Mariana, joined by Isabella, pleads for his life, but the Duke refuses/. The Provost declares that in repentance for having executed Claudio, he has left another prisoner alive. The Duke sends for that man. Barnadine appears, accompanied by Claudio, and the Duke pardons them both. He proposes marriage to Isabella and then pardons Angelo. He declares that Lucio must marry the women he had abandoned afterwards, he will be whipped and hung, but in the spirit of forgiveness he withdraws the punishments. He insists on the marriage of Claudio and Juliet, thanks the Provost and Escalus for their good services, and closes the play with a elaboration of his proposal to Isabella.
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