Act I, Scene 1
In the most confusing way possible, the Duke tells Escalus to rely on his own judgement and knowledge to follow the laws of Vienna to the letter. The Duke has decided to appoint Angelo as the leader of Vienna in the Duke’s absence. Escalus thinks there is no man in Vienna more capable of the task than Angelo.
When Angelo comes in, the Duke tells him how great he is before explaining that Angelo will essentially start serving as Duke right now. Angelo doesn’t think he is ready for such a position, but the Duke thinks he’ll be fine. He makes it clear that Angelo has full power to interpret and enforce the laws of Vienna.
The Duke takes off quickly because he doesn’t want the people to see him. He doesn’t like the masses doting upon him. (I don’t think he really likes being Duke.)
Escalus and Angelo leave to figure out what the heck they are supposed to do now.
Act I, Scene 2
Lucio engages in witty banter with a few other gentleman. They talk about the peace talks with Hungary the Duke is partaking in. Then, they turn to religion. Then, they start insulting each other and end by talking about the STDs they got in the local brothel.
The brothel came up because the woman running it, Mistress Overdone, was approaching. She tells them that the good and noble Claudio has been arrested. They can hardly believe it. She explains that he got a girl pregnant. The men rush off to find Claudio and get to the bottom of this.
Pompey comes by and tells Mistress Overdone that all of the house of ill repute are to be torn down. She worries about her future, but Pompey assures her that the houses may move, but prostitution will persist.
Claudio asks why he is being paraded through the streets instead of taken directly to prison. Apparently, Angelo wanted to make an example of him. Lucio approaches to figure out why Claudio is being arrested. Claudio explains that Julietta is his wife, but they haven’t made it official or public because they were still working out the dowry. However, she got pregnant and now Angelo has put him under arrest. Both are surprised Angelo is punishing the crime so severely. Claudio has tried to send a message to the Duke, but no one can find him. Claudio asks Lucio to find his sister at the convent and get her to appeal his case. He is confident she can persuade Angelo. Lucio promises to help his friend.
Act I, Scene 3
The Duke his disguising himself as a Friar to hide among the common people. He has realized that Vienna has very strict laws that are rarely enforced. This has rendered the justice system useless. He wants to fix that, so he appointed Angelo as the man to enforce every single law to the extreme. Even the Friar admits that Angelo was probably the best choice for that. It’s a win for the Duke because he gets to reestablish law and order without making anyone mad.
Act I, Scene 4
Isabella discusses privileges with another nun. She thinks they have too many.
Lucio calls through the gates. Isabella hasn’t taken her vows yet, so she can talk to him. Lucio explains that Claudio has been arrested for getting a girl pregnant. He dances around the subject a bit and, at first, Isabella thinks he must be joking. He makes it clear that he’s serious. She assumes it’s Julietta and says they should just get married. Lucio makes it clear that marriage is not an option because Angelo. Angelo has passed down an extreme punishment, death, and in doing so completely disregarding the spirit of the law.
Isabella doesn’t see what she could possibly do. Lucio tells her to go and cry in front of Angelo to try and move him toward leaniancy. She agrees to try.
Act II, Scene 1
Angelo doesn’t see the point in having laws if they are not going to enforce them. Escalus still thinks he is being too harsh on Claudio. Escalus asks Angelo if he was ever tempted to sin in his youth. Angelo admits to temptation but not giving in to sin. He refuses to look the other way just because others have done the same or worse. He insists that Claudio will be executed the next morning.
This is when Elbow, the Duke’s constable, enters with Pompey and Froth. He charges that they are running a house of ill repute with Mistress Overdone. He knows this because his wife told him.
Now, there are two things you need to know to understand just how long this scene is despite not much being said: Elbow is the character that mixes up the meanings of words and Pompey goes on tangents about irrelevant details. It all gets so frustrating that Angelo just up and leaves half way through the scene.
Elbow insists they did something to his wife. Pompey insists they just tried to fill her craving for prunes. Master Froth apparently did something to Elbow’s wife, but Pompey insists that is impossible because the worst thing about Froth is his face and that shows no damage. Escalus eventually gets to the bottom of things and lets Pompey and Froth off with a warning. He tell Froth to stop associating with these people and drinking. He makes a lot of Caesar puns when telling Pompey to fly under the radar.
Escalus discovers that Elbow has been a constable for seven and a half years. He asks him to get together some of the best men in his district and bring them to Escalus’ house.
Escalus invites the Justice over for dinner and laments Claudio’s fate.
Act II, Scene 2
The Provost wants Angelo to reconsider the death sentence, but of course he won’t.
Isabella comes in to plea her case. Lucio is with her. Isabella admits that her brother did wrong, but asks Angelo to pardon him. He won’t. She gives up, but Lucio tells her to continue. She begs for mercy by making it seem that mercy will be more appreciated than the law. Angelo doesn’t budge. Her brother will die tomorrow.
She didn’t realize it would be that soon and asks him to at least spare him for a time. After all, many others have committed the same crime. Angelo insists that they would not have committed the crime had even one person been held accountable. He is trying to remedy that situation now.
Isabella goes off on him about how power and authority can corrupt men. She bombards him with platitudes to get him to see the error of his ways. She asks to only condemn her brother if he has never felt the same temptation. She’s starting to get to him. Isabella offers to bribe him with prayer and that does it. He allows her to come back the next day after he has time to consider.
Once he’s alone, Angelo reveals that he has strong feelings for Isabella. He is being tempted by her….