Act I Scene 1 Summary:
The Duke of Vienna laments that his city is spoiled and its people too indulgent. However, he must leave the city, and names Angelo to be his replacement while he is away. Escalus, one of the Duke's advisors, believes Angelo worthy of the task; the Duke also says he is confident of Angelo's abilities. Angelo is somewhat humbled to receive this commission from the Duke, but accepts it all the same; the Duke declares that he must be off immediately on his errand, and wishes Angelo luck in bringing lawfulness and discipline back to the citizens of the city.
The Duke speaks with formal, somewhat legalistic language, exactly what we might expect of a ruling, noble figure. Note his use of the royal "we"; he calls the citizens of Vienna "our people," the city is "our city"; he seems quite confident in his use of these pronouns, meaning he is secure in his position. His diction is quite elegant in some places; he makes use of alliteration, stating that with his "special soul" he has chosen Angelo. The Duke also uses paradoxical terms that convey the duties of a ruler; he says he will lend Angelo both his "terror" and his "love" to rule with, showing how a ruler must be authoritarian, yet caring for his subjects.
However, the Duke's support of Angelo is misguided, perhaps even deliberately so; it is ironic that Escalus backs him, and that the Duke makes great statements supporting Angelo, when even he might know Angelo's flaws. He claims to know Angelo thoroughly enough to know that he will be a good ruler; yet, this whole scenario takes the appearance of a test, with the Duke's departure contrived, and his observation of Angelo's rulership in disguise.
The Duke introduces one of the first themes/ issues of importance in the play, and that is actions vs. words. Although the Duke insists he must hasten away from the town, he actually stays in secret; and although he claims to be leaving Angelo in temporary control of the city, we see by the end of the play that this is some kind of test of his character. Why is the Duke proclaiming his intent to do one thing, and then deliberately doing something else? Why the divide between what he says he will do, and what he actually does?
The Duke's motivations are shady, and completely unexplained by the play: why must he test Angelo? Why does he bother to conceive of this scenario? Why does he announce that the laws need to be better enforced, and then run away at the crucial moment? The Duke claims not to like the people's "loud applause and aves vehement"; yet, considering his immaculately timed appearance at the end of the play, he is probably setting himself up for this purpose, to gain more acclaim. Indeed, the Duke gains in stature through Angelo's rule, as many wish to have him back, and recognize how good they had it; once the Duke is back, people have finally learned to appreciate his permissiveness, which they had not before.
Act I Scene 2 Summary:
Lucio, an indulgent man of Vienna, is jesting with two gentlemen of the city; they speak of their vices and transgressions, especially of frequenting whorehouses. Mistress Overdone, who runs one of these whorehouses, enters; then the men discuss what kind of venereal diseases they might have, making references to syphilis and the like. Mistress Overdone tells them that Claudio, a good man, has been taken to prison for getting his fiancée pregnant. In addition, all the brothels outside the city are to be shut down, though the ones inside are allowed to stay.
Claudio is led in by officers, and says that he is being punished for taking too many liberties, although the woman he got pregnant, Juliet, was his wife in all but the legal sense. He asks Lucio to go to Claudio's sister, Isabella, who is in a convent, and let her know of what has befallen him. He hopes that she will be able to use her wit and influence with Angelo, so that he can be released.
This scene introduces us to the kind of indulgent, sinful people that make up much of Vienna. Lucio speaks of one of the gentleman's bones, which he says "sound as things that are hollow"; this metaphor can be applied to Vienna as a whole, as the town might appear to be sound and orderly, but corruption lies beneath the surface. This is a theme reappearing in the work; some things might appear to be good or bad, but these appearances belie the true essence of the thing. Of course, the town is not wicked, by any stretch; it is just that "impiety has made a feast" of it, and the people have had too much indulgence in their vices. The city itself is a symbol of sin and lack of moderation, and as the Duke will find, the city cannot easily be separated from its inherent vices.
The entrance of Mistress Overdone introduces another theme of the work, which is vice vs. piety. Many figures in the play are subject to excesses of either one or the other; Lucio and Mistress Overdone are symbols of excess, and Isabella and Angelo (as he first appears to be) are symbols of restraint. The play makes it clear by the end that those who fall to either pole are unnatural, as human nature is a balance of both excess and restraint, and everyone is subject to temptation.
Claudio's offense seems slight from a modern prospective, but it was not uncommon for couples who conceived out of wedlock to be punished during Shakespeare's era. The punishment was, of course, more moderate than the death sentence that Claudio has been condemned to; but the offense is one that was relevant to the time, and surely many other young men found themselves in Claudio's unenviable position.
Claudio says that his "restraint," or arrest, comes "from too much liberty." This is a paradox in terms, but shows that "restraint" and "liberty" should be kept in some kind of balance. Claudio knows, though, that "our natures do pursue, like rats that ravin down their proper bane, a thirsty evil, and when we drink we die." What he means by this simile is that people naturally fall into temptation, but that it can overwhelm a person. Temptation and the resistance of it is a theme which will come up again in the play.
Of course, there is a great irony at work in Claudio's situation. He is being punished for a consensual liaison with a woman who he was contracted to marry; of all the vices going on in Vienna, this is surely a lesser crime than most, yet it is Claudio who stands to be made an example of. He is well aware of this, as "the body public be a horse whereon the governor may ride," and he "lets it straight feel the spur." This metaphor conveys how much power Angelo actually has, and that although his power is not being fairly used in this case, he still has the power to enforce these laws or not.
Act I Scene 3 Summary:
The Duke asks a friar in the town, Friar Thomas, to give him refuge; the Duke does not intend to leave town, but rather he intends to stay and observe Angelo at work. He says that he gave Angelo power because he knew the city had to be cleaned up, but thought that he would be a bad man to do that job, and the friar agrees with this assessment. But then, he adds that Angelo appears to be a man invulnerable to temptation, and almost inhuman in this regard; he doubts that Angelo is actually as steely as he seems, and intends to see if this appearance is indeed false.
In this scene, the Duke voices one of the main themes of the play: "for terror, not to use, in time the rod becomes more mocked than feared." This, he claims, is the reason that he is leaving Angelo in charge. He is tired of seeing the city become "like an o'ergrown lion in a cage," as his simile states, and thinks somehow that Angelo will return the city to order. He no longer wants "the baby to beat the nurse"; the baby symbolizes the people of the city, who know no better than they do, and the nurse symbolizes the governing powers, which are needed to teach the people and keep them from going astray.
The theme of disguise is introduced, as the Duke will remain in hidden in the city, and is about to take on the guise of a friar to conceal himself. He posits that although Angelo "scarce confesses that his blood flows," he believes that there might be more behind this strict appearance. The Duke is indeed testing Angelo, though he didn't say so in the first scene; his motivations are still a bit hazy though they are very much rationalized by this point.
Act I Scene 4 Summary:
Lucio comes to see Isabella in the convent, and tells her of Angelo taking over rule of Vienna, and his strictness compared to the Duke's indulgence. He tells her that her brother Claudio got Juliet pregnant, and has been sentenced to death for his crime. Isabella is surprised, but doubts that she can do any good in this case; however, Lucio prevails with her, and she agrees to go see Angelo and beg for her brother's life.
Here we are introduced to Isabella, who is a representative of restraint in the text. She actually goes overboard in her desire for strictness, as shown when she asks one of the nuns if she could not have more strict restraint as one of the sisters there. This recalls the theme of indulgence and restraint, but since Isabella is too much drawn to one of the poles, she will have to become more moderate in order to become truly human.
Lucio's diction, when he addresses Isabella, also tells of her being separate from humanity. He calls her "a thing eskied," "an immortal spirit," and "a saint" in her pious restraint and devotion; however, these descriptions show how removed Isabella is from reality, and how ill-adapted she is to the world because of it. However, she seems to have stubbornness and sense enough to be able to prevail with Angelo, and hopefully her unworldliness will not hinder her too much.
Lucio repeats the Duke's descriptions of Angelo's seeming invulnerability; his "blood is very snow broth," and he "never feels the wanton stings and motions of the sense." It will be very ironic, then, when this man who appears to be so very strict and pure falls to temptation as all people tend to do.