Act II Scene 1 Summary:
Angelo states that he is determined to make people wary of the law again; Escalus thinks that some enforcement of the law is necessary, but warns Angelo against being far too strict and showing no mercy. Escalus laments to see "some contemned by a fault alone," but he doesn't want to struggle against the stubborn Angelo either.
Then, a comic scene involving Elbow, the silly constable, Froth, and Pompey the bawd follows. Elbow accuses Froth of being insolent to his good wife; the whole set-up is rather ridiculous, and seems contrived in order to gain a few good laughs. Pompey defends Froth, who is accused of the insult; but Pompey is revealed to be a bawd, in the employ of Mistress Overdone at her brothel.
Escalus is exasperated at constable Elbow's show of incompetence, and asks for him to bring a list of able replacements to Escalus at his home. Escalus has decided to aid Angelo now in his pursuit to enforce the law; he still wishes that something could be done about Claudio's situation, but fears that to relent would be to make the law weak again.
Angelo compares the law to a scarecrow, that is useless if it cannot frighten and deter; this metaphor echoes the Duke's appraisal of the law from Act I, in which he said the same thing, about the law being useless if it didn't actually keep people from transgressing. A scarecrow is actually a fitting symbol for the law in Vienna, for if the people are used to ignoring it as they have been doing, it can hardly be of real practical use.
Escalus introduces the theme of moderation and mercy, both of which are necessary in a ruler with as much power as Angelo holds. "Let us be keen and rather cut a little, than fall and bruise to death," he tells Angelo. However, the value of mercy is something which Angelo will have to learn; he has no compassion whatever for people's failings, since he acknowledges no failings in himself. "'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, another thing to fall"; Angelo's moralizing is strict and unmerciful, but will later be shown up when he falls to temptation.
Then follows the necessary comic relief section, with Elbow's repeated malapropisms providing entertainment. This following section does not relate to the plot at all, but is a break for wordplay and comic, sometimes sexually charged, insinuations.
This tangent is informative, however, because it shows Angelo's crackdown on those who deal in prostitution, and how those who deal in this trade, like Pompey, are regarded as being lowly. It also shows Escalus's complicity in Angelo's strictness; for although he believes that Angelo is doing wrong to be so harsh on Claudio, among others, he too is beginning to believe that to let Claudio off would be to condone sin and overindulgence.
Act II Scene 2 Summary:
The Provost goes to talk to Angelo, to plead for Claudio's life since his sin is hardly something unknown to Vienna. Angelo still refuses to relent, and says that Juliet, who is in labor, should go to a more fitting place, away from everything that is going on. Isabella comes to see Angelo, and begins to plead with him for Claudio's life. Angelo seems to be unrelenting, but Lucio urges her to persist. She does, and calls upon Angelo's pity, mercy, and moderation; she recognizes that Angelo has the power to enforce the law in full, but impresses upon him that one must use power with moderation.
Angelo calls Juliet a "fornicatress," and this harsh name again recalls the theme of appearance vs. reality. Although Juliet appears from Angelo's quick appraisal to be just a sinful person, her reality is far more complex; she is much better than most women, and her only fault was not securing a marriage contract before she slept with her fiancée. She is actually a woman of strength and principle, not the simple sinner that Angelo reduces her to.
Isabella's strategy is a keen one, trying to persuade Angelo to have the same mercy for her brother that she has. Once again, the issue of mercy is urged upon Angelo, as is the theme of human weakness, which all, Isabella stresses, fall victim to. She is very canny, when she has to be; her argument is strong and persuasive, although it is not her argument that causes Angelo to relent, but his attraction to her.
Isabella also touches upon the theme of use of power; "it is excellent to have a giant's strength," she tells Angelo, "but it is tyrannous to use it as a giant." Isabella makes an allusion to "Jove" to demonstrate her pointthat even the gods, with tremendous power, know how best to use their awesome abilities. This is another lesson that Angelo must learn; for although he can use the law to its full extent if he wishes, he has to learn how to temper his power with mercy and heed moderation.
It is with great irony that Isabella's call to Angelo to mark the weaknesses in his own heart is answered by Angelo's acknowledgement that he is tempted by Isabella. It is this temptation that brings from Angelo his first statement of mercy toward Claudio: "O, let her brother live! Thieves for their robbery have authority when judges steal themselves!" Angelo realizes here that with experience of one's own weakness comes mercy for others' failings; however, he soon ignores this lesson, and falls into hypocrisy.
Act II Scene 3 Summary:
The Duke, disguised as a friar, visits the prison; he asks the provost to show him to the prisoners that he might minister to their sorrows. The Provost mentions Claudio's case, and the Duke inquires of her whether she repents her sin. She says that she does, and the Duke, as the friar, says he will help her heal her shame if she is indeed sorry for her sin. He finds out that Juliet and Claudio are indeed in love, and their decision to sleep with each other was mutual. He tries to soothe her, since Claudio is to die tomorrow, and leaves. Juliet laments that she is about to give birth, but this possibly happy time has turned terrible because of Claudio's impending execution.
This brief scene basically allows the Duke to appraise the guilt and the crime of Claudio and Juliet; having learned that they are in love, and that their sin was mutual, might temper his view of their wrongs. Although Claudio and Juliet's crime is actually slight, still they have to repent of whatever sin they did commit. The theme of repentance is presented here, for although it is human to fall and be tempted, one must still recognize one's wrongs and learn from them.
Act II Scene 3 Summary:
Angelo recognizes his lust for Isabella, and the fact that he does have weaknesses just like everyone else. Isabella comes to plead again for her brother's life, as Angelo is taken over by his lust while in her presence. He asks whether Isabella would consider a sin to be good, if it were to help someone else; soon, he asks her hypothetically whether she would give up her virginity in order to save her brother. Isabella vehemently insists that she would not, and that she prizes her virginity over even her brother's life. Angelo is angered, and tells her that either she relents, or her brother dies; Isabella grieves that Angelo's good appearance belies the corruption that seems to have taken him over, but is still resolute that she will not sleep with Angelo to save her brother.
Angelo admits that he is being taken over by temptation, another theme of the play, as he considers Isabella and his feelings for her. He is being corrupted by "strong and swelling evil," and will fall even lower as he takes what he initially called feelings of love for Isabella and turns them into something lustful and impure. He has come full circle, in a sense, because he declares "blood, thou art blood"; blood was used as a symbol of temptation and human nature by the Duke, who said that Angelo scarcely admitted that he was flesh and blood, although here, Angelo is clearly seeing otherwise.
Angelo's tone, as he recognizes his lust, is almost forlorn and repentant; recognizing his own weakness seems to cause him pain, as he still desires to stay good and resist temptation. He also recognizes the disparity between his flawless reputation and his flawed self: "let's write 'good Angel' on the Devil's horn," he says, as he sees that he too is prone to sin. The paradox tells of Angelo's guilt, and again of his reluctance to indulge it. However, by the end of this scene, he is resolute in his insistence that either Isabella sleep with him, or her brother dies. While at the beginning of this scene he is merely considering his temptation, by the end he has completely given into it; the temptation that Isabella symbolizes to him ensures his swift fall from grace, and into hypocrisy.
Angelo introduces the proposition of Isabella sleeping with him in return for her brother's life in an almost abstract manner; but, as he grows more bold, he repeats this offer a few times, in increasingly lucid terms. Angelo tries to argue that doing a sin that helps someone is tantamount to "charity"; this is a viable issue, and perhaps it is true, but not in this blackmail situation.
Isabella reveals the extent of her piety and her pride in this encounter; she says she would rather "th' impression of keen whips wear as rubies" than give up her chastity. Then, she shows just how stubborn and unrealistically chaste she is. In response to Angelo's hypothetically posed question about whether it would be better for her to give up her chastity or for her brother to die, she answers, "better it were a brother died at once, than that a sister, by redeeming him, should die forever." The fact that Isabella prizes her virginity over her brother's life shows how selfish she is, and how overly pious she is too.
Isabella definitely needs to reappraise her ridiculous overvaluing of her virginity, although Angelo's insistence that she "[put] on the destined livery" of sexual submissiveness is also off the mark. The theme of gender roles comes into question, as women in the play have less power than men, and are expected to be subservient in some sense. Here, Angelo is using his power to try and force Isabella into an inferior position, which Isabella, with her strength and intellect, will have to try and avoid. Isabella notes the divide between appearance and reality, as Angelo seemed to be a good man but is clearly very corrupt by this point.