At the prison, the Duke, still disguised as a friar, asks Claudio if he hopes for a pardon from Angelo. Claudio replies that hope is all he has left, though he is prepared to die. The Duke entreats Claudio to come to peace with death, to treat life as a mere thing. Life, the Duke argues, is a transient source of worry and uncertainty. Claudio seems reassured by the Duke’s lengthy speech, and tells him that he now feels more at peace with death.
Here, the Duke shows himself to be both wise and genuinely concerned for the welfare of his subjects. In the context of the theme of agency, however, it’s notable that it’s the Duke who counsels Claudio to resign himself to fate. After all, the Duke is the character in the play who goes to the greatest lengths to subvert conventional order and control his surroundings. This suggests that the disguised Duke’s advice, wise as it may be, might not be entirely genuine.
Isabella arrives to speak with Claudio. The Duke asks the Provost to take him to a spot where he can eavesdrop on the siblings’ conversation. Isabella tells Claudio that the only remedy for his death sentence is “to cleave a heart”—hers—“in twain.” This solution would free Claudio, but leave him fettered for life, she says. Claudio presses his sister to tell him exactly how he might be freed. Isabella evades answering directly, and instead tells him that this alternative would destroy his honor. Fed up, Claudio tells her to that her “flowery tenderness” is of no practical use to him. Isabella then tells Claudio of Angelo’s dastardly scheme to have her forfeit her virginity in order to save her brother.
Isabella’s indirectness in this chat with Claudio recalls Angelo’s similar indirectness when he implored Isabella to violate her chastity for him. This hesitance also indicates that Isabella is afraid her brother may not agree with her decision to preserve her honor over his life. It is difficult, then, to judge whether Isabella herself believes her own rationale. If she does not, in fact, believe this rationale, then her situation is quite similar to Angelo’s approach to ruling the city. She has tried to convince herself that she is acting in the name of virtue, when her actions may in fact be less than virtuous, just as Angelo tries to justify his unreasonable punishment of Claudio as a necessary enforcement of morals.
Claudio is scandalized to learn of Angelo’s designs, and tells Isabella that she should not sacrifice her virginity. She tells him that she would give up her life, but not her purity. Claudio gives his thanks, and his sister tells him to prepare to be executed.
Angelo’s behavior, so far out of line with his chaste public persona, is likely such a shock to Claudio that he initially cannot react with anything but condemnation—even if this stance blocks his only route to freedom.
Claudio then begins to consider how Angelo could manage to act so hypocritically by possessing desires counter to the law he enforces so strictly. As he continues to think, his opinion on Isabella’s choice reverses itself completely. Claudio first muses that lechery is no sin—or at least the most inconsequential of the seven deadly sins. Claudio then remarks that “death is a fearful thing.” His sister is quick to respond: “and shamed life a hateful.” But Claudio refutes her position by imagining a frightful afterlife, concluding that what “age, ache, penury and imprisonment can lay on nature is a paradise to what we fear of death.” Isabella, distraught, can only respond with “alas.” Claudio’s chain of reasoning leads him to renounce his initial support of Isabella’s choice: he asks his sister to save him, arguing that sex is so natural as to be a virtue. Isabella responds vehemently, calling him a “beast” and a “coward,” and asserting that it is a form of incest for him to derive life from his own sister’s shame. She condemns him to death and says that she will pray for his death.
Claudio’s change of heart affirms that his brand of virtue falls somewhere in between the strict religious devotion of Isabella and the utter hedonism of characters like Pompey, Lucio, and Mistress Overdone. Isabella, of course, is motivated entirely by spiritual concerns rather than issues of bodily pleasure, and the bawds are the complete opposite. Claudio, however, may perhaps be the most pragmatic of all. He chooses to sleep with Juliet before marriage because he understands that consensual, monogamous sex likely does not violate the spirit of the moral standards, though it may not follow the law to the letter. Similarly, his fear of death is reasonably grounded in his lack of information, rather than an arrogant confidence in either worldly pleasures or divine rewards.
As Claudio pleads with his sister, the Duke emerges from his hiding spot, still in disguise as a friar. He tells Isabella that he would like to speak with her. First, the Duke confers with Claudio and tells him that he has overheard the conversation with Isabella. He advises that Claudio should prepare for death instead of clinging to hope; Angelo, he says, only tried to seduce Isabella to test her virtue. Claudio simply responds by wishing he had an opportunity to ask for Isabella’s forgiveness for what he had just asked her to do, as he is fed up with living.
It seems unlikely that the Duke actually thinks Angelo was testing Isabella, so his further deception of Claudio is an interesting issue. The misdirection could easily be a way to pacify Claudio and prevent him from losing faith in the system that imprisons him. It is also possible, though, that the Duke simply wants to maintain his ability to manipulate his subjects as completely as possible, and filling Claudio in on the reality of the situation might make him more difficult to manage.
Claudio leaves, and the disguised Duke asks the Provost to leave also so that he can speak with Isabella in private. When the two are alone, the Duke condemns Angelo’s misconduct and asks Isabella what she plans to do. She answers that she would sooner see Claudio executed than forfeit her purity, and remarks—not knowing, of course, that she is speaking to the Duke—that the Duke is greatly deceived by Angelo’s feigned rectitude.
At this point, Claudio’s predicament seems unsolvable. Isabella is uncompromising, even stern, in her commitment to remain pure, and she begins to seem steadily more like a cold, selfish character than an altruistic, virtuous maiden.
The Duke tells Isabella that she will not succeed by denouncing Angelo publicly; instead, he proposes a solution that will save Claudio, please the absent Duke, preserve her purity, and help out another woman who has been wronged by Angelo: Mariana, his ex-fiancée. Mariana, the Duke explains, was engaged to Angelo, but after she lost her brother and her dowry in a shipwreck, Angelo callously called off the engagement. However, Mariana still loves Angelo. For this reason, the Duke suggests that Isabella could arrange a rendezvous with Angelo, and then Mariana could go in her place and consummate her aborted marriage. Isabella agrees to this plan. The Duke tells her to go to Angelo and promise to meet with him, while he contacts Mariana.
The Duke’s solution offers far too convenient a resolution to Isabella’s predicament. Instead of forcing Isabella to grapple with two compelling and fundamentally irreconcilable issues of virtue, Shakespeare introduces an unknown character, Mariana, who is perfectly suited to defusing this crisis in a way that lets Isabella preserve both her sexual purity and the life of her brother. Granted, the issues at stake in Isabella’s dilemma are colossal in scope, but the introduction of Mariana is a quick fix to the conflict that is often regarded by critics as a weak point in the play. Also deserving of some scrutiny is the way in which the two women’s social roles are used to chart their courses of action. Mariana, abandoned by her fiancée, is unable to fit into a socially-prescribed niche unless she complies with the Duke’s plan—and, of course, the only reason Mariana is necessary in the first place is because Isabella’s so-called maidenly obligations prevent her from sleeping with Angelo.