In a room of Angelo’s house, Angelo confers with Escalus while the Provost, a Justice, and other officers of the law listen. Angelo says adamantly that they cannot make a "scarecrow" of the law: the law must not be a static, empty threat that people may grow to ignore. In response, Escalus uses a metaphor to suggest a more moderate and less aggressive approach: instead of felling the tree of civic justice, they might merely trim its branches instead, “and rather cut a little, than fall, and bruise to death.”
In this scene, the deep differences between Angelo’s and Escalus’ philosophies of rule are made clear. Angelo is loyal to rules and doctrine above all else, while Escalus subscribes to a more human-oriented philosophy of civic morality, which values the overall spirit of the law more than the letter of the law.
.Escalus then laments Claudio's fate, as Escalus knew Claudio's father to be very noble. While he emphasizes that he respects Angelo's judgment, Escalus also suggests that the regent consider whether he might at some point transgress as Claudio has.
Escalus’s fair, empathetic view leads him to issue Angelo a prescient warning. The danger with issuing unforgiving moral judgments is that the judger’s faults will be examined equally harshly. By setting such a high bar for virtue, Angelo has committed himself to maintaining flawless behavior—or at least appearing to do so.
Angelo replies that being tempted to sin is completely different from actually sinning. The law is designed to give the correct punishments to whomever is caught violating it, and though it is impossible to guarantee that every guilty person is punished, this does not render the institution of punishment unjust as a whole. Furthermore, even if Angelo is a sinful man, it does not exonerate Claudio of his misdeeds. Last of all, Angelo says that if he ever transgresses in this way, he hopes he would receive the same punishment. He punctuates this statement by telling the Provost to execute Claudio by nine the following morning.
Angelo’s view of justice here is strikingly similar to the view that Claudio espouses in Act 1, Scene 2. In both men’s opinions, earthly justice is an imperfect institution that hands out punishments somewhat arbitrarily. And despite this fact, both men also seem to have enough faith in the system to resign themselves to its often haphazard operation. Angelo trusts that any serving of justice is a good thing, despite the impossibility of ensuring just treatment for all, and Claudio has more or less accepted that he has fallen victim to one of worldly justice’s less-than-fair imperfections.
In an aside, Escalus laments Angelo’s decision to execute Claudio. "Well, heaven forgive him! and forgive us all!” he says; “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall." Elbow, the constable, enters, escorting Pompey and another man affiliated with the brothel, Froth. Angelo asks Elbow to explain himself, to which Elbow answers that he has brought these two "notorious benefactors" to justice. Confused, Angelo suggests they may in fact be "malefactors;" Elbow answers that he does not know what they are. When Angelo asks who Pompey is, Elbow explains in a slew of humorously misused words that Pompey is a bawd who works for Mistress Overdone.
Escalus’s lament reflects the all-too-frequent difference between appearances and realities and illustrates that earthly rewards and punishments often reward those who fake virtue, rather than those who truly embody it. Important, too, is the ambiguity of his remark, “heaven forgive him.” “Him” could refer to either Claudio—who Escalus hopes may gain a heavenly reprieve despite suffering a harsh punishment on earth—or to Angelo, who he hopes will be forgiven for his inhumane strictness in enforcement of morality.
Pompey takes advantage of Elbow's dull wits and confuses the constable to steer the interrogation off course. Angelo remarks that this interrogation will take a long time, and exits, leaving Escalus in charge. The conversation becomes so convoluted, and Elbow so bewildered, that Escalus asks "Which is the wiser here? Justice or Iniquity?" Finally, Escalus questions Pompey and Froth, and when Froth reveals that he works for Mistress Overdone, Escalus tells him to avoid prostitution. Escalus bids Froth farewell, and Froth leaves.
The interaction between Pompey and dull-witted Elbow illustrates the ineptitude of the law, which contrasts strikingly with Pompey’s razor-sharp wit and verbal dexterity. In a fitting illustration of Escalus’s comment about appearances belying reality, the immoral Pompey uses dazzling words to confuse others about his guilt. Escalus himself is so confused that he is unable to sort out appearances from realities to ascertain whether justice is wiser than iniquity.
Escalus and Pompey then have a tense, but comical, exchange about the prostitution business in Vienna. Escalus warns of stern enforcement to come, and Pompey openly doubts that this harsh morality will last. Though Escalus counsels him to change his ways, Pompey ignores these suggestions and says in an aside that "the valiant heart is not whipt out of his trade."
Pompey’s arrogance illustrates how entrenched sexual licentiousness is in Vienna. Still, there is something to be said for Pompey’s straightforwardness. Unlike characters that reveal themselves to be hypocrites as the play develops, Pompey makes no attempt to disguise his faults. In this narrow sense, then, the bawd is indeed “valiant.”
Pompey leaves, and Escalus asks Elbow to give him the names of other policemen who might be capable of enforcing the law. Elbow then leaves, and Escalus commiserates with a Justice about Claudio's tragic fate. However, Escalus remarks that Angelo's severity is warranted, as oftentimes what seems like mercy can in fact be a crueler action--pardoning Claudio might itself result in "second woe."
Escalus is just and reasonable, but he respects the judgment of his superiors. He even manages to find a more compassionate rationale for Angelo’s strictness: that it may be more morally merciful to execute Claudio than to pardon him. This is undoubtedly not Angelo’s reasoning for executing Claudio, and Escalus’s thought process illustrates that he is one of the play’s most upright and empathetic characters.