Angelo reflects on the discrepancies between his words and his desires: “Heaven hath my empty words; Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, Anchors on Isabel.” He lusts after Isabella, but concludes that he must appear to uphold his own moral laws in spite of the immoral acts he would commit if given the chance.
It is clear that Angelo, now in the grip of his lust, places the appearance of morality higher than the actual embodiment of morality. He is aware that he speaks “empty words,” and while this duplicitousness distresses him, he certainly seems to think it is more important for him to maintain his façade of morality than to work on reforming his lustfulness.
A servant tells Angelo that Isabella has come to speak with him. Angelo summons her. Before she enters, he remarks to himself that his baser impulses—his “blood”—are so coarse that they threaten to overpower the noble intentions of his regal heart.
Angelo’s self-aware struggle to contain his impulses illustrates that he may simply lack the willpower to behave correctly, even though he knows what is right. Coupled with his initial protests against being granted so much freedom by the Duke, this view into his consciousness casts Angelo as a weak and unfortunate man given more liberty than he can handle.
Isabella enters, and Angelo tells her that Claudio still must die. However, he sounds less adamant than before. He reflects that it is as easy to release a guilty man as it is for an innocent person to become a guilty one. Following up on this statement, he asks Isabella if she would rather see the just law execute her brother, or redeem him by “[giving] up your body to such sweet uncleanness / As she that he hath stain'd.” Naively, Isabella answers that “I had rather give my body than my soul.” Angelo restates his proposition, asking Isabella if it might not be charitable for someone to sin in order to save Claudio’s life. Isabella, believing Angelo to be referring to the “sin” of pardoning Claudio, tells him that such a sin is certainly worth saving Claudio, and that she would accept responsibility for it.
The exchange between Angelo and Isabella is an exasperating one: to the audience, Angelo’s lecherous intentions are clear from the start, but Isabella’s purity and naiveté prevent her from picking up Angelo’s innuendos. The dramatic irony of this scene complements the play’s overall theme of appearances versus reality. In this case, appearances constitute the reality.
Frustrated that Isabella misinterprets his innuendos, Angelo remarks to her, “either you are ignorant, Or seem so craftily; and that's not good.” He speaks bluntly: Claudio will die unless Isabella will “lay down the treasures of [her] body” to someone with the power to control Claudio’s fate. Isabella answers that she would sooner die than give herself over to shameful conduct. Angelo responds that Claudio, then, must die; Isabella retorts that it is better for him to die a single earthly death than for her to “die forever” by sinning in order to redeem him.
It is ironic that Angelo is so perturbed by the idea that Isabella may be feigning ignorance out of craftiness. After all, he himself is utterly committed to maintaining an appearance of virtuousness while in fact being a crafty and immoral phony. Yet he can’t stand the idea of the woman he is trying to force into bed being anything but innocent.
Angelo then accuses Isabella, with her strict refusal to save her brother on religious grounds, of being just as cruel as she claims he is for demanding such exacting enforcement of the law. She answers that “To have what we would have, we speak not what we mean: / I something do excuse the thing I hate, / For his advantage that I dearly love.” Angelo and Isabella then agree that women are “frail,” and Angelo tells her that in order for her to behave in a womanly way, she must not exceed her station. He implores her to put on her “destined livery:” that is, to act in the role she is obliged to fulfill.
This exchange clearly exposes the misogynistic views that inform Angelo and Isabella’s outlooks. Though their two perspectives suggest different courses of action for Isabella, neither view allows her much agency of her own. Essentially, Angelo insists that it is Isabella’s womanly duty to yield to him, as it would be unbecoming for her to stand up to his authority. Isabella, on the other hand, will soon show herself to be bound by another—perhaps equally oppressive—sort of womanly duty: the obligation to remain chaste under all circumstances.
Finally, Angelo tells Isabella outright that he loves her. She is indignant that Claudio is facing execution for the exact same crime Angelo proposes she indulge in with him. She condemns the façade of virtue that Angelo displays and vows to tell the world about his reprehensible hypocrisy. Angelo replies that his pristine reputation and high status would ensure that nobody believed her claims. He promises that if Isabella does not sleep with him, he will make Claudio’s death prolonged and painful, and tells her she has until tomorrow to respond. Angelo leaves her with a disturbing reiteration of his power: “As for you, / Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”
Isabella’s reaction is difficult to assess morally. On one hand, it demonstrates an admirable devotion to her religious obligations. On the other, it seems like a prudish and selfish refusal to help a loved one in need. Just as Angelo interprets moral prohibitions in dangerously literal ways in his enforcement of the laws, Isabella threatens to let her strict religious devotion to church doctrine turn her into an uncaring sibling. Notably, Angelo’s arrogant response to Isabella, “my false outweighs your true,” illustrates that he has complete faith in appearances’ ability to trump reality.
Now alone, Isabella wonders what she can do. She resolves to go to Claudio and explain her predicament. She holds conviction that Claudio will respect her decision to preserve her purity rather than save him—in fact, she is convinced he would rather die twenty times over than let her be polluted by Angelo’s lust. Isabella promises to care for him to help him prepare his mind for impending death.
Isabella’s reasoning here is likely designed to seem selfish. Her faith that Claudio will gladly die to preserve her purity seems naïve at best, and utterly self-serving at worst. Though Isabella’s search for virtue doesn’t leave her in as unethical a position as Angelo’s leaves him, it is worth noting that Isabella’s inflexible devotion to her faith may obscure her ability to act morally.