Outside the prison, the Duke, still disguised, speaks with Elbow and other constables who have detained Pompey. He asks Elbow what crime Pompey is guilty of, and Elbow replies that Pompey is a lawbreaker and a thief in the possession of a lock-picking device. The Duke condemns Pompey and questions whether living off of the flesh trade can really constitute living life. Pompey tries to explain himself, but the Duke interrupts and orders him sent to jail.
In considering the appearance versus reality theme in this scene, readers should think about whether the Duke’s opinion here is a genuine reflection of his personal sentiments, an overly harsh stance designed to make his pious friar disguise more convincing, or a combination of the two.
Lucio approaches, and he and Pompey greet one another as friends. Lucio teasingly asks about Pompey’s current situation and inquires after his mistress at the brothel. Pompey tells Lucio that he is to be imprisoned for being a bawd, and requests that Lucio pay for his bail. Lucio declines, saying prison is the bawd’s due.
Lucio reveals himself here to be a contemptible hypocrite. Lucio uses Pompey to facilitate his lawless promiscuity, but fails to assist his friend and even has the audacity to claim that Pompey is simply receiving his comeuppance. Clearly, Lucio’s social position gives him a dangerous level of liberty if it allows him to get away with such unfair and hypocritical antics.
When Pompey is escorted away by the officers, Lucio asks the Duke, whom he thinks is merely a friar, if there is any recent news of the Duke. Lucio conjectures that the Duke may be in Russia or Rome. The disguised Duke offers no response other than good wishes. Continuing, Lucio observes that Angelo is a stern ruler, and perhaps punishes lechery too harshly. The Duke responds by saying it is far too widespread a vice and must be remedied through severity. Lucio replies that lechery will not be eradicated until eating and drinking are, as well.
Lucio’s hedonistic faith that lechery will persist mirrors the cocky self-assuredness that Pompey shows earlier in the play. By likening this vice to eating and drinking, however, he does add a valuable counterpoint to the play’s theme of virtue: sins like lechery are, in Lucio’s view, a natural part of life and should not be repressed so severely.
Lucio continues, saying that rumor has it that Angelo was not conceived through sex. He describes other fantastical legends about the man, and laments that Angelo is so uncompromising that he would see Claudio executed merely for sexual deviance. The Duke, Lucio maintains, would not issue such a punishment, because he was said to be familiar with fornication. The Duke, as friar, answers that he had never heard such allegations against the Duke, but Lucio again tells him that he is mistaken. According to Lucio, the Duke was a “superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow,” given to drinking.
It is never explained why Lucio chooses to rail against the Duke to the man he believes to be a friar. Lucio’s diatribe may perhaps be designed to complicate the Duke’s character and make him seem less than honorable, but because these insults against the Duke come from a character as unreliable as Lucio, they are difficult to accept at face value.
The Duke replies indignantly that Lucio is mistaken; he asks for Lucio’s name and says that he hopes Lucio would speak the same way before the Duke himself, should the latter ever return. He also threatens to report Lucio to the Duke, but Lucio counters that he is unafraid. He laments Claudio’s fate, offers some colorful disparagements of the Duke, and bids the disguised Duke farewell.
The Duke’s response to Lucio indicates that the Duke values honesty and transparency in his subjects and disdains false appearances. This, of course, is ironic, given that the Duke delivers this message while he himself is in disguise, and observant readers might wonder whether the Duke applies this same standard of behavior to himself.
After Lucio exits, Escalus and the Provost enter with Mistress Overdone under arrest. The Provost tells Escalus that Mistress Overdone has been a bawd for eleven years, and Escalus bids him to send her to jail. Before being taken away, Mistress Overdone reveals that Lucio has fathered a child with one of her prostitutes.
The punishment of Mistress Overdone, while Lucio gets to live freely after committing an equally immoral action, illustrates that Vienna’s moral crackdown has been evaded by some of the most egregious offenders. This outcome supports Claudio and Angelo’s opinions on the fallibility of human justice, and suggests that appearances play a far greater role in the penal system’s assessment of guilt than do the real moral characters of offenders.
Escalus and the disguised Duke exchange greetings. The Duke asks Escalus about what the Duke was like, and Escalus replies with a flattering account of a temperate, upstanding ruler. Escalus then asks how the Duke (whom he thinks is a friar) found Claudio to be when he visited the prison. The Duke replies that he has prepared Claudio for his death. Escalus comments that Claudio’s death sentence seems too severe to him.
Escalus and Lucio’s drastically different interactions with the disguised Duke highlight their vast differences in moral uprightness. However, distinct as their characters may be, the two men can both agree that Claudio’s punishment is too harsh to fit his crime.
Escalus and the Provost leave. Alone, the Duke delivers a soliloquy condemning Angelo’s shameful behavior. The Duke promises to use craftiness and disguise to counter Angelo’s duplicity and vice, and ensure that appropriate punishment is administered.
The Duke’s admitted willingness to bend the rules of honesty illustrates that the uncompromising and unforgiving approach that Angelo attempts to take towards morality is an incorrect one. It is appropriate, too, that Angelo will be met with “measure for measure:” his duplicitous deceptions will be countered and set right by the Duke’s, and Angelo’s own insistence on rigid interpretations of the law will be turned back against him (just as Escalus predicted they would earlier in the play).