Pompey reflects that he sees as many acquaintances in the prison as he does in Mistress Overdone’s brothel. He lists an assortment of humorously-named brothel patrons whom he sees in jail. Then Abhorson appears and asks Pompey to summon Barnadine. Pompey tries to rouse the prisoner for execution, but Barnadine is surly and uncooperative, claiming he is “sleepy.” Finally, Barnadine appears before Abhorson, but argues that because he has been drinking all night, he is unfit to be executed. The Duke arrives, still disguised as the friar, and offers to administer his final rites, but Barnadine says he is unwilling to be executed.
Barnadine’s refusal to be executed is a comical illustration that even the most powerful civil authorities may not be able to overcome firmly entrenched vices. The authorities cannot impose their punishment on Barnadine because his less-than-virtuous lifestyle is too deeply ingrained in him. This may be meant by Shakespeare as a metaphor for Angelo’s foolish and ultimately impossible quest to eradicate sexual vice in Vienna through unforgiving punishments.
The Provost reveals to the Duke that a “notorious pirate,” of similar age and appearance to Claudio, has died in the prison that very morning. He suggests postponing Barnadine’s execution and instead presenting the pirate’s head as Claudio’s in order to fool Angelo. The Duke enthusiastically accepts this plan and tells the Provost to send the pirate’s head immediately and conceal Claudio and Barnadine for the next two days. He then decides he will write to Angelo—as the Duke, not as a friar—and announce that he plans to return to the city shortly and schedule a meeting.
Yet again, Shakespeare introduces an unrealistically convenient plot twist to propel his story forward. The well-timed death of the “notorious pirate” is implausible at best, and it certainly makes it difficult for an audience to suspend disbelief. However, it’s hard to deny that the pirate’s introduction is an effective plot point: after all, it prompts the Duke to begin preparations for the play’s denouement.
Isabella arrives and asks if Claudio’s pardon has been delivered. The Duke answers that Claudio’s head has already been sent to Angelo. Isabella rages, and the Duke (whom she thinks is the friar) tells her that the Duke is scheduled to return to town the next day and will meet with Escalus and Angelo at the city gates. Isabella should attend this meeting and make her grievances known. The Duke then gives her a letter and instructs her to take it to Friar Peter.
The Duke’s conduct here again blurs the line between well-intentioned governance and immoral manipulation. No matter how much it furthers his benevolent plans, it is undeniable that lying to Isabella about her brother’s execution constitutes a borderline sadistic move. Is this unethical behavior justified by the end result in the same way that, for example, Mariana’s fornication is?
Lucio enters and tells Isabella he is grieving for her brother. The Duke, Lucio claims, would not have executed him. The disguised Duke again protests Lucio’s mischaracterizations of him, but Lucio goes on to tell a story of how he was once called before the Duke for impregnating a prostitute. Lucio admits to the friar that the allegations were true, but he denied the charges in order to avoid marrying the woman.
In contrast to his deception of Isabella, the Duke’s deception of Lucio here seems entirely warranted. After all, Lucio’s confession amounts to a fairly egregious offense. And if such deceptions were par for the course during the Duke’s rule, as Lucio understood them to be, then perhaps the Duke’s ruse is free of ethical problems.