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Lucio and Gentlemenexit[1]


 [79]    Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat,

 [80]    what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am

 [81]    custom-shrunk.

It is an odd scene in many ways. A trio of men have been making crude jokes about venereal disease, one-upping one another by means of insults.  We have heard also that Claudio has been arrested for getting his fiancé pregnant.

The woman who runs the house of prostitution is found standing alone on the stage, everyone else having walked off. She then looks to the audience and says she is suffering for business.  How do we feel for this woman? Is she sympathetic, because she is facing financial difficulty? Is she to be despised because her work leads to the spread of incurable disease?

Pompey who enters is her “tapster”: he is the one who rounds up clients.



 [82]    How now? What’s the news with you?


 [83]    Yonder man is carried to prison.


 [84]    Well, what has he done?

He comes in. She wants to know what is happening. He points to someone who has been arrested. While she has heard about Claudio, she apparently does not yet know that it is Claudio.

This exchange is interesting on two levels. First, it repeats the news of Claudio’s arrest but in a comic rather than serious register. Second, it continues with the irreverent word-play.

The opening scene was formal. We then shift to the lower level of society with the gentlemen and Lucio making dirty jokes. We now shift even lower to the purveyors of the vice which Angelo has been enlisted to stamp out.

The trio had been joking about disease. Now we are hearing jokes about pregnancy.

Another level of joke is the distance between the tapster’s name and profession. He is named after a great Roman statesman. He exists at the criminal end of society.


 [85]    A woman.

[What is the crime? Answer an ambiguous joke.]


 [86]    But what’s his offense?

[Okay, we’re playing this game. I get it he “did” a woman. What was illegal?]


 [87]    Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.

[Another joke. Ask for the name of the offense, another joke. He was poaching fish on private property. That is, he was somewhere doing something he should not have been doing.]


 [88]    What? Is there a maid with child by him?


 [89]    No, but there’s a woman with maid by him.

 [90]    You have not heard of the proclamation, have you?

[She asks for clarification, a third question: Is someone pregnant? Again, we receive a joke answer: He did not get a maid – a virgin – pregnant, but he did make a virgin a “woman”.  We then get new information: Have you heard about the proclamation. This begins a new movement in the scene. We are going to get another level of exposition, but it is given as another round of jokes.]


 [91]    What proclamation, man?


[92]     All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be

[93]     plucked down.


 [94]    And what shall become of those in the city?


 [95]    They shall stand for seed. They had gone down

 [96]    too, but that a wise burgher put in for them.

We again get a joke, but this one with a bite of hypocrisy. The work will only be half-done. A wise burgher, an important citizen allowed some houses to remain.


 [97]    But shall all our houses of resort in the suburbs

 [98]    be pulled down?


 [99]    To the ground, mistress.


 [100]  Why, here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth!

 [101]  What shall become of me?

[What will happen to the city. She sees her work as useful to the common good: what will happen to the commonwealth? She then narrows the focus, to herself.]


 [102]  Come, fear not you. Good counselors lack no

 [103]  clients. Though you change your place, you need

 [104]  not change your trade. I’ll be your tapster still.

 [105]  Courage. There will be pity taken on you. You that

 [106]  have worn your eyes almost out in the service, you

 [107]  will be considered.

Pompey picks up on the ironic theme of her service to the common good. He tells her that she will survive, that he will help her. Also, she will be remembered for her service to the common good. There’s a level of irony here about what constitutes the common good. Should the laws be enforced? Is that the common good? Should the law permit this conduct, is that common good?

The main work of these first two scenes has been exposition, commonly a dull element in a play. The first scene was a brief formal installation of Angelo. We then move to the low and then lower still

The first scene provided the exposition as to what was happening at the level of government. It is set forth with an air formality. The change in the city is then marked at the lowest level in a series of jokes.

This moment of extended puns and jokes then turn to something deathly serious and the first true poetry in the play

Enter Provost, Claudio, Juliet, ⌜andOfficers.


[108]   What’s to do here, Thomas Tapster? Let’s

[109]   withdraw.


[110]   Here comes Signior Claudio, led by the Provost

 [111]  to prison. And there’s Madam Juliet.

Bawd and Pompeyexit.

Again, we have exposition and explanation. The audience needs to be told who is entering the stage. Their desire to exit the scene also makes internal sense: the law is approaching the lawless.

Claudioto Provost

 [112]  Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to th’ world?

 [113]  Bear me to prison, where I am committed.


 [114]  I do it not in evil disposition,

 [115]  But from Lord Angelo by special charge.


 [116]  Thus can the demigod Authority

 [117]  Make us pay down for our offense, by weight,

 [118]  The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will;

 [119]  On whom it will not, so; yet still ’tis just.

Enter Lucio and Second Gentleman.

Unlike the coarse jesting of the “gentlemen” and Lucio, Clauido and the Provost speak in verse. Claudio then provides the first poetry of the play. The government officials spoke in verse, but were merely functional in their language. The low characters were quite clever in the speech, but to no purpose beyond insulting one-another and making jokes.

Claudio’s first words are in verse, are eloquent and insightful. His speech points beyond the bare functionality of the characters. Up until this point in the play, the speech of the characters has little reference beyond the worlds of the characters. But Claudio makes an observation which is true within the world of the play, but is also true for the audience.

It is worth unpacking his observation:

[116]   Thus can the demigod Authority

[117]   Make us pay down for our offense, by weight,

[118]   The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will;

[119]   On whom it will not, so; yet still ’tis just.

Authority has the power of a god. By referring to the one who exercises the authority of the law as a demigod, Claudio alludes to John 10:35.  If we cross the law, the one in authority can make us pay the entire debt incurred by transgression: by weight, the value of the infraction. The law comes down like the words of heaven.

The enforcement of the law can be arbitrary; “on whom it will, it will.”

But one suffers the enforcement of the law cannot complain. It is just if I have broken the law.

But there is something else in these lines. The enforcement does seem extreme and unjust.  Consider the opening:

Claudioto Provost

 [112]  Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to th’ world?

 [113]  Bear me to prison, where I am committed.


 [114]  I do it not in evil disposition,

 [115]  But from Lord Angelo by special charge.

Lord Angelo, in his new authority is imposing an excessive sentence. Claudio is not merely punished but is also shame.

In this respect I hear an echo of the Hephaestus in the first scene of Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. Zeus has just gained authority among the gods and enacts a peculiarly harsh penalty upon Prometheus:

“Therefore, on this joyless rock you must stand sentinel, erect, sleepless, your knee unbent. And many a groan and unavailing lament you shall utter; for the heart of Zeus is hard, [35] and everyone is harsh whose power is new.”

Aeschylus. Aeschylus, with an English Translation by Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph. D. in Two Volumes. 1. Prometheus Bound. Edited by Herbert Weir Smyth, Harvard University Press, 1926.

This is precisely how Lord Angelo is portrayed in the play. The one who has just gained authority is anxious to impose his will make his authority known. It thus common for such authority to exact the law without wisdom or remorse.