Angelo begins the Act with a peachy conceit:
We must not make a scarecrow of the law,Escalus fails to rouse mercy in Angelo about Claudio, who, after all "had a most noble father!" (II.i.7). He warns Angelo "Whether you had not sometime in your life / Err'd in this point which not you censure him" (II.i.14-15). Angelo distinguished between temptation and falling in sin, and Claudio will be executed tomorrow morning at 9:00. The Provost is instructed to allow Claudio an confessor, "For that's the utmost of his pilgrimage" (II.i.36).
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror. (II.i.1-4)
Constable Elbow brings in Pompey (a clown figure) and Froth, a gentleman customer. Elbow suffers from "Dogberry Syndrome" (from Much Ado About Nothing): malapropisms. So between his indecipherable accusations and Pompey's tedious, drawn-out blab, the nature of the offense never becomes entirely clear, except that Pompey is a pimp at Mistress Overdone's establishment and Mistress Elbow is involved somehow. Angelo brusquely excuses himself, leaving the matter to Escalus and "Hoping you'll find good cause to whip them all" (II.i.137). Escalus continues with the proceedings, as Elbow confuses the terms "respected" with "suspected" and "Hannibal" with "cannibal." Eventually Escalus dismisses Froth with a warning and continues the discussion with Pompey, who perceives the complexity of trying to legislate morality. Ultimately Escalus dismisses Pompey too with warnings. Pompey says,
I thank your worship for your good counsel; [aside] but I shall follow it as the flesh and fortune shall better determine.Then Escalus questions Elbow (and clearly his competence) and promises to find a replacement for this constable. Escalus invites the Justice home for dinner and laments the coming death of Claudio.
Whip me? No, no, let carman whip his jade,
The valiant heart's not whipt out of his trade.
This "travesty of a courtroom in Act II, scene i, could only have been created by someone who first understood the law before effectively making a mockery of it.... Shakespeare also shows familiarity with obscure legislation, such as Mariana's right to dower upon the death of her newlywed husband Angelo for treason (V.i.422-425)" (Farina 37).
The Provost double-checks with Angelo about the execution order, and
Angelo is angry about having to repeat it. Claudio's sister, Isabella, is
announced, and she enters with Lucio. She asks, à la contemporary
pop psych asininity, that the fault be distinguished from the person.
Some of her statements are "very Angelo-like" (Asimov 641).
Angelo thinks this is absurd, so Isabella is ready to give up, but Lucio
prods her to entreat him more, on her knees even: "You are too cold"
(II.ii.45). She engages Angelo in a discussion about mercy, just without
the authoritative command of Portia in Merchant. Angelo claims,
"It is the law, not I, condemn your brother" (II.ii.80). "The law hath
not been dead, though it hath slept" (II.ii.90). Isabella notes, similar
to Sonnet 94, "O it is excellent / To have a giant's strength; but it is
tyrannous / To use it like a giant" (II.ii.107-109). She advises a
soul-searching, and Angelo, aside, acknowledges, "She speaks, and 'tis /
Such sense that my sense breeds with it" (II.ii.141-142). Isabella says,
"Hark how I'll bribe you," meaning, as she'll explain, with prayers. But
"'How, bribe me?' cries Angelo, startled by a word that fits with deadly
accuracy a criminal thought he has not dared confess to himself" (Goddard,
"Thrilling theatrical tension develops as she plumbs deeper and deeper reserves of eloquence in face of the sustained obduracy with which Angelo ... insists that her brother must die" (Wells 227). Angelo tells her to return tomorrow morning. "He is attracted not so much by the reasoning as by the reasoner" (Asimov 642). When she leaves, his soliloquy conveys his stirred passion for her, which troubles him.
The Duke disguised as a friar volunteers his services to the Provost at the prison. He also discusses with Juliet the issue of repentence for the sin with Claudio, and establishes that the "most offenseful act / Was mutually committed" (II.iii.26-27). The Duke as friar will visit Claudio next.
Angelo soliloquizes again about his undoing by Isabella. Like Claudius in Hamlet, he cannot pray sincerely, and "The state, whereon I studied, / Is like a good thing, being often read, / Grown sere and tedious" (II.iv.7-9). When Isabella arrives and asks if he has changed his mind about her brother, Angelo says that Claudio will die unless she should agree to his indecent proposal:
Which had you rather, that the most just lawAt first not seeming to understand the seriousness of his meaning, Isabella chats about the body vs. the soul. Eventually she insists that her brother's physical death is less concern than her spiritual doom. She threatens to expose this vile proposition, but Angelo convinces her no one will take her word over his, and that Claudio will also be tortured. So she should think about that and return tomorrow with her answer. "The laguage of weighing and measuring, of scales of justice, so present throughout the play, now becomes overweighing, tipping the balance" (Garber 571). Isabella goes to tell Claudio there is no hope, convinced that her brother would gladly undergo twenty beheadings before accepting "such abhorr'd pollution" to her (II.iv.183).
Now took your brother's life, or, to redeem him,
Give up your body to such sweet incleanness
As she that he hath stain'd? (II.iv.52-55)