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Act III, Scene 1
The Duke, disguised as a friar, comes to the prison and talks to a sad Claudio. He tries to comfort the prisoner with talk of the impermanence of life versus the eternity of heaven. When Isabella arrives at the prison to see her brother, the Duke conceals himself and overhears their conversation. Isabella is angry with her brother for suggesting that she yield to the advances of Angelo for the sake of his life. She leaves in a huff.
The Duke, in his disguise, catches up with Isabella; he reveals to her a scheme that will benefit everyone. He narrates to Isabella how Angelo had refused to marry Mariana; he broke off his engagement when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Then the Duke advises Isabella to agree to meet Angelo at night. He will send Mariana in her place. By this trick, Claudio can be saved and Isabella's honor will remain untainted. In addition, the poor Mariana will have an advantage with the one she loves, and the corrupt deputy will be taught a lesson. Isabella agrees to the plan.
The Duke, masquerading as a priest, is convincing, for he conducts himself with the dignity and sanctity of his assumed office. Inspired by his Christian attitudes, he tries to impress upon Claudio that he should not be afraid of death, especially since life is only a passing show, a mere breath. His conversation with the accused is interrupted by the arrival of Isabella. While the Duke eavesdrops on the conversation between brother and sister, he formulates a plan to save both Claudio and Isabella.
The Duke's plan of action, to substitute Mariana for Isabella in Angelo's bed, seems like a cold-hearted plan to many critics; they claim that the Duke does not give due significance to the character of Mariana. But the bed-trick is a ploy, which was well accepted and enjoyed by the Elizabethan audience. The bed-trick will also solve all the problems at the same time. Besides, since Mariana was already betrothed to Angelo, there will be no blemish on her character. Moreover, it is a step that will bring about the ultimate unmasking of Angelo and his devious ways.