The Duchess of Malfi Summary and Analysis
by John Webster
Act Two, Scene One
Bosola mocks Castruccio for being a fool and having unrealized ambitions of being a great courtier. An Old Lady enters, and Bosola criticizes her ugliness and mocks her attempts to mask it with makeup. She and Castruccio leave, and Bosola muses on his suspicions that the Duchess is pregnant. He has bought the first apricots of the season, which he will use to try to find out if she is indeed pregnant. The apricots were believed to induce labor.
Delio and Antonio enter. Antonio has just told Delio of his secret marriage, and emphasizes that Delio must never breath a word of it to anyone, after which insistence they join Bosola. Antonio accuses Bosola of trying too hard not to appear “puffed up” (2.1.80-1) with his promotion, and of continually putting forth a mean and melancholy appearance instead.
The Duchess, out of breath, enters with her ladies, and asks Antonio if she has gotten fat. Bosola offers her the apricots, and the Duchess eats them. She immediately says they have made her ill and goes off to her bedroom. Antonio and Delio discuss how best to cover up that she has gone into labor, and Delio recommends saying that Bosola has poisoned her with the apricots.
Act Two, Scene Two
In a different location, Bosola muses to himself that the Duchess’s reaction to the apricots means she is almost certainly pregnant. The Old Lady enters in a rush, and after Bosola berates her and women in general, she rushes off, presumably to act as midwife to the Duchess.
Antonio, Delio, Roderigo and Grisolan enter. Antonio tells them to shut and lock the court gates, claiming some of the Duchess's jewels are missing. A group of gossipy servants enter, and one reports a rumor that the Duchess has a Swiss mercenary in her bedroom with her. Antonio reports that, due to the Duchess's illness and the theft of her jewels, she would like all the officers to lock themselves in their rooms and send her keys to their chests and doors. They agree, and everyone leaves except Antonio and Delio.
Antonio tells Delio to go to Rome to keep watch over the Duchess’s brothers. Though he trusts Delio, he is fearful, and Delio tells him it is just superstition and “Old friends (like old swords) still are trusted best.” (2.2.87). He leaves.
Cariola enters carrying the new baby, a son, and the new father rejoices.
Act Two, Scene Three
Outside the palace that night, Bosola enters with a lantern. He thinks he heard a woman shriek from the direction of the Duchess’s chambers, and is made more suspicious by Antonio's order to confine the officers to their rooms.
Antonio enters with a candle and his sword drawn, having heard someone. When he realizes it is Bosola, he asks if he heard a noise from the Duchess’s chamber. Bosola denies hearing anything, and offers that he is ignoring the curfew order solely because he wanted to pray in peace.
Antonio claims he is calculating a horoscope to figure out who stole the jewels, and tells Bosola that he is the main suspect, as his apricots seem to have poisoned the Duchess at the same time that her jewels went missing. Bosola denies his guilt, and insults Antonio.
Antonio gets a sudden nose bleed, which is considered a bad omen. He tells Bosola not to pass the Duchess’s chambers on his way back to his room and leaves. Bosola finds a piece of paper Antonio dropped, which contains the infant’s horoscope--it warns of a short life and violent death. Bosola knows now that the Duchess has had a child and that Antonio is in her confidence, but he doesn’t realize Antonio is the father. He plans to send a letter to the brothers in Rome in the morning.
Act Two, Scene Four
At the Cardinal’s palace in Rome, Julia, the Cardinal’s mistress and Castruccio’s wife, explains how she convinced her husband to let her go to Rome without him. Julia worries about the Cardinal’s constancy, but he dismisses her concern as evidence of her own guilt over her infidelity. A servant enters to tell Julia that someone carrying post from Malfi desires to see her.
Delio, one of her former suitors, enters, and offers Julia money as a favor. Another servant enters to tell Julia that her husband is in Rome and has delivered a letter to Ferdinand that has left him in a foul mood. After the servant leaves, Delio asks Julia to be his mistress. She says she will ask her husband—he doesn’t know if she’s joking or not--and leaves. Delio fears Castruccio’s delivery of bad news to Ferdinand means that Antonio and the Duchess have been found out.
Act Two, Scene Five
In a different location in the Roman palace, Ferdinand, carrying a letter, tells the Cardinal the news of the Duchess—he knows only that she is pregnant, not that she is married. He confesses that the knowledge has made him crazy. The two men rue her wantonness and the infidelity of women in general, but the Cardinal keeps his cool, while chiding Ferdinand for his extreme emotional reactions. Ferdinand threatens everyone—the Duchess, the unknown father, the child, even himself and the Cardinal—and then retires, saying he won’t take any action until he figures out who the father is.
Act 2 Analysis
Act Two shows a new side to the Duchess that will become thematically very important--that of a reproductive figure and mother. This side of her stands in opposition to what her brothers would have her be, which is a monument, chaste, “alabaster,” representing a good reputation and nothing else. When she appears on stage, she is out of breath, and Bosola tells the audience that she
Is sick o’days, she pukes, her stomach seethes,He is obsessed with her physicality, and soon afterwards she eats apricots greedily. Considering they have been ripened in horse dung, the apricots stand as a strong image of the Earth, she is now characterized not as "alabaster" or as the untouchable saint Antonio described in Act I, but as a woman very much in touch with the physical Earth. Her love for Antonio and its resulting pregnancy has brought her closer to nature.
The fins of her eyelids look most teeming blue,
She wanes i’th’ cheek, and waxes fat i’th’ flank (2.1.60-2).
The Duchess’s attempts to hide her pregnancy are a minor example of a theme that is significant in Act Two, that of disguising, of the contrast between being and seeming. In almost all cases in the play, this theme deals with the disguising of evil, and only with the Duchess and her family is this not the case. Rather, their disguising is necessitated by the evil of the characters around them and the way that eveil has warped the world. So depraved is the world that the truly good characters are forced to disguise their love and domestic bliss to protect them.
Bosola himself, who later wears multiple disguises, and as spy is constantly pretending, rails against having to disguise oneself in this act. For instance, he mocks the Old Lady for wearing makeup, leading him to scornfully meditate on how man delights “to hide” his true form “in rich tissue” (2.1.53-4). Immediately after, however, the audience sees his two-faces in stark clarity as he tricks the Duchess into eating apricots while showing his real motivations in his asides. Webster's use of asides, hidden characters, and disguises creates several levels of dramatic irony throughout the play that both raise the dramatic tension and elucidate his pessimistic view of human nature.
Superstition is a motif throughout the play, and it is used in Act Two to both foreshadow what is to come and to further develop the characters. At the end of the second scene, Delio says, “How superstitiously we mind our evils” (2.2.73) before listing possible bad omens, but though he uses the first person plural, in this case the only character showing superstition is Antonio.
In the very next scene, one of the bad omens Delio had just listed comes to pass--Antonio gets a nose bleed. Though he pretends that he is not affected by it, separating himself from “One that were superstitious” (2.3.43), his repeated insistence that “it merely comes by chance” (2.3.44), “mere accident” (2.3.47), shows that he is trying to convince and reassure himself because of how terribly the omen disturbs him. Further, this incident occurs while he is divining a horoscope for his son--another superstitious act.
The audience’s knowledge that Bosola is a spy on the verge of discovering the Duchess and Antonio’s secret makes these superstitions more ominous, but Antonio’s superstitious nature itself is not meant to be admired, as it makes him appear weak and highlights his ineffectual nature. This also further distinguishes Antonio’s and the Duchess’s natures when, later in Act Three, the Duchess calls Cariola a “superstitious fool” (3.2.321), showing her disdain for such things.
Act Two takes us from the pregnant Duchess and her worried husband in Malfi, all the way to Rome and the Cardinal’s sinful relationship with the married Julia, and finally to the evil brothers’ reactions to what they believe is the Duchess’s deep shame. This final scene strikingly presents the contrast between the characters, fully clarifying what each brother signifies—the hot-tempered Ferdinand, the cold and calculating Cardinal.
Both brothers mention blood and use blood imagery throughout the scene. However, they use it very differently, in ways that represent the difference between their reactions to their sister’s behavior. The Cardinal says, “Shall our blood,/The royal blood of Aragon and Castile,/Be thus attainted?” (2.5.21-3). Here, he means blood metaphorically, as a stand-in for lineage, for family pride and honor, for rank. When Ferdinand speaks of purging “infected blood, such blood as hers” (2.5.26), he is not being figurative--he truly wants to spill her blood. His attitude is further emphasized when he says it is only her “whore’s blood” (2.5.48) “that shall quench [his] wild-fire” (2.5.47). He believes his rage can only be calmed by the spilling of her blood. Fire imagery is connected to Ferdinand throughout the play, and in this scene alone he connects his fire to her blood twice. Earlier, he says that only fire can purge the infection in her blood. These two lines together show that he has already determined she must die—to cure her, his anger must spill her blood, and to cure his anger, her blood must spill. Forgiveness, clearly, is impossible.
One is left to wonder about the sexual nature of Ferdinand's intense obsession with his sister, who is his twin. Where the Cardinal - an ambitious man who has used his conniving skills to try and be Pope, according to Antonio - thinks in terms of wealth and Earthly protection, Ferdinand has a moral tone in his disdain for his sister's impurity. Though incest is never mentioned explicitly, it is hardly a rare theme for Jacobean dramatists and can provide an interesting lens into the motivations that drive Ferdinand, as well as a lens into the theme of repression that equally helps understand the Duchess's desire to declare her independence through her marriage.
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