Act One, Scene One
The plays opens in its primary setting, the "presence-chamber" of the Duchess's palace in Malfi, Italy, in the sixteenth century.
At the Duchess’s palace, Delio welcomes his friend Antonio home from a trip to France, and asks him how he liked it there. Antonio admits his admiration for the French prince, who had rooted out the sycophants and corrupt officials in order to prohibit corruption from spreading through the rest of the country. Antonio hears Bosolo arriving with the Cardinal, and jokes to Delio how Bosola rails against against vices only because he cannot afford to commit them himself.
As they enter, Bosola laments to the Cardinal how he (Bosola) has not been fairly rewarded for a service he performed for the Cardinal and which cost him a prison sentence in the galleys. In response, the Cardinal complains about Bosola’s dishonest character and leaves. Bosola complains more to Antonio, describing how both the Cardinal and his brother, the Amalfi duke Ferdinand, are corrupt and unjust for having treated him improperly.
Delio tells Antonio that Bosola served seven years in the galleys for having committed a notorious murder, and the rumor was that the Cardinal did indeed commission him to do it. Antonio says it’s too bad that the Cardinal won’t give him Bosola due, as this will likely “poison all his goodness” (1.1.72).
Act One, Scene Two
The second scene plays continuously, without any stage interruption.
Delio reminds Antonio that the latter had promised to tell the former about the figures who populate the Amalfi court, their personalities and moral characters. Antonio agrees, but they are distracted by the entrance of several characters.
Almost immediately, Ferdinand enters with Silvio, Castruccio, Roderigo, and Grisolan. Ferdinand is informed that Antonio had won the most jousting contests and so rewards him, lamenting that they can only play games instead of fighting in a real war. Castruccio tells him he thinks it best for princes to send deputies to fight in their stead, since when rulers fight themselves, it breeds discontent at home. Castruccio further insinuates that his wife had been less than faithful while he was gone away, and Ferdinand continues to pun on his cuckoldry throughout the conversation. They further discuss Roderigo’s new horse, and Ferdinand compliments Antonio’s riding. The Cardinal enters with the Duchess and her lady, Cariola, and the three distract all of the group save Antonio and Delio.
In private, Antonio gives Delio a summary of the Cardinal and Ferdinand’s characters. He says the Cardinal’s rumored bravery and light-heartedness is superficial, and that he is truly a melancholy and corrupt man who will destroy anyone he is jealous of, so much so that he tried to bribe his way to becoming pope. He says Ferdinand is never what he seems, has a “perverse and turbulent nature,” (1.1.160), is vengeful, and uses the law to destroy people at will and for his own gains.
Lastly, he describes their sister, the Duchess, as a great conversationalist, a beautiful woman, and a completely virtuous person. Delio accuses him of overstating her assets, but Antonio responds, “All her particular worth grows to this sum:/She stains the time past: lights the time to come--” (1.1.213-4). Cariola brings message to Antonio, to attend to the Duchess in half an hour's time.
Ferdinand asks the Duchess if she would take Bosola on as manager of her horses on his recommendation, and she accepts. In private, the Cardinal then tells Ferdinand to use Bosola as an informer as to their sister's behavior. When Ferdinand suggests they use Antonio instead of Bosola, the Cardinal protests that Antonio is far too honest for such an assignment. They see Bosola approaching, and the Cardinal leaves to avoid him.
Ferdinand tells Bosola that the Cardinal doesn’t trust him. Bosola warns that to be distrusted without cause can lead one to actually deceive. Changing the subject, Ferdinand offers him gold to spy on the Duchess, explaining that she is recently widowed and they do not want her to remarry; he does not give a reason for their concern. Bosola tries to return the money because he does not want to be a spy, but Ferdinand tells him he has already arranged Bosola the post of horse manager, and that to refuse would appear ungrateful. Bosola begrudgingly accepts and leaves.
Act One, Scene Three
The next scene has Ferdinand, the Duchess, Cardinal and Cariola on stage.
The Cardinal and Ferdinand prepare to leave the Duchess, and tell her that in their absence, she must be responsible for acting appropriately. They warn her not to be tempted by a man, as it would be shameful for a widow to remarry. The Duchess protests that she has no intention of marrying again, but they tell her that’s what widows always say before they forget their vow and remarry anyway. After a few more warnings, they leave.
The Duchess ponders to herself whether her brothers’ warnings should worry her, but decides that she will conversely let her fear spur her into action. She tells her lady Cariola of her intent, and insists that trusting Cariola with that secret is of greater value than trusting the maid with her life. Cariola vows that she will guard the Duchess’s secret carefully. The Duchess tells her to hide behind the arras where she can overhear the scene to follow. Antonio enters to fulfill his appointment with the Duchess.
The Duchess asks Antonio to take dictation of what she says--she wants to write her will. They discuss the institution of marriage, and Antonio says that he thinks it is either heaven or hell; there is no in between. Impressed, she gives Antonio her wedding ring by way of proposal, insisting that her social status would prohibit him from wooing her, and so must she woo him. He accepts, and then Cariola reveals herself. Because she has witnessed the exchange, it is a binding ceremony.
The Duchess excuses Cariola so she can retreat to her marriage bed with Antonio--she tells him that he can lay a sword between them to keep them chaste if he likes, but she wishes to discuss how to get her brothers to accept their marriage--”We’ll only lie, and talk together, and plot/T’appease my humorous kindred” (1.1.570-1). When they leave together, Cariola wonders aloud whether her mistress is taken with greatness or madness.
The opening lines of The Duchess of Malfi set the tone for the struggle between good and evil that is to follow. Antonio, who we learn later in the scene is, by the Cardinal’s own judgment, too honest to spy on the Duchess, praises the French court for its lack of sycophants and corruption. Then the Cardinal and Bosola enter, and Antonio tells Delio that Bosola “rails at those things”--vices--”which he wants” (1.1.25), so not only is his appearance of virtue false, it is hypocritical and based around self-interest. The audience quickly realizes that these characters are the antithesis of the virtues Antonio praised as reflected in the French court. Further, in his private conversation, we learn immediately that Antonio is an archetypal man of virtue, one who not only lives honestly but esteems it in others. This analysis is validated throughout the play, and makes him something of an anomaly in this twisted court.
Antonio’s character sketches to Delio present a fuller picture of the Cardinal and Ferdinand’s evil--the Cardinal is cold and calculating, Ferdinand hot-tempered and deranged. There is nothing to temper these judgments--not one virtue is named for either character. In contrast, Antonio sees the Duchess as “right noble,” “full of rapture,” “divine,” and completely virtuous. Though this view of the Duchess will be complicated somewhat later in the play, the beginning of the first scene lays the ground for what will essentially become a battle of evil trying to corrupt and destroy good.
It also quickly becomes clear that Bosola does not fit perfectly into this dichotomy. Antonio’s first description of him, combined with Delio’s information that he committed a notorious murder, would seem to place him firmly on the side of the brothers, but Antonio himself quickly says, “I have heard/He’s very valiant” (1.1.70-1), and worries that the Cardinal’s mistreatment of him will “poison all his goodness” (1.1.72). So Antonio, at least, believes him to have some goodness. Thus from the beginning the audience is given hints that Bosola is an enigma, and will represent the battleground where the fight of good versus evil will play out.
This contradiction is quickly made manifest when Ferdinand recruits Bosola to be his informer. When Ferdinand hands him gold, Bosola’s immediate reaction is to ask “Whose throat must I cut?” (1.1.240). That he immediately assumes he is being hired to murder says much about his character, but so does the fact that he says “must.” Until Act Five, Bosola’s defining trait, besides his cynical melancholy, is his unflinching loyalty to Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Here we see the first hint of this--having been handed a piece of gold, he already feels compelled to do whatever Ferdinand asks, whether he wants to or not. Considering that he remains not only uncompensated but also unthanked for whatever the murder he had previously committed for the Cardinal, the loyalty is all the more befuddling and interesting.
Bosola's situation is further complicated when he learns he is being hired not to murder, but to spy. This seems like a significantly less evil task, especially as Bosola has no particular loyalty to the Duchess, yet he is dismayed. Even though he has already murdered for money, he declares in reference to the coins, “should I take these they’d take me to hell” (1.1.257). Yet even against such strong reservations, Bosola gives in -- “I am your creature” (1.1.278). And “creature,” with its connotations of unthinking loyalty and inhumanity, is just the right word.
The distinction between Bosola and his masters has in it a touch of class commentary. First of all, the depravity represented by Ferdinand the Cardinal is most contemptible because of the hypocrisy their positions add to it. That the Duke and the religious figure, both authority figures of 'high' birth, would be the most ugly ensures an ugly world beneath them. In the same way Antonio praised the French prince for inspiring goodness through his realm through his positive example, so is the poor example of the Malfi authorities somewhat responsible for the depravity of their court. In contrast, Bosola's depravity or evil is conditioned, as discussed above. He believes himself to have less agency than they do, which helps explain Antonio's view of him as one who is valiant but whose valiance could be compromised if he is treated poorly. In some ways, Bosola is the central character of the text - Webster lists him first in the cast list, a rare occurrence in the day for characters of low rank - and he survives longer than the Duchess, ostensibly the heroine. This fact further suggests the way that questions of class and rank, especially in contrast to an individual's natural, moral virtues, provide a means to understand the play's central themes.
The dialogue between the Duchess and her brothers contains much foreshadowing. Most obviously, it reveals their desire to control her, and their incredible degree of concern over her marriage situation. A threat of violence hangs over the scene, with Ferdinand’s pulling out a knife--”This was my father’s poniard” (1.1.322)--and the Cardinal’s warning, “Wisdom begins at the end: remember it” (1.1.319), which rings ominously with its reference to the end of life.
This scene also hints, however, that the Duchess will not obey her brothers blindly. She uses her diamond analogy to argue that women who remarry are not so easily condemned or depraved, and when they ignore her, we see her impatience when she demands of them, “Will you hear me?” (1.1.292). The practiced rhythm of their lecture, which she points out to Ferdinand, suggests that the filial dynamic is long-gestating, and suggests that her willfulness to disobey them might have in it some share of petulance as well. Of course, even if this is the case, what is a game to her will soon be revealed as much more to them.
Her defiance is made much clearer once her brothers leave. Not only will she not be dissuaded from her planned marriage, she will “make them [her] low footsteps” (1.1.334), using them, in effect, to do what she wants in direct opposition to them. This is real defiance, not just of her brothers but of societal and religious mores of the time, and it is a first look at the Duchess’s great vitality, which is further reflected when she takes the lead in the proposal scene.
The marriage scene, in addition to contrasting the Duchess’s vivid personality with Antonio’s rather passive one, also foreshadows the tragedy to come. It opens with the Duchess telling Antonio she wants to write her will, immediately evoking the thought of death. The Duchess’s metaphors and allusions, too, often invoke death--she is not an alabaster statue kneeling at her husband’s tomb; she refers to her marriage to Antonio as a Gordian knot, a knot that could not be untied unless cut with “violence” (:470); and she says they can put an unsheathed sword between them in bed to keep them chaste, which introduces a weapon into their intimacy. Thus while this end of the act is largely happy, Webster gives the audience plenty of warning that such happiness will not last. The contradictions in the Duchess's character - between her valiant refusal to bow before social mores and her willfulness on directly and imprudently countering the protestations of her brothers - are summarized in Cariola's final soliloquy, which questions whether the Duchess is a model of greatness or simply a madwoman.