The Duchess of Malfi Act 1, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
by John Webster

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Act 1, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Ferdinand: the Duke of Calabria, and brother to the Cardinal and the Duchess

Silvio: a Lord who leaves for Milan in act 1; he later gives counsel to the Cardinal

Roderigo: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court

Grisolan: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court

The Duchess: the Duchess of Malfi, a widow who is the sister of Ferdinand and the Cardinal

Cariola: the Duchess’s servant who is the sole witness to the marriage of the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio

Julia: Castruchio’s wife and the Cardinal’s mistress

Castruchio: a Lord who is married to Julia

Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as the Lords Castruchio, Silvio, Roderigo, and Grisolan reveal through their jocular conversation that Antonio has won the court’s jousting competition. Castruchio advises Ferdinand not to become a soldier because whenever a ruler becomes a soldier, his realm becomes unsettled. Ferdinand answers by making jibes against Castruchio’s wife, Julia. Ferdinand promises to visit Lord Silvio in Milan shortly, and the Duchess, the Cardinal, Cariola, and Julia enter. In a lengthy aside, Antonio tells Delio that the Cardinal is “a melancholy churchman” full of schemes and jealousy, who threw away a possible Papacy by bestowing bribes, and calls Ferdinand a similarly evasive and lying hypocrite. However, Antonio says their sister, the Duchess of Malfi, is meek, very beautiful, and virtuous, and he adds that she “lights the time to come.”

Ferdinand assigns Bosola to keep the Duchess’s horse, and after Silvio and all the others leave, he comments that the Cardinal “could never abide you” because, Bosola says, he “was in my debt.” Ferdinand, remarking that Bosola’s “inclination to shed blood rides post” as a predictor of his performance in the role he is about to assume, tells Bosola to serve as an intelligencer and spy on the Duchess to keep her, “a young widow,” from marrying again. Fearing that he will be forced to do evil in that role, Bosola agrees to it only because he has already been assigned to keep her horse. Ferdinand advises Bosola, in his new role, to “keep your old garb of melancholy” in order to “gain access to private lodgings.” Bosola leaves after vowing “I am your creature,” and the Cardinal and Ferdinand then tell the Duchess not to marry. Though the Duchess calls it “terrible good counsel,” the Cardinal fears she may “privately be married under the eaves of night.”

The Cardinal leaves after warning the Duchess that “the marriage night is the entrance into some prison,” but she suspects the brothers’ “speech,” as she calls it, was so smoothly done only because they had practiced it. After giving the Duchess a warning of his own, Ferdinand leaves, and the Duchess, promptly proving their fears are well-grounded, sets forth on her “dangerous venture” of marriage. Antonio comes forth, and after some talk of accounts, the Duchess and Antonio talk of “the sacrament of marriage.” Antonio dismisses fatherhood as giving “weak delight,” but the Duchess puts her wedding ring on his finger. She speaks of the difficulty aristocrats and royalty face in finding love, but she, “a young widow that claims you for her husband,” approves his account with a “Quietus est,” freeing him from his debt to her. So, with her lady Cariola as witness, the Duchess marries Antonio, making a “sacred Gordian, which let violence never untwine.” They go to bed, but she says they shall “lay a naked sword between us” to “keep us chaste.” Cariola closes the act by commenting on the Duchess’s “fearful madness” and says she owes her “much of pity.”

Castruchio’s warning that Ferdinand’s hunger for war was dangerous seems to strike a chord with Ferdinand, who immediately begins to jibe him about the loose morals of his wife, Julia. The play has begun to explore the issues of courtly illusion, proper sexual behavior, courtly morals, and truth. Who can be trusted in...

(The entire section is 1,236 words.)