The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

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Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Old Lady: speaks with Bosola about her makeup and the Duchess’s pregnancy

Forobosco: the keeper of the key to the park gate

Summary
Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as Bosola and Castruchio briefly talk about the qualifications to be a courtier just prior to the Old Lady entering. Bosola comments on her foul makeup before giving his meditation on the deformed nature of man. He goes on to reveal his suspicion of the Duchess’s pregnancy in a brief monologue before Antonio and Delio arrive. Bosola tells Antonio that Antonio’s ancestry is worth nothing before presenting the Duchess with some “apricocks.” Upon eating one of the fruits, she falls ill, and Delio advises Antonio to make use “of this forc’d occasion” to enable the Duchess’s removal to give birth by saying Bosola has poisoned the fruits, and the Duchess will privately take her own “prepar’d antidote” for the poison.

As scene 2 opens, Bosola is talking with the Old Lady about the Duchess’s pregnancy. But Antonio comes in and gives the command to “shut up the court gates” on the Duchess’s orders. Four thousand ducats worth of her jewels are missing, and “she is very sick.” Cariola promptly brings Antonio his newborn son.

Analysis
The courtly mire deepens with the talk between Bosola and Castruchio on the way to “be taken for an eminent courtier,” not to actually be an eminent courtier. Bosola advises Castruchio to pursue rigorous duplicity and earn the hatred of the commoners. Bosola, though, knows what lies beneath the courtly mask: he disdains the Old Lady’s makeup, which merely covers up inward decay and disease. Bosola claims we are “made sweet” only upon death. However, the Duchess’s outward sickness houses a burgeoning life inside her: she is pregnant, and he gives her apricots to discover that fact. But before Bosola does, he tells Antonio he wishes to “be simply honest” rather than “a great wise fellow.” The truth of this statement is open to judgment, given Bosola’s scheming thus far. In any case, Bosola reiterates his emphasis on the unimportance of external qualities; not just makeup, but lineage as well, are of little worth, and princes are motivated by the same desires and fears as anyone else. The Duchess, in sympathy with Bosola’s sentiment, wonders why courtiers should have to take off their hats before the King. Antonio, who, of course, is of lesser status than the Duchess, begs to differ; he may be more conscious and respectful of such ways...

(The entire section is 653 words.)