Breakfast illustration of bacon, eggs, and coffee with the silhouetted images of the Duchess' evil brothers, one on each side

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

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Act 2, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

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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.


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 to pay homage than she is. The pungency of Bosola’s views on human nature is brought to bear by his comment that the apricots were fertilized with horse dung. The scene closes with more double-dealing: Delio advises Antonio to “make use then of this forc’d occasion” of the duchess’s illness to accuse Bosola of poisoning and thereby give cover for her to give birth. It seems worth noting, though, that Antonio is stunned by this advice: he has not learned the courtly art of taking advantage of opportunities for scheming as they arise.

Bosola does not say if the “more precious reward” he claims inspires women to give entertainment to men is sexual pleasure, money, power and status, or birth. Given the duchess’s circumstances, birth is the most likely, but sexual pleasure is also possible. The theme of sexual play and mischief arises again in the servants’ joking about a cod-piece. But Antonio needs to claim the duchess’s jewels have gone missing in order to clear the way for her to secretly give birth in her bedchamber. His motivation may be honorable, but his means are not. Delio, in assuring Antonio that the trust placed in him is guaranteed and that Antonio should not heed superstitions, affirms the clarity of an honest, unguarded life unclouded by duplicity or artifice.

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Act 1, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis


Act 2, Scenes 3–5 Summary and Analysis