Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230
Prince Vincentio was deeply in love with Margaret, a gentlewoman of the court, but his courtship was inhibited by the fact that his father, Duke Alphonso, was also in love with the girl. Since the duke was not a man to tolerate opposition, it was unthinkable for Vincentio to become his father’s open rival. When he disclosed his feelings to his close friend, Count Strozza, his friend encouraged him to carry on his suit in secret.
Meanwhile, the duke was planning a boar hunt near the home of Count Lasso, Margaret’s father. It was not the hunt that interested the duke, but the festivities at Lasso’s house that would follow, for he hoped that he would be able to advance his cause with Margaret during the feast. The duke’s chief ally in this cause and his favorite courtier at the moment was Medice, a base lord noted for his poor apparel and his illiteracy. Contemptuous and suspicious of this upstart, Strozza and Vincentio grasped every opportunity to ridicule him.
When the duke arrived at Lasso’s castle, where elaborate preparations had been made for his entertainment, he was bound as a captive. His men, dressed in costumes, explained to Margaret that he was a captive to her charms. She unbound him and, though she fully understood the duke’s intentions, treated the matter as a compliment and jest.
Acting for his master, Medice sought information about Margaret. Aware of her coolness toward the duke, he believed that she must have another lover. To discover the name of this person, he plied Margaret’s aunt, Cortezza, with sack. For his troubles he got some shameless flirting from the old hag and also a hint that Vincentio might be the guilty person.
During the festivities Vincentio himself was seeking the services of a go-between. Finally, acting on Margaret’s suggestion, he approached her father’s usher, Bassiolo, a pompous fool quite susceptible to Vincentio’s flattery. Vincentio, treating Bassiolo as an equal, embraced him and asked that he be called Vince. He gave the usher a jewel and hinted that Bassiolo could expect a high position when Vincentio became duke. Bassiolo, because of his self-conceit, had no idea that Vincentio was secretly laughing at him. When the prince brought up the subject of exchanging letters with Margaret, the usher immediately volunteered his services.
As arranged, Bassiolo brought Margaret a letter from Vincentio, but she, wishing to implicate the usher, refused it on the grounds of her attachment to the duke. After an argument against her marriage to an old man, Bassiolo forced Vincentio’s letter upon her. When she had read the letter, she told Bassiolo to answer it. His missive, indited in a turgid style, she declined to send, telling him that it sounded too good for a woman’s writing. Her own letter to Vincentio, she dictated to the usher.
Medice, angered by Strozza’s mockery, also felt that Strozza stood in the way of his advancement. He decided, therefore, to get rid of him by having one of his men kill the young count during a hunt. The man succeeded in hitting Strozza with an arrow, but failed to kill him. The doctor who treated him said that he would have to cut the flesh around the wound in order to remove the arrow, but Strozza, in a highly agitated state, refused this operation. Cynanche, his wife, counseled Christian patience, but with no immediate effect.
When Bassiolo brought Margaret’s letter to Vincentio, the prince pretended to believe that it did not really come from her. The usher, responding exactly as Vincentio hoped he would, offered to bring Margaret to prove her authorship. Vincentio, meanwhile, had decided that the only way to forestall his father’s plans was to marry Margaret immediately. When she came, they performed their own marriage ceremony by knitting a scarf around each other’s arms and making their vows. As they were completing their simple rite, news came of the wounding of Strozza.
As a result of his wife’s ministrations, Strozza’s spirits had improved. Freely submitting himself to the will of heaven, he had been relieved of pain. His humility had also brought him new powers of understanding. He predicted that the arrowhead would fall out of his side on the seventh day.
Medice, pursuing his investigations in the meantime, had Cortezza rob Margaret’s jewel box. There the letter from Vincentio was discovered. When the affair was revealed to Duke Alphonso, he thundered enraged threats against his son. Cortezza, believing that she knew the secret trysting place of the two lovers, offered to reveal it, and Medice and the duke made plans to discover Vincentio and Margaret at their next meeting.
Lasso, in the meantime, had also begun to suspect his daughter, and a conversation in which he threatened her and her supposed lover was overheard by Bassiolo. The usher, terrified at the prospects of punishment for his complicity, began to suspect that the prince had been making a fool of him. When he notified Margaret that he intended to reveal the truth to her father, she reminded him that he had railed against the duke, forced Vincentio’s letter upon her, and written a letter for her to Vincentio, a letter still in her possession. Realizing that he was trapped, Bassiolo claimed he had spoken of betrayal only in jest. When Margaret ordered him to arrange a meeting for her with Vincentio, he immediately complied.
Hidden in the room where the two lovers met were Duke Alphonso, Medice, Lasso and Cortezza. Bassiolo, again proud of his part in the intrigue, freely insulted the unseen duke and Medice. At last the eavesdroppers revealed themselves. Vincentio, warned by the usher, made his escape. The duke, saying that his son would suffer death or banishment, ordered Medice to capture him. After Medice had left and the duke had taken time for reflection, he sent a man after Medice to see that Vincentio was not harmed.
Margaret, determined that she would not be forced into marriage with the duke, borrowed from Cortezza an ointment that would cause horrible blisters on the skin. After covering her face with this ointment, she visited Alphonso, revealed her disfigurement, and denounced him for his actions. This blow to the duke was followed quickly by a second one: news was brought that Medice, against his orders, had wounded Vincentio. With Vincentio, when he was brought in, was Strozza, who had recovered, the arrow having fallen from his side as he had predicted. Strozza charged the duke with being a tyrant; and Duke Alphonso, seeing before him the consequences of his deeds, humbly accepted the rebuke and expressed his fervent wish that he could undo his actions. So possible tragedy was averted. Vincentio, although seriously wounded, would recover, and he desired to marry Margaret in spite of her terrible disfigurement. She at first refused his offer because she felt he could only pity her, not love her. But this obstacle was removed when a doctor revealed that he could remove the blisters from her face. Bassiolo, expecting punishment, received instead the commendation of the duke. Medice, after admitting that he had misrepresented himself as a nobleman, was exiled. Duke Alphonso, happy at the turn of events, gave his blessing to the marriage of Vincentio and Margaret.
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