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The Duchess of Malfi

Act 1 Scene 1

The Court at Malfi, Italy
The year: 1504 

DELIO: You are welcome to your country, dear Antonio.
You have been long in France, and you return
A very formal Frenchman in your habit.
How do you like the French court?

ANTONIO: I admire it.
In seeking to reduce both state and people
To a fix’d order, their judicious king
Begins at home; quits first his royal palace
Of flattering sycophants, of dissolute
And infamous persons, which he sweetly terms
His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven;
Considering duly that a prince’s court
Is like a common fountain whence should flow
Pure silver drops in general, but if’t chance
Some curs’d example poison’t near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread.
And what is’t makes this blessed government
But a most provident council, who dare freely
Inform him the corruption of the times?
Though some o’th’ court hold it presumption
To instruct princes what they ought to do,
It is a noble duty to inform them
What they ought to foresee. Here comes Bosola,
The only court-gall. Yet I observe his railing
Is not for simple love of piety;
Indeed he rails at those things which he wants,
Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud,
Bloody, or envious, as any man
If he had means to be so. Here’s the Cardinal.


BOSOLA: I do haunt you still.


BOSOLA: I have done you
Better service than to be slighted thus.
Miserable age, where only the reward
Of doing well is the doing of it!

CARDINAL: You enforce your merit too much.

BOSOLA: I fell into the galleys in your service,
Where for two years together, I wore
Two towels instead of a shirt, with a knot on the shoulder
After the fashion of a Roman mantle.
Slighted thus? I will thrive some way.
Black-birds fatten best in hard weather;
Why not I in these dog-days?

CARDINAL: Would you could become honest.

BOSOLA: With all your divinity do but direct me
The way to it. I have known many travel far for it,
And yet return as arrant knaves as they went forth,
Because they carried themselves always along with them.


Are you gone?
Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil,
But this great fellow were able to possess the greatest
Devil and make him worse.

ANTONIO: He hath denied thee some suit?

BOSOLA: He and his brother are like plum-trees that grow crooked
Over standing-pools; they are rich, and o’erladen with
Fruit, but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed
On them. Could I be one of their flattering panders, I
Would hang on their ears like a horseleech, till I were full, and
Then drop off. I pray leave me.
Who would rely upon these miserable dependences, in expectation to
Be advanced tomorrow? What creature ever fed worse than hoping
Tantalus? Nor ever died any man more fearfully than he that hoped
For a pardon. There are rewards for hawks and dogs
When they have done us service, but for a soldier that hazards his
Limbs in a battle, nothing but a kind of geometry is his last

DELIO: Geometry?

BOSOLA: Ay, to hang in a fair pair of slings, take his latter swing in the
World upon an honorable pair of crutches, from hospital
To hospital. Fare ye well, sir: and yet do not you scorn us, for
Places in the court are but like beds in the hospital, where this
Man’s head lies at that man’s foot, and so lower and lower.


DELIO: I knew this fellow seven years in the galleys
For a notorious murder, and ’twas thought
The Cardinal suborn’d it. He was releas’d
By the French general Gaston de Foix
When he recover’d Naples.

ANTONIO: ‘Tis great pity
He should be thus neglected. I have heard
He’s very valiant. This foul melancholy
Will poison all his goodness; for I’ll tell you,
If too immoderate sleep be truly said
To be an inward rust unto the soul,
It then doth follow want of action
Breeds all black malcontents, and their close rearing,
Like moths in cloth, do hurt for want of wearing.


in your habit: in your manner of dress

reduce: restore order by removing the flatterers

quits first: first of all gets rid of

sycophants: hypocritical courtiers

dissolute: lacking moral restraint, indulging in vices

which he sweetly terms … Heaven: the antecedent of “which” is the preceding phrase; a good prince who rules wisely in ordering his kingdom emulates the work of God in his creation.

common fountain: public, common to all

in general: everywhere

poison it near the head: poison the fountain’s source. This political metaphor of the polluted fountain suggests that a ruler’s behavior, good or bad, inevitably influences the health of the country, a central question concerning the appropriateness of the Duchess’ subsequent actions..

provident: wise, looking ahead to the future

presumption: some might think it disrespectful to advise the king of problems within his realm

gall: irritating sore; Bosola “rubs people the wrong way”

railing: complaining, criticizing; Bosola criticizes the sins of others which he would like to commit himself, if he had the chance.

galleys: criminals were often sentenced to rowing ships, similar to Roman times

dog days: unlucky or hard times, referring to the hottest part of summer associated with Sirius, the dog star

honest: thrive at honest work rather than as a henchman

divinity: holiness, with implied sarcasm

return as arrant knaves: those such as the Cardinal who seek an honest life return no better than they were, as their villainous nature accompanies them on the journey (see Montaigne, Essays 1.38).

suit: favor

standing pools: stagnant water; the image implies that the brothers have ample riches which they do not share

pies: magpies, type of jaybird

panders: procurers of women, pimps

Tantalus: in Greek mythology Tantalus was condemned in Hades to starvation with food and drink just out of reach, thus we get the word “tantalize”

geometry: Bosola compares a man on crutches to a two-pronged compass used to draw circles

last supportation: the soldier who has lost limbs in battle has only his crutches to support him.

latter swing: final swing before he dies from his wounds

lower and lower: You may be higher up in the court than I am, but each man bows to someone above him. You are a court lackey as well, so don’t criticize me for playing up to the Cardinal.

melancholy: one of four bodily fluids called humours, melancholy causing sadness, moodiness; see commentary notes on humours

want of action …wearing: lack of useful activity creates dissatisfaction leading to trouble, and like moths in unworn clothes will ruin anything near them.

malcontents: dissatisfied person; see commentary on this scene.

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