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The Duchess of Malfi

Act 1 Scene 2

Action continues from previous scene

DELIO: The presence ‘gins to fill. You promis’d me
To make me the partaker of the natures
Of some of your great courtiers.

ANTONIO: The lord cardinal’s
And other strangers that are now in court?
I shall: here comes the great Calabrian Duke.

FERDINAND: Who took the ring oftenest?

SILVIO: Antonio Bologna, my lord.

FERDINAND: Our sister Duchess’ great master of her household:
Give him the jewel. When shall we leave this sportive action,
And fall to action indeed?

CASTRUCHIO: Methinks, my lord,
You should not desire to go to war in person.

FERDINAND: [aside] Now, for some gravity — why, my lord?

CASTRUCHIO: It is fitting a soldier arise to be a prince, but not necessary
A prince descend to be a captain.


CASTRUCHIO: No, my lord;
He were far better do it by a deputy.

FERDINAND: Why should he not as well sleep or eat by a deputy?
This might take idle, offensive, and base office from him,
Whereas the other deprives him of honor.

CASTRUCHIO: Believe my experience: that realm is never long in quiet
Where the ruler is a soldier.

FERDINAND: Thou toldest me thy wife could not endure fighting.

CASTRUCHIO: True, my lord.

FERDINAND: And of a jest she broke of a captain she met full of wounds: I have forgot it.

CASTRUCHIO: She told him, my lord, he was a pitiful fellow to lie
Like the children of Ismael, all in tents.

FERDINAND: Why, there’s a wit were able to undo
All the chirugeons o’th’ city, for although
Gallants should quarrel, and had drawn their weapons,
And were ready to go to it, yet her persuasions would
Make them put up.

CASTRUCHIO: That she would, my lord.
How do you like my Spanish jennet?

RODERIGO: He is all fire.

FERDINAND: I am of Pliny’s opinion, I think he was begot by the wind;
He runs as if he were ballasted with quicksilver.

SILVIO: True, my lord, he reels from the tilt often.

RODERIGO and GRISOLAN: Ha, ha, ha!

FERDINAND: Why do you laugh? Methinks you that are courtiers
Should be my touchwood, take fire when I give fire;
That is, not laugh but when I laugh, were the subject never so witty.

CASTRUCHIO: True, my lord; I myself have heard a very good jest,
And have scorned to seem to have so silly a wit as to understand it.

FERDINAND: But I can laugh at your fool, my lord.

CASTRUCHIO: He cannot speak, you know, but he makes faces.
My lady cannot abide him.


CASTRUCHIO: Nor endure to be in merry company, for she says
Too much laughing and too much company fills her
Too full of the wrinkle.

FERDINAND: I would then have a mathematical instrument
Made for her face, that she might not laugh out of compass. I shall shortly
Visit you at Milan, Lord Silvio.

SILVIO: Your grace shall arrive most welcome.

FERDINAND: You are a good horseman, Antonio.
You have excellent riders in France: what do you think of good horsemanship?

ANTONIO: Nobly, my lord: as out of the Grecian horse issued
Many famous princes, so out of brave horsemanship
Arise the first sparks of growing resolution, that raise
The mind to noble action.

FERDINAND: You have bespoke it worthily.

SILVIO: Your brother, the lord Cardinal, and sister Duchess.


CARDINAL: Are the galleys come about?

GRISOLAN: They are, my lord.

FERDINAND: Here’s the Lord Silvio is come to take his leave.

DELIO: [aside to Antonio] Now, sir, your promise: what’s that Cardinal?
I mean his temper? They say he’s a brave fellow,
Will play his five thousand crowns at tennis, dance,
Court ladies, and one that hath fought single combats.

ANTONIO: Some such flashes superficially hang on him, for form;
But observe his inward character: he is a melancholy
Churchman. The spring in his face is nothing but the
Engendering of toads. Where he is jealous of any man,
He lays worse plots for him than ever was imposed on
Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders,
Intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political
Monsters. He should have been Pope, but instead of
Coming to it by the primitive decency of the church,
He did bestow bribes so largely, and so impudently, as if he would
Have carried it away without heaven’s knowledge.
Some good he hath done.

DELIO: You have given too much of him: what’s his brother?

ANTONIO: The duke there? a most perverse and turbulent nature.
What appears in him mirth is merely outside.
If he laugh heartily, it is to laugh
All honesty out of fashion.

DELIO: Twins?

ANTONIO: In quality.
He speaks with others’ tongues and hears men’s suits
With others’ ears; will seem to sleep o’ th’ bench
Only to entrap offenders in their answers;
Dooms men to death by information,
Rewards by hearsay.

DELIO: Then the law to him
Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider,
He makes it his dwelling and a prison
To entangle those shall feed him.

ANTONIO: Most true.
He never pays debts unless they be shrewd turns,
And those he will confess that he doth owe.
Last, for his brother there, the cardinal,
They that do flatter him most say oracles
Hang at his lips, and verily I believe them,
For the devil speaks in them.
But for their sister, the right noble duchess,
You never fix’d your eye on three fair medals
Cast in one figure, of so different temper.
For her discourse, it is so full of rapture,
You only will begin then to be sorry
When she doth end her speech, and wish in wonder
She held it less vain-glory to talk much
Than your penance to hear her. Whilst she speaks,
She throws upon a man so sweet a look,
That it were able to raise one to a galliard
That lay in a dead palsy, and to dote
On that sweet countenance; but in that look
There speaketh so divine a continence
As cuts off all lascivious and vain hope.
Her days are practic’d in such noble virtue
That sure her nights, nay more, her very sleeps,
Are more in heaven, than other ladies’ shrifts.
Let all sweet ladies break their flattering glasses
And dress themselves in her.

DELIO: Fie, Antonio,
You play the wire-drawer with her commendation.

ANTONIO: I’ll case the picture up, only thus much:
All her particular worth, grows to this sum;
She stains the time past, lights the time to come.

CARIOLA: You must attend my lady in the gallery
Some half an hour hence.

ANTONIO: I shall.


FERDINAND: Sister, I have a suit to you.

DUCHESS: To me, sir?

FERDINAND: A gentleman here, Daniel de Bosola,
One that was in the galleys.

DUCHESS: Yes, I know him.

FERDINAND: A worthy fellow h’is. Pray let me entreat for
The provisorship of your horse.

DUCHESS: Your knowledge of him
Commends him and prefers him.

FERDINAND: Call him hither.

Exit Attendant

We are now upon parting. Good Lord Silvio,
Do us commend to all our noble friends
At the leaguer.

SILVIO: Sir, I shall.

FERDINAND: You are for Milan?


DUCHESS: Bring the caroches: we’ll bring you down to the haven.

Exit all but the CARDINAL and FERDINAND

CARDINAL: Be sure you entertain that Bosola
For your intelligence. I would not be seen in’t.
And therefore many times I have slighted him
When he did court our furtherance, as this morning.

FERDINAND: Antonio, the great master of her household,
Had been far fitter.

CARDINAL: You are deceiv’d in him.
His nature is too honest for such business.
He comes: I’ll leave you


BOSOLA: I was lur’d to you.

FERDINAND: My brother here, the Cardinal, could never
Abide you.

BOSOLA: Never since he was in my debt.

FERDINAND: May be some oblique character in your face
Made him suspect you.

BOSOLA: Doth he study physiognomy?
There’s no more credit to be given to th’ face
Than to a sick man’s urine, which some call
The physician’s whore, because she cozens him.
He did suspect me wrongfully.

You must give great men leave to take their times.
Distrust doth cause us seldom be deceiv’d:
You see, the oft shaking of the cedar-tree
Fastens it more at root.

BOSOLA: Yet take heed;
For to suspect a friend unworthily
Instructs him the next way to suspect you
And prompts him to deceive you.

FERDINAND: There’s gold.

What follows? Never rain’d such showers as these
Without thunderbolts i’ th’ tail of them. Whose throat must I cut?

FERDINAND: Your inclination to shed blood rides post
Before my occasion to use you. I give you that
To live i’th’ court here, and observe the duchess;
To note all the particulars of her ‘haviour,
What suitors do solicit her for marriage,
And whom she best affects. She’s a young widow:
I would not have her marry again.

BOSOLA: No, sir?

FERDINAND: Do not you ask the reason, but be satisfied
I say I would not.

BOSOLA: It seems you would create me
One of your familiars.

FERDINAND: Familiar? What’s that?

BOSOLA: Why, a very quaint invisible devil in flesh:
An intelligencer.

FERDINAND: Such a kind of thriving thing
I would wish thee, and ere long, thou may’st arrive
At a higher place by’t.

BOSOLA: Take your devils,
Which hell calls angels. These curs’d gifts would make
You a corrupter, me an impudent traitor,
And should I take these, they’d take me to hell.

FERDINAND: Sir, I’ll take nothing from you, that I have given.
There is a place that I procur’d for you
This morning, the provisorship o’th’horse;
Have you heard on’t?


FERDINAND: ‘Tis yours. Is’t not worth thanks?

BOSOLA: I would have you curse yourself now, that your bounty
(Which makes men truly noble) e’er should make
Me a villain. O, that to avoid ingratitude
For the good deed you have done me, I must do
All the ill man can invent! Thus the devil
Candies all sins o’er, and what heaven terms vile
That names he complemental.

FERDINAND: Be yourself;
Keep your old garb of melancholy; ’twill express
You envy those that stand above your reach,
Yet strive not to come near ’em. This will gain
Access to private lodgings, where yourself
May, like a politic dormouse

BOSOLA: As I have seen some
Feed in a lord’s dish, half asleep, not seeming
To listen to any talk; and yet these rogues
Have cut his throat in a dream. What’s my place?
The provisorship o’th’ horse? Say, then, my corruption
Grew out of horse-dung. I am your creature.


BOSOLA: Let good men for good deeds covet good fame,
Since place and riches oft are bribes of shame.
Sometimes the devil doth preach.


CARDINAL: We are to part from you, and your own discretion
Must now be your director.

FERDINAND: You are a widow:
You know already what man is, and therefore
Let not youth, high promotion, eloquence —

Nor anything without the addition, honor,
Sway your high blood.

FERDINAND: Marry! They are most luxurious,
Will wed twice.


FERDINAND: Their livers are more spotted
Than Laban’s sheep.

DUCHESS: Diamonds are of most value,
They say, that have past through most jewelers’ hands.

FERDINAND: Whores by that rule are precious.

DUCHESS: Will you hear me?
I’ll never marry —

CARDINAL: So most widows say;
But commonly that motion lasts no longer
Than the turning of an hour-glass: the funeral sermon
And it, end both together.

FERDINAND: Now hear me:
You live in a rank pasture here i’th’ court.
There is a kind of honey-dew that’s deadly,
‘Twill poison your fame. Look to’t: be not cunning;
For they whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,
Ay, and give the devil suck.

DUCHESS: This is terrible good counsel.

FERDINAND: Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread,
Subtler than Vulcan’s engine: yet believ’t,
Your darkest actions, nay, your privat’st thoughts,
Will come to light.

CARDINAL: You may flatter yourself
And take your own choice, privately be married
Under the eaves of night —

FERDINAND: Think’t the best voyage
That e’er you made; like the irregular crab,
Which, though’t goes backward, thinks that it goes right,
Because it goes its own way. But observe,
Such weddings may more properly be said
To be executed, than celebrated.

CARDINAL: The marriage night
Is the entrance into some prison.

FERDINAND: And those joys,
Those lustful pleasures, are like heavy sleeps
Which do forerun man’s mischief.

CARDINAL: Fare you well.
Wisdom begins at the end: remember it.


DUCHESS: I think this speech between you both was studied,
It came so roundly off.

FERDINAND: You are my sister;
This was my father’s poniard, do you see?
I’d be loath to see’t look rusty, ’cause ’twas his.
I would have you to give o’er these chargeable revels,
A visor and a mask are whispering rooms
That were never built for goodness. Fare ye well,
And beware that part, which like the lamprey,
Hath never a bone in’t.

DUCHESS: Fie, sir!

I mean the tongue, variety of courtship.
What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale
Make a woman believe. Farewell, lusty widow.


DUCHESS: Shall this move me? If all my royal kindred
Lay in my way unto this marriage,
I’d make them my low footsteps. And even now,
Even in this hate, as men in some great battles
By apprehending danger have achiev’d
Almost impossible actions — I have heard soldiers say so–
So I through frights and threatenings will assay
This dangerous venture. Let old wives report
wink’d, and chose a husband. Cariola,
To thy known secrecy I have given up
More than my life — my fame.

CARIOLA: Both shall be safe,
For I’ll conceal this secret from the world
As warily as those that trade in poison
Keep poison from their children.

DUCHESS: Thy protestation
Is ingenious and hearty: I believe it.
Is Antonio come?

CARIOLA: He attends you.

DUCHESS: Good dear soul,
Leave me, but place thyself behind the arras
Where thou may’st overhear us. Wish me good speed,
For I am going into a wilderness
Where I shall find no path nor friendly clew
To be my guide.


I sent for you. Sit down;
Take pen and ink, and write: are you ready?


DUCHESS: What did I say?

ANTONIO: That I should write somewhat.

DUCHESS: O, I remember.
After these triumphs and this large expense,
It’s fit, like thrifty husbands, we inquire
What’s laid up for tomorrow.

ANTONIO: So please your beauteous excellence.

DUCHESS: Beauteous? Indeed I thank you:
I look young for your sake;
You have ta’en my cares upon you.

ANTONIO: I’ll fetch your grace
The particulars of your revenue and expense.

DUCHESS: O, you are
An upright treasurer, but you mistook;
For when I said I meant to make inquiry
What’s laid up for tomorrow, I did mean
What’s laid up yonder for me.


DUCHESS: In heaven.
I am making my will, (as ’tis fit princes should
In perfect memory) and, I pray, sir, tell me
Were not one better make it smiling, thus,
Than in deep groans and terrible ghastly looks
As if the gifts we parted with procur’d
That violent distraction?

ANTONIO: O, much better.

DUCHESS: If I had a husband now, this care were quit;
But I intend to make you overseer.
What good deed shall we first remember? Say.

ANTONIO: Begin with that first good deed begun i’th’world
After man’s creation, the sacrament of marriage:
I’d have you first provide for a good husband;
Give him all.


ANTONIO: Yes, your excellent self.

DUCHESS: In a winding sheet?

ANTONIO: In a couple.

DUCHESS: St. Winifred, that were a strange will!

ANTONIO: ‘Twere strange if there were no will in you
To marry again.

DUCHESS: What do you think of marriage?

ANTONIO: I take’t, as those that deny purgatory,
It locally contains or heaven, or hell;
There’s no third place in’t.

DUCHESS: How do you affect it?

ANTONIO: My banishment, feeding my melancholy,
Would often reason thus.

DUCHESS: Pray, let’s hear it.

ANTONIO: Say a man never marry, nor have children,
What takes that from him? Only the bare name
Of being a father, or the weak delight
To see the little wanton ride a cock-horse
Upon a painted stick, or hear him chatter
Like a taught starling.

DUCHESS: Fie, fie, what’s all this?
One of your eyes is blood-shot. Use my ring to’t,
They say ’tis very sovereign. ‘Twas my wedding ring,
And I did vow never to part with it
But to my second husband.

ANTONIO: You have parted with it now.

DUCHESS: Yes, to help your eye-sight.

ANTONIO: You have made me stark blind.


ANTONIO: There is a saucy and ambitious devil,
Is dancing in this circle.

DUCHESS: Remove him.


DUCHESS: There needs small conjuration, when your finger
May do it, thus; is it fit?

He kneels

ANTONIO: What said you?

DUCHESS: Sir, this goodly roof of yours, is too low built;
I cannot stand upright in’t nor discourse,
Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,
Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.

ANTONIO: Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,
That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms
But in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants
Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.
Conceive not I am so stupid but I aim
Whereto your favors tend: but he’s a fool,
That being a-cold, would thrust his hands i’th’ fire
To warm them.

DUCHESS: So now the ground’s broke,
You may discover what a wealthy mine
I make you lord of.

ANTONIO: O, my unworthiness!

DUCHESS: You were ill to sell yourself.
This darkening of your worth is not like that
Which tradesmen use i’th’ city; their false lights
Are to rid bad wares off. And I must tell you,
If you will know where breathes a complete man
(I speak it without flattery) turn your eyes,
And progress through yourself.

ANTONIO: Were there nor heaven nor hell,
I should be honest: I have long serv’d virtue,
And ne’er ta’en wages of her.

DUCHESS: Now she pays it.
The misery of us that are born great!
We are forc’d to woo, because none dare woo us.
And as a tyrant doubles with his words
And fearfully equivocates, so we
Are forc’d to express our violent passions
In riddles, and in dreams, and leave the path
Of simple virtue, which was never made
To seem the thing it is not. Go, go brag
You have left me heartless; mine is in your bosom:
I hope ’twill multiply love there. You do tremble:
Make not your heart so dead a piece of flesh,
To fear more than to love me. Sir, be confident:
What is’t distracts you? This is flesh and blood, sir;
‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster
Kneels at my husbands tomb. Awake, awake, man!
I do here put off all vain ceremony,
And only do appear to you a young widow
That claims you for her husband, and like a widow,
I use but half a blush in’t.

ANTONIO: Truth speak for me:
I will remain the constant sanctuary
Of your good name.

DUCHESS: I thank you, gentle love.
And ’cause you shall not come to me in debt,
Being now my steward, here upon your lips
I sign your Quietus est. This you should have begg’d now;
I have seen children oft eat sweetmeats thus,
As fearful to devour them too soon.

ANTONIO: But for your brothers?

DUCHESS: Do not think of them:
All discord without this circumference
Is only to be pitied, and not fear’d.
Yet, should they know it, time will easily
Scatter the tempest.

ANTONIO: These words should be mine,
And all the parts you have spoke, if some part of it
Would not have savour’d flattery.




DUCHESS: Be not amaz’d, this woman’s of my counsel.
I have heard lawyers say a contract in a chamber
Per verba presenti is absolute marriage.
Bless, heaven, this sacred gordian, which let violence
Never untwine.

ANTONIO: And may our sweet affections, like the spheres,
Be still in motion.

DUCHESS: Quickening and make
The like soft music.

ANTONIO: That we may imitate the loving palms,
Best emblem of a peaceful marriage
That never bore fruit divided.

DUCHESS: What can the church force more?

ANTONIO: That fortune may not know an accident
Either of joy, or sorrow, to divide
Our fixed wishes.

DUCHESS: How can the church build faster?
We now are man and wife, and ’tis the church
That must but echo this. Maid, stand apart:
I now am blind.

ANTONIO: What’s your conceit in this?

DUCHESS: I would have you lead your fortune by the hand
Unto your marriage bed
(You speak in me this, for we now are one).
We’ll only lie, and talk together, and plot
T’appease my humourous kindred; and if you please,
Like the old tale in Alexander and Lodowick,
Lay a naked sword between us, keep us chaste.
O, let me shroud my blushes in your bosom,
Since ’tis the treasury of all my secrets!

They exit

CARIOLA: Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman
Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows
A fearful madness. I owe her much of pity.



Castruchio: his name implies impotence, foreshadowing his wife’s infidelity later in the play

presence: chamber where nobles received official visitors

make me the partaker: inform me about

took the ring: in jousting the goal is to catch a ring on one’s lance

gravity: feigned seriousness, indicating Ferdinand’s interest in toying with his subjects

office: duties

quiet: peace or order

broke: told about

children of Ismael: Arabs; Ishmael was one of the sons of Abraham; the other being Isaac, forefather of the Jews

tents: wrapped up in bandages

chirugeons: surgeons; if everyone listened to his wife’s advice, no one would fight and surgeons would be out of business.

jennet: small Spanish horse

Pliny’s opinion: Pliny was a Roman writer who proposed in his Natural History that horses were impregnated by the wind.

ballasted with quick-silver: weighed down with mercury, implying speed (Mercury was the messenger of the gods).

reels from the tilt: shies away from the jousting ring (but also a sexual allusion, avoiding sexual intercourse).

touchwood: kindling for starting a fire; Ferdinand thinks they should wait for him to laugh before they do.

fool: Castruccio has a jester employed in his house; but Ferdinand may be suggesting that Castruccio is the fool, as later we learn that his wife Julia is having an affair with the Cardinal.

wrinkle: laughing will give her wrinkles

out of compass: excessively (pun on mathematical instrument)

Grecian horse: the famous Trojan horse by which Greece defeated Troy.

galleys: ships

brave: daring, willing to wager large bets on tennis games, risk his reputation as a churchman by openly courting women, and fight duels (single combats)

flashes: attractive qualities on the outside, but looks are deceiving.

spring in his face: what appears to be clear water on the surface is actually the breeding ground for ugly toads.

jealous: suspicious

Hercules: the great mythical hero who endured twelve labors

intelligencers: informants

political: scheming

primitive decency: following the tradition of the early church (a Protestant complaint that the Catholic church had over the centuries strayed far from the original purity of the early Christian community)

given too much of him:  “enough about him”

bench: the judge’s bench

information: Ferdinand condemns or rewards men arbitrarily, based on unsubstantiated rumors and the word of informants.

shrewd turns: he only repays debts to those who have wronged him, i.e. revenge.

oracles: prophecies or wise sayings

verily: truly

medals: coins, cast in the same mold or form; the siblings may look alike but differ greatly in character (temper).

discourse: speaking, which is so delightful that you will be sorry when she finishes.

vainglory: vanity, showing off; you’ll wish she were not so modest about her gift of delightful conversation

galliard: dance: her speech could make a paralyzed man jump up and dance

continence: restraint which keeps one from lustful (lascivious) thoughts of her.

shrifts: confessions; the Duchess is more virtuous asleep than most women at confession

flatt’ring glasses: mirrors; she should become the model for all ladies’ appearance and behavior.

play the wire-drawer: to spin out a wire from metal; i.e. he exaggerates her qualities

case: close

stains: deprives the past of luster

lights: brightens the future

provisorship:  keeper of the horses

leaguer: army camp

caroches: coaches, carriages

haven:  harbor

entertain … intelligence: employ Bosola as your spy in the Duchess’ household

furtherance: support

oblique: sinister

physiognomy: the art of studying faces to discover personality traits, which Bosola discredits

cozens: deceives; Bosola distrusts the medical practice of diagnosing illness by examining urine (not the precise science it is today)

shaking: those who have been “shaken” by deceitful people are less likely to be deceived again

What follows: where’s the catch? what must I do for this payment?

showers: Zeus impregnated Danae (the mother of Perseus) by falling into her lap as a golden shower; Zeus was also known for hurling lightning, so Bosola suggests that this shower of gold must be followed by some deadly deed.

post: in haste

haviour: behavior

affects: favors, has feelings for

familiars: a spirit in the form of an animal, such as a witch’s black cat; also a term used to describe informants for the Inquisition.

quaint: cunning

angels: gold coins which often had an angel imprinted on them; Bosola recognizes that these are actually devils, tempting him to evil.

bounty: generosity; usually a noble virtue, but coming from the Duke, it leads only to villainy.

candies … complemental: thus the devil makes sin seem sweet, and what heaven calls vile, he describes as something complimentary or good. (complemental: fine behavior which completes a gentleman, OED).

old garb of melancholy: Bosola may have worn black in the original production (cf. Hamlet)

melancholy: one of four bodily fluids called humours, melancholy causing sadness, moodiness; see 2.5 commentary notes on humours

politic dormouse: a quiet, unnoticed schemer

in a dream: while he slept

let good men: Good men should desire only a good reputation for their good deeds, for if they are rewarded with promotion or riches, they may be corrupted.

preach: even a wicked man tells the truth sometimes

high blood: either her noble family lineage or her passionate nature

luxurious: lustful

livers: the liver was thought to be the source of passion, rather than the heart

Laban’s sheep: in Laban’s flock were many spotted sheep (Genesis 30:29-43).

I’ll never marry: notice that her speech is cut off. Perhaps she would say, “I will never marry against the honor of the family” or something to that effect, but in any case she doesn’t necessarily lie to her brothers about her intentions, but considers it none of their business.

motion: resolve

rank: corrupt

honey-dew: a sweet, sticky substance that was also poisonous, just as one is drawn by temptation to something that looks enticing but ensnares us

fame: reputation

belie: the face may disguise the inner feelings

Vulcan’s engine: the net made of invisible mesh in which Vulcan caught his wife Venus and her lover Mars.

executed: with double meaning of “carried out” and “put to death”

mischief: misfortune

Wisdom begins at the end: a wise person looks to the probable end results before acting.

studied: rehearsed

poniard: dagger

rusty: either (1) he wants to make use of it, thus keeping it from rusting, or (2) covered in the rust red color of blood

give o’er: give up, quit having these parties

chargeable revels: expensive parties, masquerades mentioned in the next line

lamprey: eel-like fish without bones, thus a crude sexual innuendo to the male genitals

neat: handsome

footsteps: making them the steps toward her goal, stepping over their authority

assay: try

winked: acted with my eyes shut, ignoring the consequences; but notice her own admission at the end of the scene that she is blinded by passion.

ingenious and hearty: frank (ingenuous) and heartfelt

arras: wall tapestries

clew: not to be confused with clue, but a thread to help one find the way through a maze

triumphs: entertainments

husbands: stewards of a household

for your sake: thanks to you

perfect memory: of sound mind

procur’d: caused

good deed: in her will she intends to reward those who have done her service; Antonio takes her meaning another way, perhaps on purpose, to play along if he already suspects her interest in him

winding sheet: burial shroud; the Duchess is asking facetiously, “Should I join my dead husband in the grave?”

couple: two bed sheets, with an allusion to coupling as in sex. Antonio continues to play along, teasing her with a sexual innuendo; in his own way he is as bold as she is, as he knows someone of his status cannot marry a duchess.

St. Winifred: a 7th century saint beheaded for rejecting a lover’s advances

or heaven or hell: marriage can be either heaven or hell, but nothing in between (as in the Catholic belief in purgatory)

affect it: feel about it

banishment: either his late journeys abroad, making him lonely, or his banishment from the married state

wanton: rascal

sovereign: effective

saucy and ambitious devil: sorcerers would conjure up devils within a magic circle; here Antonio looks through the ring (circle) to see the Duchess, whom he assumes may be toying dangerously with his affections.

without: unless

prattling visitants: men who are mad with ambition are bound (girt = girdled) not by chains but by flattering courtiers

Conceive not … tend: don’t think I can’t see where this is leading

ill to sell yourself: don’t sell yourself short, you are too modest

false lights: tradesmen would try to sell faulty goods in poor lighting, but the Duchess thinks that Antonio has nothing shameful to hide

progress: seek an honest man in yourself

doubles: speaks with double meanings; we cannot speak our love openly but must hint at it

simple virtue: following the path of simply virtue would mean speaking plainly and truthfully at all times

alabaster: white stone used to carve funeral monuments, in this case the one at her first husband’s grave

I use but half a blush in’t: I am bold and unashamed to declare my love, as I am not a virgin in these matters.

’cause: so that

Quietus est: “It is finished” (Latin), written at the closing of an account or in this case, the end of Antonio’s status as her servant. However, Hamlet uses the term to refer to death, “release from life” (III.i) which Webster may be suggesting here.

without this circumference: outside this room, or perhaps outside the circle of her arms around him

scatter the tempest: calm the storm; but the Duchess is naive concerning the seriousness of her brothers’ threats.

savour’d: resembled, tasted like

Per verba [de] presenti: “through words about the present” (Latin); she claims that their vows to each other are legally binding, although not sanctified by the Catholic church. However, even in Protestant England the law required two witnesses (only Cariola is present), so that audiences at the time may not have considered their union legitimate.

gordian: the Gordian knot was supposedly unbreakable; whoever achieved this feat would rule Asia. Alexander the Great simply cut it in two with his sword (as will violence cut apart their union).

spheres … music: the heavenly bodies were thought to make music as they made their rounds through the sky.

still: always

palms: it was thought that palm trees had to be male and female to bear fruit.

force: enforce; that is, how can the church make this marriage any more valid than our vow of love does?

faster: more securely

blind: fortune was thought to be blind (because it doesn’t always come to those who deserve it); however, in this case, the Duchess’s words are tragically ironic.

conceit: meaning; what are you up to?

humourous: not laughable, but affected by ill-humours, emotionally unbalanced (see commentary for theory of humours)

Alexander and Lodowick: two friends who looked alike, one married the other’s wife on his behalf, but honored her virginity by placing a sword between them in bed.

shroud: bury

spirit of greatness: Cariola questions whether the Duchess’ independent spirit to follow her own path regardless of the dangers comes from her “greatness,” her confidence in her aristocratic heritage, or from her supposed weakness as a woman to be led more by passion than reason, a common perception of women in that time.

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