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The Duchess of Malfi

Act 2 Scene 1

The Court at Malfi, a few months later

BOSOLA: You say you would fain be taken for an eminent courtier?

CASTRUCHIO: ‘Tis the very main of my ambition.

BOSOLA: Let me see. You have a reasonable good face for’t already,
And your night-cap expresses your ears sufficient largely.
I would have you learn to twirl the strings of your band
With a good grace, and in a set speech at th’end of every sentence
To hum three or four times, or blow your nose till it smart again,
To recover your memory. When you come to be a president
In criminal causes, if you smile upon a prisoner, hang him, but if
You frown upon him, and threaten him, let him be sure to ‘scape
The gallows.

CASTRUCHIO: I would be a very merry president.

BOSOLA: Do not sup a’ nights; ’twill beget you
An admirable wit.

CASTRUCHIO: Rather it would make me have a good stomach to quarrel;
For they say, your roaring boys eat meat seldom,
And that makes them so valiant.
But how shall I know whether the people take me
For an eminent fellow?

BOSOLA: I will teach a trick to know it.
Give out you lie a-dying, and if you
Hear the common people curse you,
Be sure you are taken for one of the prime night-caps.

Enter an OLD LADY

You come from painting now?

OLD LADY: From what?

BOSOLA: Why, from your scurvy face-physic.
To behold thee not painted  inclines somewhat near
A miracle. These in thy face here were deep ruts
And foul sloughs the last progress.
There was a lady in France that, having the small-pox,
Flay’d the skin off her face to make it more level;
And whereas before she looked like a nutmeg grater,
After she resembled an abortive hedgehog.

OLD LADY: Do you call this painting?

BOSOLA: No, no, but you call’t careening of an old
Morphew’d lady, to make her disembogue again.
There’s rough-cast phrase to your plastic.

OLD LADY: It seems you are well acquainted with my closet.

BOSOLA: One would suspect it for a shop of witchcraft,
To find in it the fat of serpents, spawn of snakes, Jews’ spittle,
And their young childrens’ ordure, and all these for the face.
I would sooner eat a dead pigeon taken from the soles of the feet
Of one sick of the plague than kiss one of you fasting.
Here are two of you, whose sin of your youth is the very
Patrimony of the physician; makes him renew
His foot-cloth with the spring, and change his
High-priced courtesan with the fall of the leaf.
I do wonder you do not loathe yourselves.
Observe my meditation now:
What thing is in this outward form of man
To be belov’d? We account it ominous
If nature do produce a colt, or lamb,
A fawn, or goat, in any limb resembling
A man, and fly from’t as a prodigy.
Man stands amaz’d to see his deformity
In any other creature but himself.
But in our own flesh, though we bear diseases
Which have their true names only ta’en from beasts,
As the most ulcerous wolf and swinish measle;
Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,
And though continually we bear about us
A rotten and dead body, we delight
To hide it in rich tissue; all our fear,
Nay all our terror, is, lest our physician
Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet.
Your wife’s gone to Rome. You two couple, and get you
To the wells at Lucca to recover your aches.


I have other work on foot. I observe our Duchess
Is sick a-days: she pukes, her stomach seethes,
The fins of her eyelids look most teeming blue,
She wanes i’th’ cheek, and waxes fat i’th’flank,
And, contrary to our Italian fashion,
Wears a loose-bodied gown. There’s somewhat in’t.
I have a trick may chance discover it,
A pretty one: I have bought some apricocks,
The first our spring yields.


DELIO: And so long since married?
You amaze me.

ANTONIO: Let me seal your lips forever,
For did I think that anything but th’ air
Could carry these words from you, I should wish
You had no breath at all.
[to BOSOLA] Now, sir, in your contemplation?
You are studying to become a great wise fellow?

BOSOLA: O, sir, the opinion of wisdom
Is a foul tetter that runs
All over a man’s body. If simplicity
Direct us to have no evil,
It directs us to a happy being, for the subtlest folly
Proceeds from the subtlest wisdom.
Let me be simply honest.

ANTONIO: I do understand your inside.

BOSOLA: Do you so?

ANTONIO: Because you would not seem to appear to th’ world
Puff’d up with your preferment, you continue
This out-of-fashion melancholy. Leave it, leave it.

BOSOLA: Give me leave to be honest in any phrase, in any
Compliment whatsoever. Shall I confess myself to you?
I look no higher than I can reach.
They are the gods that must ride on winged horses.
A lawyer’s mule of a slow pace will both suit
My disposition and business, for mark me,
When a man’s mind rides faster than his horse can gallop,
They quickly both tire.

ANTONIO: You would look up to heaven, but I think
The devil, that rules i’th’air stands in your light.

BOSOLA: O, sir, you are lord of the ascendant,
Chief man with the duchess; a duke was your
Cousin-german, removed. Say you were lineally
Descended from King Pepin, or he himself,
What of this? Search the heads of the greatest rivers
In the world, you shall find them
But bubbles of water. Some would think
The souls of princes were brought forth
By some more weighty cause than those of meaner persons.
They are deceived, there’s the same hand to them;
The like passions sway them; the same reason
That makes a vicar to go to law for a tithe-pig,
And undo his neighbors, makes them spoil
A whole province, and batter down
Goodly cities with the cannon.


DUCHESS: Your arm, Antonio: do I not grow fat?
I am exceeding short-winded. Bosola,
I would have you, sir, provide for me a litter,
Such a one as the Duchess of Florence rode in.

BOSOLA: The duchess us’d one when she was great with child.

DUCHESS: I think she did. Come hither, mend my ruff,
Here; when? Thou art such a tedious lady, and
Thy breath smells of lemon peels. Would thou hadst done!
Shall I sound under thy fingers? I am
So troubled with the mother.

BOSOLA: [aside] I fear too much.

DUCHESS: I have heard you say that the French courtiers
Wear their hats on ‘fore the king.

ANTONIO: I have seen it.

DUCHESS: In the presence?


DUCHESS: Why should not we bring up that fashion?
‘Tis ceremony more than duty that consists
In the removing of a piece of felt.
Be you the example to the rest o’th’ court;
Put on your hat first.

ANTONIO: You must pardon me.
I have seen, in colder countries than in France,
Nobles stand bare to th’ prince, and the distinction
Methought show’d reverently.

BOSOLA: I have a present for your grace.

DUCHESS: For me, sir?

BOSOLA: Apricocks, madam.

DUCHESS: O, sir, where are they?
I have heard of none to-year.

BOSOLA: [aside] Good, her colour rises.

DUCHESS: Indeed I thank you. They are wondrous fair ones.
What an unskillful fellow is our gardener!
We shall have none this month.

BOSOLA: Will not your grace pare them?

DUCHESS: No, they taste of musk, methinks; indeed they do.

BOSOLA: I know not: yet I wish your grace had par’d ’em.


BOSOLA: I forgot to tell you, the knave gardener,
Only to raise his profit by them the sooner,
Did ripen them in horse-dung.

DUCHESS: O, you jest.
You shall judge. Pray, taste one.

ANTONIO: Indeed, madam,
I do not love the fruit.

DUCHESS: Sir, you are loath
To rob us of our dainties. ‘Tis a delicate fruit;
They say they are restorative.

BOSOLA: ‘Tis a pretty art,
This grafting.

DUCHESS: ‘Tis so, a bettering of nature.

BOSOLA: To make a pippin grow upon a crab,
A damson on a black-thorn. [aside] How greedily she eats them!
A whirlwind strike off these bawd farthingales!
For, but for that, and the loose-bodied gown,
I should have discover’d apparently
The young springal cutting a caper in her belly.

DUCHESS: I thank you, Bosola, they were right good ones,
If they do not make me sick.

ANTONIO: How now, madam?

DUCHESS: This green fruit and my stomach are not friends.
How they swell me!

BOSOLA: [aside] Nay, you are too much swell’d already.

DUCHESS: O, I am in an extreme cold sweat!

BOSOLA: I am very sorry.


DUCHESS: Lights to my chamber. O, good Antonio,
I fear I am undone!

DELIO: Lights there, lights!


ANTONIO: O my most trusty Delio, we are lost!
I fear she’s fallen in labour, and there’s left
No time for her remove.

DELIO: Have you prepar’d
Those ladies to attend her? And procur’d
That politic safe conveyance for the midwife
Your duchess plotted?

ANTONIO: I have.

DELIO: Make use then of this forc’d occasion:
Give out that Bosola hath poison’d her
With these apricocks. That will give some colour
For her keeping close

ANTONIO: Fie, fie, the physicians
Will then flock to her.

DELIO: For that you may pretend
She’ll use some prepar’d antidote of her own,
Lest the physicians should re-poison her.

ANTONIO: I am lost in amazement: I know not what to think on’t.

They exit


fain: desire to

main: chief goal

nightcap: white cap worn by lawyers

expresses your ears: shows off your ears (i.e., like a jackass)

band: part of the lawyer’s attire

president: presiding judge

causes: cases

roaring boys: rowdy young men

nightcaps: lawyers; that is, if the people hear that you are dying and curse you, then be certain they think you are a true lawyer.

painting: putting on makeup

scurvy face-physic: medicine for a diseased complexion

sloughs: muddy ditches, commenting on her wrinkles which she tries in vain to cover up with makeup

nutmeg crater: because her skin was so marked by small pox

hedgehog: similar to a porcupine; flayed skin would be taken off in strips and roll up, like a hedgehog when protecting himself

careening: scraping barnacles off a ship

morphew’d: blistered, scaly skin

disembogue: disembark, as a ship leaving port; that is, as she leaves for a potential affair

rough-cast phrase: there’s a speech as rough and ugly as your plastered face

closet: private room where she would do her makeup

ordure: excrement, filth; Bosola suggests she uses these strange ingredients to make potions for her face

pigeon: dead pigeons were thought to absorb the poison out of plague sores

sin of your youth: Bosola implies that Castruchio and the old lady suffer from venereal disease, which keeps the doctor in business

footcloth: extravagant coverings for the feet of horses, bought only by the wealthy

fall of the leaf: he can afford to change courtesans every autumn

prodigy: unnatural monster

rich tissue: fine clothes

sweet: to become a tasty treat for the worms

couple: Bosola implies that while Julia, Castruchio’s wife is away (committing her own adulteries, as we discover in II.iv), he should take advantage of her absence and take this old woman.

wells of Lucca: warm springs near Pisa, known for their healing properties

on foot: in progress (at hand)

fins: edges

teeming: to teem means to give birth

wanes: grows thin

waxes: grows fat

somewhat: something in it (both in this suspicious manner of behavior, and in her belly)

apricocks: apricots; Bosola hopes to appeal to the cravings that pregnant women have for fresh fruit, thus finding her out

tetter: skin disease

simplicity: simple-minded as opposed to philosophical: “ignorance is bliss”

inside: I understand your inner meaning

preferment: advancement to the status of keeper of the Duchess’ horses

the devil, that rules i’th’air: allusion to Ephesians 2:2, “the prince of the power of the air”

ascendant: your fortune is on the rise, based on good astrological signs

cousin-german: first cousin

King Pepin: Pippin, father of Charlemagne, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire around 800 AD

meaner: common

tithe-pig: greed makes even a holy man sue another for the tenth of his possessions including so much as a pig, tithe being the tax paid to the church; this same greed leads men to war.

short-winded: out of breath

litter: carriage

great with child: pregnant

ruff: lace collar

when?: she is impatient with her servant

peels: chewed to remedy bad breath (the first quarto edition of the play has “pills”)

sound: swoon, faint

mother: hysteria, but Bosola picks up on another meaning

presence: former meeting hall of the court

bare: bare-headed, removing one’s hat as a sign of respect; but Antonio may also intend a double meaning, sharing a secret joke with his wife

to-year: this year

colour: blush

pare: peel

musk: strong perfume

loath: you would hate to rob me of such delicacies

restorative: healthful

grafting: the art of taking a branch of one fruit tree and making it grow on another kind of tree; Bosola also alludes to the “grafting” of a husband (unknown to him at this time) to the noble house of Malfi

pippin … crab: different kinds of apples

bawd farthingales: hooped skirts which would hide a pregnancy

springal: young animal, usually born in the spring

cutting a caper: dancing, kicking

politic: secret

colour … close: this story will give some justification for her keeping herself closed up in her room

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