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The Duchess of Malfi

Act 2 Scene 5

Enter CARDINAL and FERDINAND with a letter

FERDINAND: I have this night digg’d up a mandrake.

CARDINAL: Say you?

FERDINAND: And I am grown mad with’t.

CARDINAL: What’s the prodigy?

FERDINAND: Read there, a sister damn’d; she’s loose i’th’ hilts,
Grown a notorious strumpet.

CARDINAL: Speak lower.

Rogues do not whisper’t now, but seek to publish’t,
As servants do the bounty of their lords,
Aloud; and with a covetous searching eye,
To mark who note them. O, confusion seize her!
She hath had most cunning bawds to serve her turn,
And more secure conveyances for lust,
Than towns of garrison for service.

CARDINAL: Is’t possible?
Can this be certain?

FERDINAND: Rhubarb, O for rhubarb
To purge this choler! here’s the cursed day
To prompt my memory, and here’t shall stick
Till of her bleeding heart I make a sponge
To wipe it out.

CARDINAL: Why do you make yourself
So wild a tempest?

FERDINAND: Would I could be one,
That I might toss her palace ’bout her ears,
Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,
And lay her general territory as waste
As she hath done her honor’s.

CARDINAL: Shall our blood,
The royal blood of Arragon and Castile,
Be thus attainted?

FERDINAND: Apply desperate physic:
We must not now use balsamum, but fire,
The smarting cupping-glass, for that’s the mean
To purge infected blood, such blood as hers.
There is a kind of pity in mine eye,
I’ll give it to my handkerchief; and now ’tis here
I’ll bequeath this to her bastard.

CARDINAL: What to do?

FERDINAND: Why, to make soft lint for his mother’s wounds,
When I have hewed her to pieces!

CARDINAL: Curs’d creature!
Unequal nature, to place women’s hearts
So far upon the left side.

FERDINAND: Foolish men,
That e’er will trust their honor in a bark
Made of so slight weak bulrush as is woman,
Apt every minute to sink it!

CARDINAL: Thus ignorance, when it hath purchas’d honor,
It cannot wield it.

FERDINAND: Methinks I see her laughing–
Excellent hyena! Talk to me somewhat, quickly,
Or my imagination will carry me
To see her in the shameful act of sin.

CARDINAL: With whom?

FERDINAND: Happily with some strong-thigh’d bargeman,
Or one o’th’ wood-yard that can quoit the sledge,
Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.

CARDINAL: You fly beyond your reason.

FERDINAND: Go to, mistress!
‘Tis not your whore’s milk that shall quench my wild-fire
But your whore’s blood.

CARDINAL: How idly shows this rage, which carries you,
As men convey’d by witches through the air,
On violent whirlwinds. This intemperate noise
Fitly resembles deaf men’s shrill discourse
Who talk aloud, thinking all other men
To have their imperfection.

FERDINAND: Have not you
My palsy?

CARDINAL: Yes; I can be angry
Without this rupture. There is not in nature
A thing that makes man so deform’d, so beastly,
As doth intemperate anger. Chide yourself.
You have divers men, who never yet express’d
Their strong desire of rest but by unrest,
By vexing of themselves. Come, put yourself
In tune.

FERDINAND: So: I will only study to seem
The thing I am not. I could kill her now,
In you, or in myself; for I do think
It is some sin in us, heaven doth revenge
By her.

CARDINAL: Are you stark mad?

FERDINAND: I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit with the ventage stopp’d,
That their curs’d smoke might not ascend to heaven;
Or dip the sheets they lie in in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in’t, and then light them like a match;
Or else to boil their bastard to a cullis
And give’t his lecherous father, to renew
The sin of his back.

CARDINAL: I’ll leave you.

FERDINAND: Nay, I have done.
I am confident, had I been damn’d in hell,
And should have heard of this, it would have put me
Into a cold sweat. In, in, I’ll go sleep.
Till I know who leaps my sister, I’ll not stir.
That known, I’ll find scorpions to string my whips,
And fix her in a general eclipse.

They exit


mandrake: poisonous plant which according to superstition was thought to feed on blood and shriek when plucked, driving the person mad

prodigy: an unnatural or ominous event from which omens are drawn

loose i’th’ hilts: promiscuous

strumpet: prostitute

publish’t: make it known publicly

bounty: generosity

bawds: those who arrange lovers for her

secure conveyances: secret arrangements; she has more means to convey lovers into her bed than towns have to receive supplies

rhubarb: medicine thought to cure excessive choler. Choler (yellow bile) was one of the four humours thought to affect personality; the choleric person was angry and irritable. (see commentary on this scene)

cursed day: referring to the child’s horoscope that Bosola has sent.

meads: meadows

attainted: tainted, stained

physic: medicine

balsamum: healing ointment

cupping-glass: small glasses were heated and applied to the skin, supposedly to draw out diseased blood by vacuum, a painful process

bequeath: leave as inheritance

bastard: just like Bosola, Ferdinand assumes that she is unmarried

lint: bandages

hewed: hacked, cut up

unequal: unjust

left: left-handed people were thought to be deceitful; the Latin word for left is “sinister”

bark: boat

purchas’d: gained

hyena: besides known for laughing, hyenas were thought to be lecherous

somewhat: about something, distract me

happily: perhaps

quoit the sledge: use the sledgehammer

privy: private

mistress: Ferdinand speaks of his sister as if she were a mistress who left him for another.

intemperate: out of control

aloud: loudly

palsy: affliction

rupture: lack of self-control

chide: reprimand

divers: many

study: I will make an effort to appear calm, even though I am not

in you or in myself: I could kill you or myself, thus killing the blood bond that we share with our sister

ventage: chimney

cullis: broth

sin of his back: to pay him back for his lechery

leaps: mounts sexually

scorpions: possible allusion to the Bible, 1 Kings 12:11, “My father scourged you with whips, I will scourge you with scorpions.”

general eclipse: total darkness

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