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The Duchess of Malfi

Act 3 Scene 1

The court at Malfi, several years later

ANTONIO: Our noble friend, my most beloved Delio!
O, you have been a stranger long at court.
Came you along with the Lord Ferdinand?

DELIO: I did, sir, and how fares your noble duchess?

ANTONIO: Right fortunately well. She’s an excellent
Feeder of pedigrees. Since you last saw her,
She hath had two children more, a son and daughter.

DELIO: Methinks ’twas yesterday; let me but wink,
And not behold your face, which to mine eye
Is somewhat leaner. Verily I should dream
It were within this half hour.

ANTONIO: You have not been in law, friend Delio,
Nor in prison, nor a suitor at the court,
Nor begg’d the reversion of some great man’s place,
Nor troubled with an old wife, which doth make
Your time so insensibly hasten.

DELIO: Pray, sir, tell me,
Hath not this news arriv’d yet to the ear
Of the lord Cardinal?

ANTONIO: I fear it hath.
The Lord Ferdinand, that’s newly come to court,
Doth bear himself right dangerously.

DELIO: Pray, why?

ANTONIO: He is so quiet that he seems to sleep
The tempest out, as dormice do in winter.
These houses that are haunted are most still
Till the devil be up.

DELIO: What say the common people?

ANTONIO: The common rabble do directly say
She is a strumpet.

DELIO: And your graver heads,
Which would be politic, what censure they?

ANTONIO: They do observe I grow to infinite purchase
The left-hand way, and all suppose the duchess
Would amend it if she could. For, say they,
Great princes, though they grudge their officers
Should have such large and unconfined means
To get wealth under them, will not complain
Lest thereby they should make them odious
Unto the people. For other obligation
Of love or marriage between her and me
They never dream of.

DELIO: The Lord Ferdinand is going to bed.


FERDINAND: I’ll instantly to bed,
For I am weary. I am to bespeak
A husband for you.

DUCHESS: For me, sir? Pray, who is’t?

FERDINAND: The great Count Malateste.

DUCHESS: Fie upon him;
A count? He’s a mere stick of sugar-candy;
You may look quite through him. When I choose
A husband, I will marry for your honor.

FERDINAND: You shall do well in’t. How is’t, worthy Antonio?

DUCHESS: But, sir, I am to have private conference with you
About a scandalous report is spread
Touching mine honor.

FERDINAND: Let me be ever deaf to’t.
One of Pasquil’s paper-bullets, court calumny,
pestilent air, which princes’ palaces
Are seldom purg’d of. Yet say that it were true,
I pour it in your bosom, my fix’d love
Would strongly excuse, extenuate, nay deny
Faults were they apparent in you. Go, be safe
In your own innocency.

DUCHESS: O bless’d comfort!
This deadly air is purg’d.

Exit all but Ferdinand and Bosola

FERDINAND: Her guilt treads on
Hot burning cultures. Now, Bosola,
How thrives our intelligence?

BOSOLA: Sir, uncertainly.
‘Tis rumour’d she hath had three bastards, but
By whom, we may go read i’th’ stars.

Hold opinion, all things are written there.

BOSOLA: Yes, if we could find spectacles to read them.
I do suspect there hath been some sorcery
Us’d on the duchess.

FERDINAND: Sorcery? To what purpose?

BOSOLA: To make her dote on some desertless fellow
She shames to acknowledge.

FERDINAND: Can your faith give way
To think there’s power in potions or in charms
To make us love whether we will or no?

BOSOLA: Most certainly.

FERDINAND: Away, these are mere gulleries, horrid things
Invented by some cheating mountebanks
To abuse us. Do you think that herbs or charms
Can force the will? Some trials have been made
In this foolish practice, but the ingredients
Were lenative poisons, such as are of force
To make the patient mad, and straight the witch
Swears by equivocation they are in love.
The witchcraft lies in her rank blood. This night
I will force confession from her. You told me
You had got within these two days a false key
Into her bed-chamber.

BOSOLA: I have.

FERDINAND: As I would wish.

BOSOLA: What do you intend to do?

FERDINAND: Can you guess?


FERDINAND: Do not ask then.
He that can compass me and know my drifts
May say he hath put a girdle ’bout the world
And sounded all her quicksands.

BOSOLA: I do not think so.

FERDINAND: What do you think, then, pray?

BOSOLA: That you are
Your own chronicle too much and grossly
Flatter yourself.

FERDINAND: Give me thy hand; I thank thee.
I never gave pension but to flatterers
Till I entertained thee. Farewell.
That friend a great man’s ruin strongly checks,
Who rails into his belief all his defects.

They exit


feeder of pedigrees: breeder of a noble family line

wink: it seems only a wink’s time while I  have been away (since I last saw your face)

this half hour: Webster’s self-referential joke on how rapidly the action progresses in his play, skipping years between scenes.

in law: involved in a lawsuit

reversion: inheritance

insensibly: no sense of time; if you had been involved in any of these tedious activities, the time would not have seemed so short.

news: of the children’s birth

still: quiet

till the devil be up: haunted houses are quiet until the devil rouses himself (that is, Ferdinand’s stillness is a dangerous sign).

strumpet: whore

graver: wiser, more serious

politic: more prudent

censure: judge, what opinion do they have

purchase: wealth

left-hand way: underhanded

amend: correct

princes: can refer to both male and female rulers

odious: unpopular

bespeak: arrange, speak in favor of. Earlier Ferdinand opposed any remarriage for the Duchess, but clearly what’s most important to him is having control over his sister. On the other hand, he may be testing her, knowing that she already has a lover.

Malateste: Webster may be making an obscene pun, as his name means “bad testes.”

sugar-candy: he’s a man of little substance, one can almost see through him.

Pasquil’s paper bullets: a statue in Rome where writers would post satirical bulletins.

calumny: slander

pestilent air: the poisonous environment of court gossip

I pour it in your bosom: I tell you confidentially

extenuate: lessen the seriousness of

cultures: blades of a plough; in Medieval times women accused of adultery had to demonstrate their innocence by walking unharmed over hot blades.

intelligence: spying

by whom: Bosola thinks that Antonio is the Duchess’ go-between, arranging lovers for her; as yet he doesn’t suspect that he is her husband.

may … stars: might as well try to find out by astrology as by credible evidence.

dote: show affection for

desertless: undeserving

faith: can you really believe

gulleries: tricks for the gullible

mountebanks: con-men who sell magic potions as cure-alls

lenative: lenitive, soothing; these medicines were sweet to take, but poisonous

equivocation: an oath that could mean more than one thing, ambiguous

her rank blood:: Ferdinand believes that the duchess’ lechery comes from her own nature, not sorcery

false key: duplicate key

compass: understand

drifts: plans, direction I am going

put a girdle: traveled around the world

sounded: measured the depths of (that is, if someone can figure Ferdinand out, he can accomplish anything).

chronicle: you speak too much of yourself

pension: payment

entertained: employed

that friend … defects: someone who tells a great man the truth about himself and points out his faults helps him to avoid misfortune.

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