skip to Main Content
The Duchess of Malfi

Act 3 Scene 5

On a road near Loretto

DUCHESS: Banish’d Ancona?

ANTONIO: Yes, you see what power
Lightens in great men’s breath.

DUCHESS: Is all our train
Shrunk to this poor remainder?

ANTONIO: These poor men,
Which have got little in service, vow
To take your fortune; but your wiser buntings,
Now they are fledg’d, are gone.

DUCHESS: They have done wisely.
This puts me in mind of death. Physicians thus,
With their hands full of money, use to give o’er
Their patients.

ANTONIO: Right the fashion of the world.
From decay’d fortunes every flatterer shrinks;
Men cease to build where the foundation sinks.

DUCHESS: I had a very strange dream tonight.

ANTONIO: What was’t?

DUCHESS: Methought I wore my coronet of state,
And on a sudden all the diamonds
Were chang’d to pearls.

ANTONIO:  My interpretation
Is, you’ll weep shortly; for to me the pearls
Do signify your tears.

DUCHESS: The birds that live i’th’ field
On the wild benefit of nature, live
Happier than we; for they may choose their mates,
And carol their sweet pleasures to the spring.

Enter BOSOLA  with a letter

BOSOLA: You are happily o’erta’en.

DUCHESS: From my brother?

BOSOLA: Yes, from the Lord Ferdinand, your brother,
All love and safety.

DUCHESS: Thou dost blanch mischief,
Would’st make it white.
See, see, like to calm weather
At sea before a tempest, false hearts speak fair
To those they intend most mischief. [she reads the letter]
‘Send Antonio to me; I want his head in a business.’
politic equivocation!
He doth not want your counsel, but your head;
That is, he cannot sleep till you be dead.
And here’s another pitfall that’s strew’d o’er
With roses; mark it, ’tis a cunning one;
‘I stand engaged for your husband, for several debts at
Naples: let not that trouble him; I had rather have his
heart than his money.’
And I believe so too.

BOSOLA: What do you believe?

DUCHESS: That he so much distrusts my husband’s love,
He will by no means believe his heart is with him,
Until he see it. The devil is not cunning enough
To circumvent us in riddles.

BOSOLA: Will you reject that noble and free league
Of amity and love which I present you?

DUCHESS: Their league is like that of some politic kings,
Only to make themselves of strength and power
To be our after-ruin. Tell them so.

BOSOLA: And what from you?

ANTONIO: Thus tell him; I will not come.

BOSOLA: And what of this?

ANTONIO: My brothers have dispers’d
Blood-hounds abroad, which till I hear are muzzled,
No truce, though hatch’d with ne’er such politic skill,
Is safe, that hangs upon our enemies’ will.
I’ll not come at them.

BOSOLA: This proclaims your breeding.
Every small thing draws a base mind to fear,
As the adamant draws iron. Fare you well, sir.
You shall shortly hear from ‘s.


DUCHESS: I suspect some ambush.
Therefore by all my love I do conjure you
To take your eldest son, and fly towards Milan.
Let us not venture all this poor remainder
In one unlucky bottom.

ANTONIO: You counsel safely.
Best of my life, farewell; since we must part,
Heaven hath a hand in’t, but no otherwise
Than as some curious artist takes in sunder
A clock or watch, when it is out of frame,
To bring’t in better order.

DUCHESS: I know not which is best,
To see you dead, or part with you. Farewell, boy.
Thou art happy, that thou hast not understanding
To know thy misery, for all our wit
And reading brings us to a truer sense
Of sorrow. In the eternal church, sir,
I do hope we shall not part thus.

ANTONIO: O, be of comfort!
Make patience a noble fortitude,
And think not how unkindly we are us’d.
Man, like to cassia, is prov’d best, being bruis’d.

DUCHESS: Must I, like to a slave-born Russian,
Account it praise to suffer tyranny?
And yet, O heaven, thy heavy hand is in’t.
I have seen my little boy oft scourge his top,
And compar’d myself to’t: naught made me e’er go right
But heaven’s scourge-stick.

ANTONIO: Do not weep.
Heaven fashion’d us out of nothing, and we strive
To bring ourselves to nothing. Farewell, Cariola,
And thy sweet armful. If I do never see thee more,
Be a good mother to your little ones,
And save them from the tiger. Fare you well.

DUCHESS: Let me look upon you once more, for that speech
Came from a dying father. Your kiss is colder
Than that I have seen an holy anchorite
Give to a dead man’s skull.

ANTONIO: My heart is turn’d to a heavy lump of lead,
With which I sound my danger. Fare you well.

Exit ANTONIO and elder son

DUCHESS: My laurel is all wither’d.

CARIOLA: Look, madam, what a troop of armed men
Make toward us.

Enter BOSOLA and SOLDIERS, with vizards

DUCHESS: O, they are very welcome!
When fortune’s wheel is over-charg’d with princes,
The weight makes it move swift. I would have my ruin
Be sudden. I am your adventure, am I not?

BOSOLA: You are. You must see your husband no more.

DUCHESS: What devil art thou that counterfeits heaven’s thunder?

BOSOLA: Is that terrible? I would have you tell me whether
Is that note worse that frights the silly birds
Out of the corn, or that which doth allure them
To the nets? You have hearken’d to the last too much.

DUCHESS: O misery! Like to a rusty o’er-charg’d cannon,
Shall I ne’er fly in pieces? Come, to what prison?

BOSOLA: To none.

DUCHESS: Whither, then?

BOSOLA: To your palace.

DUCHESS: I have heard that Charon’s boat serves to convey
All o’er the dismal lake, but brings none back again.

BOSOLA: Your brothers mean you safety and pity.

With such a pity men preserve alive
Pheasants and quails, when they are not fat enough
To be eaten.

BOSOLA: These are your children?


BOSOLA: Can they prattle?

But I intend, since they were born accurs’d,
Curses shall be their first language.

BOSOLA: Fie, madam,
Forget this base, low fellow.

DUCHESS: Were I a man,
I’d beat that counterfeit face into thy other.

BOSOLA: One of no birth.

DUCHESS: Say that he was born mean,
Man is most happy when’s own actions
Be arguments and examples of his virtue.

BOSOLA: A barren, beggarly virtue.

DUCHESS: I prithee who is greatest, can you tell?
Sad tales befit my woe: I’ll tell you one.
A salmon, as she swam unto the sea,
Met with a dog-fish, who encounters her
With this rough language: ‘Why art thou so bold
To mix thyself with our high state of floods,
Being no eminent courtier, but one
That for the calmest, and fresh time o’th’ year
Dost live in shallow rivers, rank’st thyself
With silly smelts and shrimps? and darest thou
Pass by our dog-ship without reverence?’
‘O,’ quoth the salmon, ‘sister, be at peace.
Thank Jupiter, we both have past the net!
Our value never can be truly known,
Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown.
I’ th’ market then my price may be the higher,
Even when I am nearest to the cook and fire.’
So, to great men the moral may be stretched;
Men oft are valu’d high, when th’ are most wretched.
But come, whither you please. I am arm’d ‘gainst misery;
Bent to all sways of the oppressor’s will.
There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.

They exit


Banish’d Ancona?: Banish’d from Ancona?

lightens: fires like gunfire (or lightning); or lights (falls) upon

train: following of servants, most of whom have abandoned her

poor men: the few loyal ones who have stayed behind

buntings: young birds

fledg’d: have learned to fly

give o’er: once the doctor has his money, he gives the patient over to death.

right: quite, exactly

carol: sing

o’erta’en: overtaken

blanch: whitewash

politic equivocation: scheming double talk

strew’d: covered (in order to hide)

circumvent: surround as in to trap

league: alliance

amity: friendship

politic: scheming

brothers: boldly Antonio calls them his brothers, whereas they do not consider his marriage to their sister legitimate.

proclaims: demonstrates your lowly birth

adamant: magnet

bottom: in one boat (don’t put all your eggs in one basket)

 in sunder: apart

out of frame: out of order

eternal church: heaven

cassia: bark that when crushed produces cinnamon

scourge: spin it by beating it with a stick

anchorite: religious hermit

sound: measure the depths (as on a ship)

laurel: a laurel wreath was usually a symbol of victory

vizards: visors covering their faces

over-charg’d: fortune’s wheel turns when over weighted with great men

counterfeits: only God should be able to break up a holy marriage (although she did not bother to seek the sanction of the church at the time)

whether is that note worse … nets: which is worse? the sound which frightens the birds to flee danger, or the one that tempts them to come too close and be caught? Bosola suggests that the duchess pursued temptation rather than her brothers’ warning, and so now pays the price.

o’er-charg’d: packed with too much gunpowder, causing it to explode

Charon: in Greek mythology, the boatman who ferries the dead across the river Styx to Hades.

prattle: talk

counterfeit face: referring to the visor over his face, but also to his hypocrisy

mean: a commoner, lowly born

prithee: pray thee

dog-ship: as in “our lordship”

Back To Top