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The Duchess of Malfi

Act 4 Scene 1

The court at Malfi, now serving as her prison

FERDINAND: How doth our sister Duchess bear herself
In her imprisonment?

BOSOLA: Nobly. I’ll describe her.
She’s sad, as one long us’d to’t, and she seems
Rather to welcome the end of misery,
Than shun it — a behaviour so noble,
As gives a majesty to adversity.
You may discern the shape of loveliness
More perfect in her tears than in her smiles.
She will muse for hours together; and her silence,
Methinks, expresseth more than if she spake.

FERDINAND: Her melancholy seems to be fortified
With a strange disdain.

BOSOLA: ‘Tis so, and this restraint,
Like English mastiffs that grow fierce with tying,
Makes her too passionately apprehend
Those pleasure’s she’s kept from.

FERDINAND: Curse upon her!
I will no longer study in the book
Of another’s heart. Inform her what I told you.


BOSOLA: All comfort to your grace.

DUCHESS: I will have none.
Pray thee, why dost thou wrap thy poison’d pills
In gold and sugar?

BOSOLA: Your elder brother, the Lord Ferdinand,
Is come to visit you and sends you word,
‘Cause once he rashly made a solemn vow
Never to see you more, he comes i’th’ night;
And prays you gently neither torch nor taper
Shine in your chamber. He will kiss your hand
And reconcile himself, but for his vow
He dares not see you.

DUCHESS: At his pleasure.
Take hence the lights; he’s come.


FERDINAND: Where are you?

DUCHESS: Here, sir.

FERDINAND: This darkness suits you well.

DUCHESS: I would ask you pardon.

FERDINAND: You have it;
For I account it the honorabl’st revenge
Where I may kill, to pardon. Where are your cubs?


FERDINAND: Call them your children,
For though our national law distinguish bastards
From true legitimate issue, compassionate nature
Makes them all equal.

DUCHESS: Do you visit me for this?
You violate a sacrament o’th’ church
Shall make you howl in hell for’t.

FERDINAND: It had been well,
Could you have liv’d thus always; for indeed,
You were too much i’th’ light. But no more;
I come to seal my peace with you. Here’s a hand,

Gives her a dead man’s hand

To which you have vow’d much love; the ring upon’t
You gave.

DUCHESS: I affectionately kiss it.

FERDINAND: Pray do, and bury the print of it in your heart.
I will leave this ring with you, for a love-token;
And the hand, as sure as the ring; and do not doubt
But you shall have the heart too. When you need a friend,
Send it to him that ow’d it; you shall see
Whether he can aid you.

DUCHESS: You are very cold.
I fear you are not well after your travel.
Ha! lights! O, horrible!

FERDINAND: Let her have lights enough.


DUCHESS: What witchcraft doth he practice, that he hath left
A dead man’s hand here?

Here is discovered, behind a traverse, the artificial
figures of Antonio and his children, appearing as
if they were dead

BOSOLA: Look you, here’s the piece from which ’twas ta’en.
He doth present you this sad spectacle,
That now you know directly they are dead,
Hereafter you may wisely cease to grieve
For that which cannot be recovered.

DUCHESS: There is not between heaven and earth one wish
I stay for after this. It wastes me more
Than were’t my picture, fashion’d out of wax,
Stuck with a magical needle, and then buried
In some foul dunghill; and yond’s an excellent property
For a tyrant which I would account mercy.

BOSOLA: What’s that?

DUCHESS: If they would bind me to that lifeless trunk
And let me freeze to death.

BOSOLA: Come, you must live.

DUCHESS: That’s the greatest torture souls feel in hell;
In hell that they must live, and cannot die.
Portia, I’ll new kindle thy coals again,
And revive the rare and almost dead example
Of a loving wife.

BOSOLA: O fie! despair? remember
You are a Christian.

DUCHESS: The church enjoins fasting:
I’ll starve myself to death.

BOSOLA: Leave this vain sorrow.
Things being at the worst, begin to mend. The bee
When he hath shot his sting into your hand,
May then play with your eyelid.

DUCHESS: Good comfortable fellow,
Persuade a wretch that’s broke upon the wheel
To have all his bones new set; entreat him live
To be executed again. Who must dispatch me?
I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in’t ‘gainst my will.

BOSOLA: Come, be of comfort; I will save your life.

DUCHESS: Indeed I have not leisure to tend so small a business.

BOSOLA: Now, by my life, I pity you.

DUCHESS: Thou art a fool then,
To waste thy pity on a thing so wretched
As cannot pity itself. I am full of daggers.
Puff, let me blow those vipers from me.


What are you?

SERVANT: One that wishes you long life.

DUCHESS: I would thou wert hang’d for the horrible curse
Thou hast given me. I shall shortly grow one
Of the miracles of pity. I’ll go pray, no,
I’ll go curse.

BOSOLA: O, fie!

DUCHESS: I could curse the stars.

BOSOLA: O, fearful!

DUCHESS: And those three smiling seasons of the year
Into a Russian winter, nay the world
To its first chaos.

BOSOLA: Look you, the stars shine still.

DUCHESS: O, but you must remember,
My curse hath a great way to go.
Plagues that make lanes through largest families
Consume them.

BOSOLA: Fie, lady!

DUCHESS: Let them like tyrants
Never be remember’d, but for the ill they have done.
Let all the zealous prayers of mortified
Churchmen forget them.

BOSOLA: O, uncharitable!

DUCHESS: Let heaven a little while cease crowning martyrs
To punish them! Go, howl them this and say, I long to bleed.
It is some mercy when men kill with speed.


FERDINAND: Excellent, as I would wish; she’s plagu’d in art.
These presentations are but fram’d in wax
By the curious master in that quality,
Vincentio Lauriola, and she takes them
For true substantial bodies.

BOSOLA: Why do you do this?

FERDINAND: To bring her to despair.

BOSOLA: ‘Faith, end here,
And go no farther in your cruelty.
Send her a penitential garment to put on
Next to her delicate skin, and furnish her
With beads, and prayer-books.

FERDINAND: Damn her! That body of hers,
While that my blood ran pure in’t, was more worth
Than that which thou wouldst comfort, called a soul.
I will send her masques of common courtesans,
Have her meat serv’d up by bawds and ruffians,
And, ’cause she’ll needs be mad, I am resolv’d
To remove forth the common hospital
All the mad-folk, and place them near her lodging.
There let them practice together, sing and dance,
And set their gambols to the full o’th’ moon.
If she can sleep the better for it, let her.
Your work is almost ended.

BOSOLA: Must I see her again?


BOSOLA: Never.

FERDINAND: You must.

BOSOLA: Never in mine own shape.
That’s forfeited by my intelligence,
And this last cruel lie. When you send me next,
The business shall be comfort.

FERDINAND: Very likely;
Thy pity is nothing of kin to thee. Antonio
Lurks about Milan. Thou shalt shortly thither
To feed a fire as great as my revenge,
Which never will slack till it have spent his fuel.
Intemperate agues make physicians cruel.

They exit


mastiffs: type of dog

study in the book: try to understand another’s heart

poison’d pills: why do you speak kind words when you only mean me ill?

vow: see Act 3, scene 2

bastards: Ferdinand does not consider the Duchess’ marriage valid so her children would be illegitimate.

sacrament: their marriage; “what God hath joined, let no man put asunder” as Ferdinand has separated the Duchess and Antonio.

shall: which shall

i’ th’ light: you were seen too much in public, thus attracting the attention of lovers

ring: actually this is her ring, taken from her by the Cardinal in 3.4. Ferdinand wants her to think that this is Antonio; she doesn’t realize that it’s only a hand until Ferdinand moves away from her, leaving her holding the hand.

ow’d: owned it (send for Antonio, and see if he can help you)

children: this may be a mistake, as only the older son went with Antonio, the Duchess has the others with her in prison (mentioned in 4.2)

wastes: hurts

needle: reference to black magic, piercing the likeness of someone with a needle

yond’s: yonder is, there is

trunk: body of Antonio

Portia: wife of Brutus (assassin on Julius Caesar), who killed herself by swallowing hot coals.

Christian: the church forbids suicide

enjoins: encourages

bee: even a bee that hurts you can then turn playful (bad events often turn to good)

comfortable: unsuffering

wheel: the rack where a person was stretched until their bones were broken; the duchess criticizes Bosola for encouraging her to live just so her suffering can continue.

dispatch: kill

so small a business: she belittles the value of her life now

grow: become

miracles of pity: religious images for the purpose of making people feel pity on the suffering

smiling seasons: spring, summer, fall

winter: she curses the world to freeze over, even worse, to turn the world back into its original chaotic state before creation

stars shine still: Bosola means either that there remains some light (hope) in this dark world, or in contrast, that Heaven is unmoved/ unaffected by the sufferings of people below, “the insignificance of human agony before the impassive universe” (Lucas)

them: her brothers

mortified: suffering

plagu’d in art: she suffers being fooled by a trick

curious: ingenious, expert

quality: craft

body: note Ferdinand’s obsession with his sister’s body

my blood: referring immediately to their family’s honor, but also we learn in the next scene that they were twins

masques: performances with music and dance

needs be: chooses to be

gambols: play, games

full o’th’ moon: when madmen are thought to be at their worst (hence the word “lunatic”)

shape: that is, without a disguise

intelligence: spying; Bosola says he is finished with cruelties

kin: pity is no relation to you; it doesn’t suit you

intemperate agues: excessive fevers make physicians resort to desperate measures

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