Bosola explains to Duchess that once she has seen with her own eyes Antonio and her children dead, she may stop grieving for what can’t be recovered (that’s a really ineffective way of consoling somebody in mourning). Duchess, however, seems to realize that these are only was figures, because she says they “waste” her as much as if her own wax effigy was pierced by a witch with needles. So… she is moved by them because they show her the inevitable fate of her family, I guess? She wishes to commit suicide like Portia, Brutus’s wife, but Bosola reminds her that as a Christian, she mustn’t do it. She answers that the Church still condones fasting and she can starve herself to death. Bosola tries some more ineffective comforting words (once things are at their worst, they start to mend and so on), but Duchess only wishes to die. A servant enters, seemingly for no better purpose than to wish Duchess a long life, and to give her again an opportunity to say how much she despises life. She curses the world and her brothers from the bottom of her heart, and then she leaves with the servant, seemingly for no better purpose than just because it was easier to accomplish on the 17th-c. stage than showing Bosola returning to the room where Ferdinand is.
So they leave and Ferdinand enters, very odiously pleased with himself and with what he believes is convincing his sister that her family is dead. Bosola pleads with him to finish tormenting her there and instead let her do traditional penance, with wearing serge and praying. But Ferdinand now intends to surround her by prostitutes and mad people, released for that occasion from the local asylum. Bosola refuses to see Duchess again, because of the role he played in this last cruel lie and the fact that she is aware of his betrayal. Ferdinand observes this pity is uncharacteristic for Bosola, but he can serve him as well by hunting down Antonio in Milan.
From the story of love crossed by court intrigues we move into a long horror. Ferdinand asks Bosola how Duchess bears her imprisonment and Bosola tells him she bears it nobly. There is some awkwardness regarding the stage movement – it would seem more natural if Ferdinand told Bosola to announce him, waited and then entered Duchess’s room, but it was not really feasible on the thrust stage. So Ferdinand leaves, and Duchess enters. Bosola tells her that Ferdinand wishes to meet her but he can’t see her, because at their last parting he swore he would never see her again. So he asks her to meet him in a completely dark room. Duchess agrees and Ferdinand enters. He offends her by calling her children “cubs” and the indignant Duchess tells him she was properly married and he is going to howl in hell for disparaging the sacrament of marriage. Ferdinand answers, punning, that it were better Duchess always lived in this darkness, because she was “too much i’ th’ light”, meaning both literal light and her “light” behaviour. Then he says he’s come to make peace with her and as a proof of that he gives her what she believes to be his hand – except that it is a dead man’s hand. Duchess feels it is too cold and at first she is afraid Ferdinand might be ill, but soon she realizes her mistake and calls for the lights. Ferdinand leaves, and when the lights are brought, Duchess sees a curtain unfold and behind it a group of artificial statues of Antonio and his children, seemingly dead.
Duchess and Antonio part, with the sad feeling that they see each other for the last time in this world. Antonio asks Cariola to take good care of his two younger children. When he leaves, Bosola comes back, this time wearing a mask and with a troop of armed men. Duchess is resigned to her fate and asks Bosola where he is going to take her. He tells her he is going to take her back to her palace and that she mustn’t see her husband anymore. He tells her her brothers promise her safety and pity, but Duchess answers scornfully it is the kind of pity offered to pheasants which are not yet fat enough to be eaten. Bosola asks whether her children can already speak, and Duchess says no, but “since they were born accursed/curses shall be their first language”. Bosola tells Duchess to forget Antonio, “this base, low fellow”, and Duchess answers that if she were a man, she would beat his fake face (i.e. the mask) into the other. In an argument which is an interesting reversal of their argument from a previous scene, Bosola despises Antonio’s low birth, and Duchess defends his real virtues. She answers Bosola with a fable about a salmon who, swimming into the sea, met with a dogfish who chastised her for being too lowly-born (in a river) for swimming now in a sea as well as for not paying him enough reverence. The salmon answers him “Our price can be determined when we are both caught and in the fish-market; then I may be valued more highly, but it is only because I am more fit to be eaten.” The same goes for people: “Men oft are valued high, when they’re most wretched”. She follows him despondently, thus ending Act III.
Antonio and Duchess la Bment their present condition, banished from Ancona and with a dwindling retinue. They make some philosophical remarks about some men’s opportunism. Duchess says she had a dream in which she wore her coronet of diamonds and all the diamonds were turned into pearls; Antonio interprets it as a sign of tears. Bosola comes with a letter from Ferdinand, promising love and safety. Duchess does not believe him – did she cotton on to the fact that Cardinal and Ferdinand seemed to be informed in advance about their plans? She reads some lines from the letter which seem like threats cleverly disguised as professions of affection: Ferdinand writes he wants Antonio’s head in a business and he’d rather have his heart than his money. Duchess and Antonio reject the offer and say they won’t come near Ferdinand. Bosola tries to shame Antonio into accepting, saying that his baseless fear shows his lack of breeding, but to no avail. When he leaves, Duchess and Antonio decide to part, because Duchess believes they should not “venture all this poor remainder in one unlucky bottom”, i.e. not put all their eggs in one basket. Thus, Antonio should take their eldest son and flee to Milan. Duchess says good-bye to her son in a heart-reding scene. Luckily he’s still too young to realize what is going on. They utter many noble sentiments about how this suffering is going to make them better and stronger: Duchess compares herself to her son’s spinning top, which can be made to go right only when it is whipped. Similarly, she can be on the right course only when she is beaten by Heaven’s scourge.
This is a strange scene, because none of the main characters says a word – instead we get a commentary from two onlookers and a song sung by church officials. The viewers are two pilgrims in Loreto, who are looking forward to seeing both Cardinal officially divesting himself of his church post to become a general as well as Duchess arriving in Loreto with her retinue. I wonder whether it’s a real ceremony or something that Webster made up. My whole knowledge here is based on the beginning of The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Julius II has no problem with switching from being a general to being a priest in a matter of seconds, but that might be just a filmmaker’s vision. Anyway, after the ceremomy of changing Cardinal into a general, accompanied by a song sung by other priests, wishing him all the success in his new walk of life (which Webster disavowed, so it’s yet another example of playwrights collaborating), Duchess arrives with Antonio and her children and in a kind of dumb show they are banished from Ancona and Duchess has the wedding ring taken off from her hand. The pilgrims are shocked both by Duchess marrying down but also by her brother’s cruelty. One says that the Pope, by Ferdinand’s instigation, seized control of her dukedom (but what about this young Duke of Malfi?) The other concludes by saying that once you’re unlucky, all things conspire against you and they leave.
In Rome, Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste (the would-be suitor of Duchess), Marquis of Pescara as well as Silvio and Delio gather together for a counsel about the impending war. On the side, Ferdinand with Delio and Silvio make a lot of very elaborate jokes about what a poor soldier Malateste is: he knows gunpowder only as a substance alleviating toothache, his only concern in a battle is to protect his mistress’s scarf etc. Bosola enters and speaks with Ferdinand and Cardinal, again out of the audience’s and other characters’ hearing, so all we get are the comments of other characters: Pescara is afraid Bosola brings some bad news about the discontent in the army, and other characters report on how angry Ferdinand and Cardinal seem. Delio, interestingly enough, says that Bosola was as a student at Padua a first-rate scholar, the implication being that his melancholy temper comes from too much studying, as was then commonly believed. Then Ferdinand and Cardinal return to the front of the stage (I imagine) and we get their side of the story: they are of course very angry, and Ferdinand even doubts if Duchess’s children with Antonio were baptized. Cardinal is going to ask the state of Ancona to banish Duchess and Antonio, and Ferdinand orders Bosola to write to Duchess’ young son by her first marriage to inform him about his mother’s dishonour. (I must say this young Duke of Malfi appears here deus ex machina – if he were underage, he should stay with his mother, and if he were of age, he should become the ruler of Malfi, so how come we have never heard about him?) Fernando commends for one hundred and fifty horsemen to meet him at the gate and all leave. I think what Webster does here is very interesting if sometimes clumsy, a little bit like cuts in film editing: there’s no point in hearing us Bosola say what we already know, so he switches instead to the other participants.
Duchess tests Bosola once again, saying that Antonio was basely born, but Bosola scorns this kind of thinking which values more highly men’s pedigrees than virtues and again sings the praises of the unjustly treated Antonio. Duchess then unfortunately spills the beans, admitting Antonio is her husband and the father of her three children. Bosola praises her marriage very highly and predicts it is going to go down in history as a laudable act. Duchess asks him for secrecy which he of course promises. Then she reveals to him her plan of escape and asks him to follow Antonio to Ancona with her money and jewels, and she is going to join him there in a few days. Bosola advises to go there under the pretext of visiting the sanctuary in Loreto, which is not far from Ancona. Cariola thinks a better pretext would be going to take the waters in Lucca or in Spa in Germany because she doesn’t like like lying about sacred things like pilgrimages. But Duchess shushes her and both leave to pack for the journey. Bosola, left alone, reflects upon his predicament of the informer – he realizes it’s a shitty job and morally dubious, but now there’s nothing left to him but pass the information to his employer.