John Webster – “The Duchess of Malfi” Act II scene 1 (the end)

Bosola answers Antonio that he’s not ambitious, speaking in metaphors about how people should not ride horses faster than their minds. Antonio says something about Bosola looking up to heaven, but the devil, who rules the air, blocking his sight. Bosola answers with a tirade about how high-born people are no better than commoners, which does not quite gel with what Antonio has just said, unless Bosola feels patronized by him (and Antonio, though a steward, does have some distant aristocratic relatives). Duchess enters and she exhibits all the symptoms of pregnancy: she is tetchy with her ladies, complaining about a heartburn, which was called back then “the mother”, adding another layer of meaning. She asks Antonio whether it is true that French courtiers wear their hats in front of the king, and he says it’s true. She says they should implement the custom as well and get rid of the obsolete ceremonies consisting in removing “a piece of felt”, starting with Antonio. But Antonio, apparently fearful of betraying them, does not agree and says it’s a nice sign of respect, practised by people even in the countries far colder than France.

Bosola then administers his pregnancy test, presenting Duchess with his apricots. Duchess thanks him and devours them greedily, even though Bosola suggests she should pare them because the gardener, wanting to speed up the ripening, kept them in horse dung. (Bleh. I would suggest washing.) But Duchess does not heed his advice, saying that he must be joking. Bosola makes some metaphorical remarks about how wonderful the process of grafting is, which allows a fruit tree to grow upon an ordinary one, alluding to Duchess’s pregnancy, which is also in a sense “grafting” of a new life. Duchess after eating too many apricots feels her stomach has swollen (Bosola has some ironic asides about how it swelled some time ago) and soon she starts to feel the first pains of premature labour. She is led away to her bedchamber. Antonio is very confused, because it happened too quickly and there is not time left to take Duchess away from the palace into a hiding place. Delio confirms with Antonio that the attending women are, however, prepared, and so is a secret means of transport for the midwife. He advises Antonio to make use of them and to spread the news that Duchess was poisoned by the apricots, so it will explain why she keeps to her bedchamber. If any physicians, however, want to visit her, they are to be told that she trusts only her own antidotes and does not want to be poisoned again by their medicines.

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