John Webster – “The Duchess of Malfi” Act II scene 2

Bosola says “Aha! Now when she has eaten apricots I am 100% certain Duchess is pregnant!” He stops an Old Lady (I’m not sure if it’s the same one as in the previous scene, I guess so), who is apparently in a hurry to help Duchess with a silly joke about a young woman who wants very much to see a bottle factory to get to know what instrument can swell a bottle into the shape of a woman’s belly. (The footnote adds helpfully that there was in fact a bottle factory near the Blackfriars theatre.) The lady notices that Boscola’s humous is very misogynistic, but Boscola answers he just likes to mention women’s frailties now and then. Then he makes a series of jokes which are rather lost on me, not only because they are misogynistic, but also quite obscure. They all have women’s venality as their topic, and while I get the reference to Danae (who received Jove as the golden rain), I don’t quite get what the “mathematical” joke about all lines meeting in one centre is about. The Old Lady leaves quietly, instead of clocking him one.

Antonio enters with other officers and commands them to lock all the gates to the castle. One servant enters, crying about a treachery and Bosola is seriously scared the apricots might in fact be poisoned, without him knowing it. But instead the servant relates a ridiculous gossip he heard from a kitchen scullion (“black guard”) about a Swiss guard caught in Duchess’s bedroom, with a pistol in his codpiece and bullets for his buttons. While the story is made up, it again hints at the possible sexual indiscretion. Antonio says to all the gathered officers and soldiers that some expensive plate and jewellery has been stolen, so he asks everybody to lock himself up in his bedroom for the night and to send the keys of their chests and doors to the bedroom. Let no innocent men feel offended by the suspicion, we are just checking all the possible hypotheses in order to rule you out. It is obviously a ruse to keep the male inhabitants of the castle unaware of the childbirth. Then Antonio sends off Delio to Rome on some kind of a secret mission. Delio assures him that he is going to keep his secret, and Antonio says he doesn’t doubt it, but he still has a premonition about how it’s not going to end well. Delio pooh-poohs it, saying we should not be afraid of superstitions. Cariola enters to inform Antonio that Duchess has given birth to his son, and the happy father decides he has to cast a horoscope for him immediately. Calculating horoscopes before the age of computers was a rather mundane task, involving a lot of mathematical calculations, so I guess it’s going to keep him occupied for some time.


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