The song from a play by Dryden is a little amuse-bouche before the long, serious sataire of Absalom and Achitophel, a poem so wrapped up with the contemporary political crises that an introduction to it covered most of my two-page reading installment. This song, in contrast, is a rather light-hearted confession by a lady (we know it because she refers to her spouse as “he) that she sees no reason to be bound by the marriage vow when the feeling which inspired it is long gone. There is no point in being jealous of each other if all they can give to their partner is pain, so she thinks she is absolutely free to look for her pleasure elsewhere and give her husband leave to do so as well.
Cardinal enters, reading what seems to be a theological treatise. He wonders aloud, undoubtedly thinking about his own predicament, why the author of this book claims that the fire in hell is the same but it burns the sinners with different force, depending on the nature of their sin. He says that even when he looks into his fish-pond, he sees a fellow seeming to try to strike him with a rake. Bosola and the servant enter with Antonio’s body. Cardinal observes Bosola looks ghastly and Bosola explains that’s because he came to kill him. Cardinal tries to plead with Bosola, promising to share his income with him, screams for help, yells, but all to no avail. Now, I would like very much to see this scene on stage, because the stage directions and what the characters say do not explain clearly the stage movement here. Anyway, Bosola says he has cut off Cardinal’s way of escape, so he can’t go any further but into Julia’s chamber. In the meantime, Pescara, Malateste and co. appear in the balcony (a feature of the early modern thrust stage), meaning that they are on a different floor or in a different wing of the palace. They hear Cardinal’s cries and they comment among themselves “Ha ha, how very realistic, of course we are not going there, we won’t be fooled”. Finally Pescara says “these sound a tad too realistic, I’ll go down and break the door open”. Others say “let’s follow him and see how Cardinal laughs at him.” In the meantime, Bosola kills the servant in another pointless act of cruelty. He says he does it so that the servant can’t open the door and call help, but couldn’t he send him away before he barricaded himself with Cardinal? Cardinal asks Bosola why he wants to kill him and Bosola explains it’s because of Antonio (whom he killed not so much because of Cardinal’s orders but because of poor judgement, so he has mainly himself to thank for that) and Duchess. He stabs Cardinal. Ferdinand enters (how? Did he have a room next to Julia’s or did he just wander there by chance?). In his deranged mind, he interprets the noises as the battle noise. He thinks Cardinal fights for the opposite side, in the melee wounds him and stabs Bosola as well. He makes some philosophical observations about how Caesar’s death was harder than Pompey’s, because Caesar died at the height of his success, and Pompey died disgraced. Pain is nothing, he says, in comparison with the apprehension of pain, just like we fear more the barber who has come to extract the aching tooth, than the actual toothache. Bosola stabs him and Ferdinand, now more lucid, remembers his sister and then observes that we are brought down by our own errors, like diamonds which are cut by their own dust. He dies.
Pescara & Co enter the room and see with horror the dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies strewing the floor. Bosola and Cardinal helpfully explain to them who killed whom and die. It’s interesting that Bosola seems to fear no hell, as opposed to Cardinal. He is happy to die in “so good a quarrel”, but does he really think that revenging Duchess makes up for everything he has done? In fact, he seems to indicate that he believes in no afterlife, when he compares people to “dead walls or vaulted graves, /That, ruined, yield no echo”. Thus, the ghostly conversation Antonio had with the echo in a previous scene would mean that Duchess is indeed in a better world. Anyway, he expires. Delio brings on stage Antonio’s eldest son, saying that he is going to “establish this young hopeful gentleman/In’s mother right”, which would seem like a spark of hope, except that a) what about Duchess’ son by first marriage, never seen, but mentioned in Act III? and b) Antonio asked before his death expressly to tell his son to “fly the courts of princes”. Of course he said it to Bosola, who dies before Delio appears on stage, so there’s likely some dramatic irony in there.
And that’s the end. My impression of the play could be best summed up as a string of scenes, some of them quite beautiful, which don’t quite add up. I wonder if it’s the result of somebody else having a hand in the play. I have a feeling that Webster is quite good in creating these individual scenes, more for their dramatic effect than for advancing the plotline. I can admire the individual moments like Antonio’s dialogue with the echo, but I have to pay for it by going through so many mind-boggling illogicalities and plotholes. The best scene in my opinion is Act 3 scene 2, where we have first rather sweet marital banter of Antonio and Duchess, and then after they are discovered by Ferdinand, Duchess thinking quick on her feet to save the situation. The first part made me wish Webster tried his hand in comedy, although comedy requires even more airtight writing and ability to control complicated plots, so perhaps Webster realized it was not quite his forte. The second part is so well-written it makes me think it was the only scene written by one playwright from the beginning until the end.
Cardinal enters with Malatesta, Pesara etc. He tells them not to stay up with Ferdinand tonight because he’s getting better.”Even if you hear him having one of his fits, please swear you won’t get up”, he says. “Neither you nor any of your servants. I am going to test you by getting up in the middle of the night and crying out for help, but even then don’t get up”. Instead of getting super-suspicious, all the men promise not to get up, even if Cardinal’s throat were being cut. Actually, I don’t think you can make a lot of noise if you are having your throat slashed and I sense here a big Chekhov’s gun being hanged rather awkwardly. Left alone, Cardinal explains to us that he has made all these precautions so that nobody interferes with Bosola transporting Julia’s body. Once he’s done with it, he’s dead. It’s not a theatrical convention (“we pretend we can hear characters’ thoughts”), Cardinal actually says these words aloud, all the better to be overheard by Bosola. Ferdinand wanders in, mumbling something about how strangling is a very quiet death, and Bosola interprets these words as a threat to his own safety. Antonio enters, led by a servant, who says he is going to fetch him a dark lantern. Antonio says “Could I take him [Cardinal] at his prayers/There were hopes of pardon”. And then Bosola stabs him, apparently believing he’s Cardinal, saying he won’t give him time to pray. Now, what the hell made him take Antonio for Cardinal? Do they have, like, freakishly similar voices? Does Bosola suffer from Fregoli syndrome? (in that case, I would suggest he pick his hits more advisedly, especially in the dark). The only semi-rational explanation I can think of was that Antonio and the servant were whispering, and from where Bosola was standing, he could only overhear “prayers”, which led him to believe the man who has just entered the hall is Cardinal. But really, it’s a plot-hole the size of Bosola’s stupid head.
Anyway, now of course Bosola laments his fate and says Antonio was the one man he wished to protect. Well, maybe you should have thought about it before you started to stab random guys in the dark. The servant returns and starts to cry, Bosola tells him to shut up. Then, to make Antonio die more quickly, he tells him that his wife and two children are dead. Way to go, Bosola, you are really great at consoling dying men. Antonio says it’s all for the best because he now really wishes to die. He utters some usual sentiments about how all life is vanity and asks Bosola to give his regards to Delio and help his son to run away. He expires. Bosola tells the servant to help him move the body to Julia’s apartment.
Antonio and Delio walk around Cardinal’s palace. Delio does a bit of tourist-guide stuff, explaining that the castle grew out of the ruins of an ancient abbey and the remaining piece of the cloister gives the best echo he has ever heard; in fact, many people believe it’s a spirit that speaks back. Antonio says he loves sight-seeing old ruins like these because they show that buildings, like people, are subject to decay. The echo repeats his last words “Like death that we have”. Now the whole conversation is between Antonio, Delio and the echo, which as the stage directions tell us, is from Duchess’ grave. But Duchess was murdered in Amalfi, and transporting her body would be incur the risk of revealing her murder, so I guess that’s some kind of mystical connection that carries the voice of Duchess all the way to Milan (something like with Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester). The whole point of the conversation is that the echo tries to warn Antonio: run away, don’t go there, you won’t see your wife anymore. So does Delio, but Antonio insists, claiming he can’t go on like that anymore. Delio then says he is still going to support Antonio and he is going to take his son with him, so maybe Cardinal’s heart will soften when he sees his cute nephew. “I wouldn’t count on that”, would say the echo, but unfortunately she’s constrained only to repeat whatever other people say.
Julia says she does not hold a grudge against Cardinal because she betrayed him to Bosola (that’s the reason she told him she could not keep his secret), so they’re even stevens. Bosola, who has just jumped out of the closet, says she should have poisoned Cardinal first (how?), but Julia says what’s done can’t be undone and she expires. Cardinal asks why Bosola has come here and he answers he wanted to make sure Cardinal, unlike Ferdinand, is still in his right senses and thus can remember his service. Cardinal threatens to have him killed, but Bosola says obliquely his life is not at his disposal. Cardinal says “OK, so you know I am your fellow murderer” and Bosola rightly guesses that the reason why he pretended he wasn’t was that he wanted to dispose of Bosola and then lay the whole blame on him. Cardinal now tries to bribe Bosola with promises of great fortune if he kills Antonio and Bosola agrees. Cardinal offers to send him some helpers, but Bosola declines. Cardinal asks Bosola to take Julia’s body and Bosola comments darkly this thing about carrying bodies has become lately a custom with him. Cardinal tells him to come to him after midnight to remove Julia’s body to her own lodging, and then he is going to give out that she died of the plague. Bosola asks about her husband and Cardinal says Castruccio is gone to Naples to take possession of Antonio’s citadel. Cardinal gives him the master key to his apartments and leaves. Left alone, Bosola soliloquizes a bit about how he is going to help Antonio, even though it’s dangerous, and about the guilt gnawing at him.
Julia, now turned into a stereotypical slut, declares her overwhelming passion for Bosola and says she would court him even if she saw him from her bedroom window. She asks Bosola about how she can prove her love for him and Bosola seizes the opportunity, asking her to wheedle out of Cardinal the reason for his sadness. “But why do you want to know it?”, asks Julia. Bosola explains that he’s heard rumours Cardinal is in disgrace with the emperor, and if it’s true, then he wants to run away from the sinking ship (the comparison he actually uses is mice which flee falling houses). Julia says she can support him but Bosola says he won’t quit his job as a soldier. “So, will you give me the news tomoroow?” “Why wait for tomorrow”, says Julia, “you can hear it today. Here, hide in my cabinet and listen while I manipulate Cardinal the way I want”. Cardinal enters and he calls servants to tell them that he forbids anybody to speak with Ferdinand without him present. He’s afraid somebody may learn from Ferdinand about their sister’s murder. When he sends the servants away, he notices Julia and declares as an aside that he’s rather tired of her. Julia starts her attack, trying to get Cardinal open to her. “Why so sad”, she says, “why can’t you share your secret with me, if after all our adulterous affair is also a secret, you can trust me, sharing your secret witheverybody is folly, but sharing it with nobody is tyranny” etc. Cardinal resists, saying that his secret is something he did and which he doesn’t want anybody to know about. Even Julia can’t be trusted, because this secret can spread through her veins like poison and kill her seven years hence. Finally he reveals his secret: the Duchess of Malfi and her two young children were strangled by his command four days ago. Julia is indeed shocked and declares she cannot keep such a horrible thing secret. Cardinal makes her swear on a book (most probably the Bible, but the text actually does not say it openly). Julia says she’ll do it “most religiously”, and there’s more than a hint of irony in swearing on the holy book to keep a crime secret. After she does so, Cardinal makes her kiss the cover and then declares it was poisoned. I wonder if showing the Bible on stage as a murder tool was too shocking/blasphemous and that’s why Webster fudges a bit the question of what the actual book is.
Bosola and Cardinal stay behind to speak in private. Cardinal knows perfectly well what happened to his sister, but feigns ignorance and asks Bosola how she is, so that the whole blame may be offloaded on Ferdinand. He also notices Bosola seems down and interprets it as him being concerned about losing his job due to Ferdinand’s madness. “Do what I tell you and you can ask me everything”, he offers. Bosola agrees and Cardinal explains he wants him to track Antonio down and kill him, so that he can marry his sister off to a more suitable candidate. As they are having this conversation, Julia comes in to tell Cardinal supper is ready and unbelievably, she falls violently in love with Bosola in the space of the few seconds she spends in one room with him. Bosola asks how he can find Antonio and Cardinal answers there are lots of ways. He can start with following Antonio’s friend, Delio: Antonio may accompany him to the Mass (although Cardinal believes him to be an atheist) or Bosola can try to bribe Delio’s friend. He can also investigate among Milanese money-lenders, because Antonio surely is in financial straits, or he can ask local picture makers if somebody has bought recently a portrait of Duchess (it seems the portraits of local celebrities were constantly on sale). Bosola promises to do this and Cardinal leaves.
What follows is surely one of the most surprising courtship scenes in drama: Julia enters with a pistol and tells him he must have bribed one of her servants to give her love potion, so now she has to kill him to kill her longing. This is a tad unexpected, since she must have met him at Malfi: Bosola gets a job at Duchess’ court in Act I, before her secret marriage, and Julia appears at Cardinal’s apartments in Act II, after the birth of Duchess’ first child, so at least nine months later, still seemingly in love with Cardinal. I am sure scholars have come up with all sorts of artful explanations about what this really means, but sorry, to me it’s just sloppy writing. Bosola disarms her and embraces her in his arms (he makes exactly this pun), but says “Be warned, I am a rough soldier, I cannot pay compliments”, which Julia doesn’t mind, and he in face does make some compliments about her eyes carrying darts in them and so on.