Notes on Act I, scene ii

Castruchio: his name implies impotence, foreshadowing his wife's infidelity later in the play

presence: chamber where nobles received official visitors

make me the partaker: inform me about

took the ring: in jousting the goal is to catch a ring on one's lance

gravity: feigned seriousness, indicating Ferdinand's interest in toying with his subjects

office: duties

quiet: peace or order

broke: told about

children of Ismael: Arabs; Ishmael was one of the sons of Abraham; the other being Isaac, forefather of the Jews

tents: wrapped up in bandages

chirugeons: surgeons; if everyone listened to his wife's advice, no one would fight and surgeons would be out of business.

jennet: small Spanish horse

Pliny's opinion: Pliny was a Roman writer who proposed in his Natural History that horses were impregnated by the wind.

ballasted with quick-silver: weighed down with mercury, implying speed (Mercury was the messenger of the gods).

reels from the tilt: shies away from the jousting ring (but also a sexual allusion, avoiding sexual intercourse).

touchwood: kindling for starting a fire; Ferdinand thinks they should wait for him to laugh before they do.

fool: Castruccio has a jester employed in his house; but Ferdinand may be suggesting that Castruccio is the fool, as later we learn that his wife Julia is having an affair with the Cardinal.

wrinkle: laughing will give her wrinkles

out of compass: excessively (pun on mathematical instrument)

Grecian horse: the famous Trojan horse by which Greece defeated Troy.

galleys: ships

brave: daring, willing to wager large bets on tennis games, risk his reputation as a churchman by openly courting women, and fight duels (single combats)

flashes: attractive qualities on the outside, but looks are deceiving.

spring in his face: what appears to be clear water on the surface is actually the breeding ground for ugly toads.

jealous: suspicious

Hercules: the great mythical hero who endured twelve labors

intelligencers: informants

political: scheming

primitive decency: following the tradition of the early church (a Protestant complaint that the Catholic church had over the centuries strayed far from the original purity of the early Christian community)

given too much of him:  “enough about him”

bench: the judge's bench

information: Ferdinand condemns or rewards men arbitrarily, based on unsubstantiated rumors and the word of informants.

shrewd turns: he only repays debts to those who have wronged him, i.e. revenge.

oracles: prophecies or wise sayings

verily: truly

medals: coins, cast in the same mold or form; the siblings may look alike but differ greatly in character (temper).

discourse: speaking, which is so delightful that you will be sorry when she finishes.

vainglory: vanity, showing off; you'll wish she were not so modest about her gift of delightful conversation

galliard: dance: her speech could make a paralyzed man jump up and dance

continence: restraint which keeps one from lustful (lascivious) thoughts of her.

shrifts: confessions; the Duchess is more virtuous asleep than most women at confession

flatt'ring glasses: mirrors; she should become the model for all ladies' appearance and behavior.

play the wire-drawer: to spin out a wire from metal; i.e. he exaggerates her qualities

case: close

stains: deprives the past of luster 

lights: brightens the future

provisorship:  keeper of the horses

leaguer: army camp

caroches: coaches, carriages

haven:  harbor

entertain ... intelligence: employ Bosola as your spy in the Duchess' household

furtherance: support

oblique: sinister

physiognomy: the art of studying faces to discover personality traits, which Bosola discredits

cozens: deceives; Bosola distrusts the medical practice of diagnosing illness by examining urine (not the precise science it is today)

shaking: those who have been “shaken” by deceitful people are less likely to be deceived again

What follows: where's the catch? what must I do for this payment?

showers: Zeus impregnated Danae (the mother of Perseus) by falling into her lap as a golden shower; Zeus was also known for hurling lightning, so Bosola suggests that this shower of gold must be followed by some deadly deed.

post: in haste

haviour: behavior

affects: favors, has feelings for

familiars: a spirit in the form of an animal, such as a witch's black cat; also a term used to describe informants for the Inquisition.

quaint: cunning

angels: gold coins which often had an angel imprinted on them; Bosola recognizes that these are actually devils, tempting him to evil.

bounty: generosity; usually a noble virtue, but coming from the Duke, it leads only to villainy.

candies ... complemental: thus the devil makes sin seem sweet, and what heaven calls vile, he describes as something complimentary or good. (complemental: fine behavior which completes a gentleman, OED).

old garb of melancholy: Bosola may have worn black in the original production (cf. Hamlet)

politic dormouse: a quiet, unnoticed schemer

in a dream: while he slept

let good men: Good men should desire only a good reputation for their good deeds, for if they are rewarded with promotion or riches, they may be corrupted.

preach: even a wicked man tells the truth sometimes

high blood: either her noble family lineage or her passionate nature

luxurious: lustful

livers: the liver was thought to be the source of passion, rather than the heart

Laban's sheep: in Laban's flock were many spotted sheep (Genesis 30:29-43).

I'll never marry: notice that her speech is cut off. Perhaps she would say, "I will never marry against the honor of the family" or something to that effect, but in any case she doesn't necessarily lie to her brothers about her intentions, but considers it none of their business.

motion: resolve

rank: corrupt

honey-dew: a sweet, sticky substance that was also poisonous, just as one is drawn by temptation to something that looks enticing but ensnares us

fame: reputation

belie: the face may disguise the inner feelings

Vulcan's engine: the net made of invisible mesh in which Vulcan caught his wife Venus and her lover Mars.

executed: with double meaning of "carried out" and "put to death"

mischief: misfortune

Wisdom begins at the end: a wise person looks to the probable end results before acting.

studied: rehearsed

poniard: dagger

rusty: either (1) he wants to make use of it, thus keeping it from rusting, or (2) covered in the rust red color of blood

give o'er: give up, quit having these parties

chargeable revels: expensive parties, masquerades mentioned in the next line

lamprey: eel-like fish without bones, thus a crude sexual innuendo to the male genitals

neat: handsome

footsteps: making them the steps toward her goal, stepping over their authority

assay: try

winked: acted with my eyes shut, ignoring the consequences; but notice her own admission at the end of the scene that she is blinded by passion.

ingenious and hearty: frank (ingenuous) and heartfelt

arras: wall tapestries

clew: not to be confused with clue, but a thread to help one find the way through a maze

triumphs: entertainments

husbands: stewards of a household

for your sake: thanks to you

perfect memory: of sound mind

procur'd: caused

good deed: in her will she intends to reward those who have done her service; Antonio takes her meaning another way, perhaps on purpose, to play along if he already suspects her interest in him

winding sheet: burial shroud; the Duchess is asking facetiously, "Should I join my dead husband in the grave?"

couple: two bed sheets, with an allusion to coupling as in sex. Antonio continues to play along, teasing her with a sexual innuendo; in his own way he is as bold as she is, as he knows someone of his status cannot marry a duchess.

St. Winifred: a 7th century saint beheaded for rejecting a lover's advances

or heaven or hell: marriage can be either heaven or hell, but nothing in between (as in the Catholic belief in purgatory)

affect it: feel about it

banishment: either his late journeys abroad, making him lonely, or his banishment from the married state

wanton: rascal

sovereign: effective

saucy and ambitious devil: sorcerers would conjure up devils within a magic circle; here Antonio looks through the ring (circle) to see the Duchess, whom he assumes may be toying dangerously with his affections.

without: unless

prattling visitants: men who are mad with ambition are bound (girt = girdled) not by chains but by flattering courtiers

Conceive not ... tend: don't think I can't see where this is leading

ill to sell yourself: don't sell yourself short, you are too modest

false lights: tradesmen would try to sell faulty goods in poor lighting, but the Duchess thinks that Antonio has nothing shameful to hide

progress: seek an honest man in yourself

doubles: speaks with double meanings; we cannot speak our love openly but must hint at it

simple virtue: following the path of simply virtue would mean speaking plainly and truthfully at all times

alabaster: white stone used to carve funeral monuments, in this case the one at her first husband's grave

I use but half a blush in't: I am bold and unashamed to declare my love, as I am not a virgin in these matters.

'cause: so that

Quietus est: "It is finished" (Latin), written at the closing of an account or in this case, the end of Antonio's status as her servant. However, Hamlet uses the term to refer to death, "release from life" (III.i) which Webster may be suggesting here.

without this circumference: outside this room, or perhaps outside the circle of her arms around him

scatter the tempest: calm the storm; but the Duchess is naive concerning the seriousness of her brothers' threats.

savour'd: resembled, tasted like

Per verba [de] presenti: "through words about the present" (Latin); she claims that their vows to each other are legally binding, although not sanctified by the Catholic church. However, even in Protestant England the law required two witnesses (only Cariola is present), so that audiences at the time may not have considered their union legitimate.

gordian: the Gordian knot was supposedly unbreakable; whoever achieved this feat would rule Asia. Alexander the Great simply cut it in two with his sword (as will violence cut apart their union).

spheres ... music: the heavenly bodies were thought to make music as they made their rounds through the sky.

still: always

palms: it was thought that palm trees had to be male and female to bear fruit.

force: enforce; that is, how can the church make this marriage any more valid than our vow of love does?

faster: more securely

blind: fortune was thought to be blind (because it doesn't always come to those who deserve it); however, in this case, the Duchess's words are tragically ironic. 

conceit: meaning; what are you up to?

humourous: not laughable, but affected by ill-humours, emotionally unbalanced (see commentary for theory of humours)

Alexander and Lodowick: two friends who looked alike, one married the other's wife on his behalf, but honored her virginity by placing a sword between them in bed.

shroud: bury

spirit of greatness: Cariola questions whether the Duchess’ independent spirit to follow her own path regardless of the dangers comes from her “greatness,” her confidence in her aristocratic heritage, or from her supposed weakness as a woman to be led more by passion than reason, a common perception of women in that time.


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