The play begins at the Duchess of Malfi’s palace in Amalfi. Antonio, the Duchess’s steward, has just returned from the French court to Amalfi, where his friend and confidant Delio greets him. Delio asks what Antonio thought about his time in France, and Antonio responds that the French king is ruling well by ridding himself of flatterers and by treating his court like a fountain; good flows throughout the land when it is properly functioning, but if the fountain is poisoned near the head, death and disease flow to the country. The king is also surrounded by council and people who are unafraid to warn him and speak their minds.
Antonio’s opening praise of the French court sets up a comparison to the Italian court, which contemporary audiences would have associated with sophisticated corruption. An ideal court, he says, should spread goodness throughout a country, but the structure of government is such that by nature it is susceptible to poisoning by way of corruption or abuse of power. From the very start of the play, we are told that death and suffering have the potential to cascade downward from the head of a government.
Antonio changes the subject as he sees Bosola, a former employee of the Cardinal and known murderer, entering the room. Antonio then describes Bosola as a man who satirizes and speaks against the court, but only because he lacks the wealth and power to truly participate. After a few moments the Cardinal enters, and Delio and Antonio stand aside while the Cardinal and Bosola talk.
Bosola apparently takes a critical position in respect to government and courtly affairs, but Antonio believes this is only the case because Bosola lacks the money to be a courtier or a noble.
Bosola tries to talk to the Cardinal, but the Cardinal is extremely dismissive. Bosola believes he deserves better treatment, as he was formerly employed by the Cardinal and ended up serving a sentence in the galleys (forced labor whose severity is second only to the death sentence) while in his employment. The Cardinal dismisses Bosola and exits, and then Antonio and Delio approach.
The implication here (one that is reinforced later) is that the Cardinal ordered Bosola to commit the murder that landed him in the galleys. This is an early indication that the Cardinal is corrupt, though he tries to preserve his image by ignoring and not associating with Bosola.
Antonio asks Bosola what happened in the conversation, to which Bosola replies that the Cardinal and his brother are like plum trees rich with fruit, but only fed on by crows, magpies, and caterpillars. He says that he hopes to be one of their flatterers so that he can reap the benefits, advance his social status, and then leave. Bosola remarks that dogs and hawks get rewards after battle, but soldiers only get slings and crutches. He compares places in court to hospital beds and then exits.
The crows, magpies, and caterpillars in Bosola’s imagery are all bad omens, again hinting at the sinister nature of the Cardinal and his brother. Always melancholy and contemplative, Bosola laments the way he is being treated for his service to the Cardinal, which he compares to that of a soldier. Bosola’s unhappy comparison of the court with a place for sick people also reinforces Antonio’s characterization of him as someone who criticizes the court because he is largely left out of it.
Once Antonio and Delio are alone, Delio explains that Bosola is known to have served seven years in the galleys for a “notorious murder,” supposedly ordered by the Cardinal. Antonio says that it’s unfortunate that the Cardinal is ignoring Bosola, because he has heard that Bosola is very valiant. Bosola’s bad mood, Antonio says, will poison all of Bosola’s goodness, since, just as insufficient sleep hurts the body, idleness breeds unhappiness and bad behavior.