This scene continues from the previous scene with the entrance of Castruccio, Silvio, Roderigo, and Grisolan, four courtiers to Duke Ferdinand, the Duchess’s brother. Delio notes that the hall is filling up with people, and Antonio replies that Duke Ferdinand is arriving. When he enters, Ferdinand asks who won the ring (a common game around court), and Silvio responds that it was Antonio. Ferdinand recognizes Antonio as being the Duchess’s steward, and instructs Silvio to give Antonio a jewel.
Here, the power dynamic in Amalfi and in Italy in general is established. Ferdinand is a Duke—an upper class ruler. The other men who enter to begin the scene are all courtiers under him. By giving out a prize to the winner of the ring, Ferdinand asserts his class and his wealth. Here we also learn officially what Antonio’s social role is: he is the steward to the Duchess.
Ferdinand and his courtiers then begin discussing the merits and pitfalls of a leader going to war in person. Castruccio notes that it is fitting for a soldier to move up to become a prince, but not for a prince descend to be a soldier; better, he says, to lead in war through a deputy. Castruccio also notes that when a ruler is a soldier, the realm never has long-lasting peace. Ferdinand says he heard that Castruccio’s wife could endure fighting, and Castruccio reminds the Duke of a joke his wife made, which punned on a wounded soldier’s bandages resembling tents. Conversation is steered back to the best qualities of horses, and to Antonio and his horsemanship. The Cardinal and Duchess then enter.
Though not extremely pertinent to the plot, as there is no war, the debate about the dangers of leaders going to war can be seen as political commentary suggesting that soldier rulers rarely bring about extended periods of peacetime. Castruccio illustrates the duties of nobility and the workings of class mobility: a soldier has the potential to rise in class, but it’s expected that those in the upper class will not descend or debase themselves. We can note that discussion of horsemanship here might hint at sexuality.
Once the Cardinal and Duchess enter, Antonio steps aside and begins quietly telling Delio about the character of the royal family. The Cardinal, he says, though he seems brave and courtly, is in reality a jealous, plotting, and “melancholy churchman” who surrounds himself with flatterers and spies. He might have been Pope if he hadn’t tried to bribe his way into the office. Duke Ferdinand, Antonio continues, is just like his brother: he appears humorous and kind on the outside, but in reality he uses entrapment and spies and he judges people based on gossip. Delio describes the Duke as a spider using the law both as his protection and as his weapon against enemies.
Both the Cardinal and Ferdinand take care to preserve their outward appearances and hide their corruption, but both men are evil. Here Antonio explicitly finishes the comparison with the idealized French court, revealing the brothers’ true character: they are spying, gosspiy power abusers. The corruption is so severe that Ferdinand seems to manipulate the law itself for his own benefit. Early on the brothers are established as dangerous figures.
The Duchess, on the other hand, he describes as noble and completely opposite from her siblings. Antonio says that her words are so full of rapture that when she stops speaking it makes one wish she didn’t think it was vain to talk for a long time. She has sweet looks, a sweet countenance, and she is extremely virtuous. Delio says that Antonio is complimenting her too much, but Antonio responds that she is so worthy that she darkens the past and lights the future. As Antonio finishes his praise, Cariola, the Duchess’s hand-maiden, then tells Antonio that he needs to attend to the Duchess in a half an hour, and Antonio and Delio leave.
Much like he contrasts the Italian court with the French court, Antonio praises the Duchess by stressing how opposite she is from her siblings. Her character is outlined as brilliant, virtuous, sweet, and modest, and Antonio’s praises are so strong that they might foreshadow his marriage to her. Just as this romance is (possibly) hinted at, however, Cariola reminds Antonio (and the audience) that Antonio is on the Duchess’s staff and is of a lower class.
After Antonio departs, Ferdinand tells the Duchess that he wants her to hire Bosola as the supervisor of her horses. She agrees to do it. Silvio announces that he is leaving for Milan, and everyone exits the stage but the Cardinal and Ferdinand. Once alone, the Cardinal tells Ferdinand to hire Bosola as a spy to observe the Duchess. The Cardinal explains why he was ignoring Bosola in the play’s opening scene; The Cardinal says that he doesn’t want to be seen involved with Bosola, since he doesn’t want to be implicated in the murder that Bosola committed while in his service or in the spying that Bosola will be hired to do. Ferdinand believes Antonio would be better to spy on the Duchess than Bosola, but the Cardinal assures him that Antonio is much too honest for the position. The Cardinal sees Bosola coming and exits.
The Duchess immediately agrees to do as Antonio asks, exemplifying the control he has over her. Once Ferdinand and the Cardinal are alone, their corruption becomes immediately clear. As a religious figure, the Cardinal must preserve his image. To do so, he is much more cautious and calculating than Ferdinand is, exemplified by his refusal to be seen associating with Bosola. The Cardinal also seems to be a better judge of character than Ferdinand, as he assures his brother that Antonio is too honest to be their spy, opting instead for Bosola, who he already knows will do their bidding since he has “used” Bosola before.
Bosola asks Ferdinand why the Cardinal is avoiding him. Ferdinand replies that it’s possibly because the Cardinal suspects Bosola of some character flaw. Ferdinand adds that great men are distrustful, which prevents them from being deceived. Ferdinand then gives Bosola some money, prompting Bosola to ask whom he must kill. But Ferdinand tells Bosola that he’s overeager, and that he’s not being hired to kill yet. Instead, he is simply being paid to observe the Duchess and report back to Ferdinand. Ferdinand explains that the Duchess is a young widow, and the brothers do not want her to marry again.
The Cardinal is corrupt, and part of that corruption is keeping his illicit dealings to the shadows. Bosola’s inference that Ferdinand wants him to kill someone suggests that corruption leads to death and suffering. Bosola may be overeager here, but he rightly predicts that he’ll eventually be required to kill. The source of this corruption (and the eventual murders) is Ferdinand’s desire to exert control over his sister.
After receiving these instructions, Bosola says it seems like Ferdinand wants to turn him into an invisible devil-spy. Bosola comments that the payment would make Ferdinand a corrupter and him—Bosola—a traitor. He notes that if he agreed to the proposition he would go to hell for it. But Ferdinand tells Bosola about the horse master position that has been secured for him, and Bosola curses that this kindness will make him a villain. He wishes that he could refuse, but he knows it would be ungrateful to do so. Thus, he says, the devil glosses over sins and calls gracious whatever heaven calls vile.
Though Bosola was immediately willing to kill, he seems to associate spying with stronger religious consequences; spying and corruption, not murder, are what he believes will send him to hell, since they are so deceitful. While Bosola believes spying is wrong and does not want to be a villain, he believes that his obligation to the Duke is stronger than his moral obligation not to be a spy. He also provides a religious interpretation of the way that the devil achieves the highest profanity by inverting whatever is most sacred.
Ferdinand instructs Bosola to be himself and to keep up his melancholy demeanor since it will make him seem envious but not ambitious, thereby granting him access to everyone’s private lodgings. Bosola says he will do as he has seen other men do: he’ll seem half asleep and not attentive while dreaming of cutting the lord’s throat. Since his new position makes him responsible for the Duchess’s horses, Bosola jokes that one could say his corruption grew out of horse dung. He agrees to be Ferdinand’s “creature” and then exits.
By instructing Bosola to seem sad and contemplative to avoid suspicion, Ferdinand shows again that he understands the difference between how people appear and how they truly are. Bosola’s language about “horse dung,” meanwhile, singals that he has no illusions about what he is agreeing to do. By accepting this role as a spy he believes himself dehumanized, since he feels that corruption is wrong but still agrees to spy, and thus he calls himself a “creature.”