The Cardinal, the Duchess, and the Duchess’s hand-maiden Cariola enter and join Ferdinand. The Cardinal informs the Duchess that they are leaving, and then tells her that she must use her discretion. The Cardinal and Ferdinand then begin convincing and instructing the Duchess not to remarry. They say that she already knows “what man is” (i.e. she is not a virgin), and that she should not let anything sway or taint her high blood. Marrying twice, they say, is lecherous. The Duchess quips back that diamonds that pass through the most jewelers’ hands are most precious, but Ferdinand responds that by that example whores are precious.
Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s comments about the Duchess’s high blood are an appeal to class. They suggest that her royal lineage and rank would be tainted if she married someone of a lower status. In this time period, women were subjected to the rule of their fathers and then their husbands. With the Duchess’s husband (and presumably her father) dead, her brothers have become the de facto figures of male authority in her life. If she marries again, they will be forced to relinquish that control.
The Duchess concedes that she’ll never marry again, but the Cardinal and Ferdinand continue telling her not to. The Cardinal says most widows promise not to marry, but usually that promise lasts no longer than the funeral sermon. Ferdinand continues that she currently lives in a high position, and that remarrying will poison her reputation. He tells her not to be cunning, since those whose faces contradict their hearts become witches and nurse the devil. Despite attempts to be secret and hypocritical, he counsels, her darkest actions and most private thoughts will come to light.
The Cardinal invokes the stereotype that women are fickle, and his comment about marrying immediately after a funeral sermon recalls the “o’er hasty marriage” of Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For Ferdinand to argue that deceitful intentions always come to light is ominous for himself; the audience knows that it’s Ferdinand, not the Duchess, who is being deceitful here.
The Cardinal continues that the Duchess might want to get married privately or in secret, and Ferdinand adds that she might think that in doing so she is taking a good path because she is making her own way, but he says that secret weddings like these are “executed” rather than celebrated. After they conclude their speech, the Cardinal departs. The Duchess then comments to Ferdinand that the speech was so glib that it seems like they rehearsed it.
Ferdinand’s use of the word “executed” puns on both enacted and killed, foreshadowing the Duchess’s demise. The Duchess’ comment about the brothers’ speech sounding rehearsed can also be seen as referencing the fact that the actors rehearsed their lines for the play.
Ferdinand in response launches into an extremely uncomfortable speech in which he references his father’s dagger and says that women like the body part that’s similar to a boneless eel. The Duchess responds in shock, suggesting that she thinks her brother was using phallic imagery, but claims that he was simply talking about the tongue, which can be used to weave a tale that will convince women of anything. He calls her a “lusty widow” and then exits.
Ferdinand uses the Duchess’ assumption that he is being lewd as evidence of her lustfulness. At the same time, even after she “mistakes” his meaning, he makes another sexual reference, as “tale” can also represent a phallus. The whole interaction, just by nature of the content and the fact that the two are siblings, has an uncomfortable feel to it, and the common interpretation is that Ferdinand harbors incestuous desire for the Duchess.
Once she is alone with Cariola, the Duchess asks if this speech should convince her to obey her brothers. She compares her situation to battle, and says that even amidst all this hate, she’ll take a dangerous venture, “wink,” and choose a husband. The Duchess tells Cariola that she is trusting her with her reputation, which is more important than her life. Cariola says both will be safe, since she will keep the secret and guard it like poison makers guard their poison from children. The Duchess then instructs Cariola to hide behind a tapestry while she talks to Antonio.
The Duchess inverts the tradition of male authority taking precedence over love and decides to pick a husband for herself in defiance of her brothers. While she refuses to obey them, she does seem to share their sentiment that reputation is extremely important, as she considers it more valuable than her life. Cariola’s comparison of secrets to poison suggests the ways secrets can become dangerous in the play.
Antonio enters, and the Duchess tells him to start writing notes for her. She makes a pun on the word husband, and asks Antonio what the plans are for tomorrow. He responds by calling her his “beauteous excellence,” and she focuses on the word “beauteous” and thanks him. When Antonio says he’ll get her the financial figures for her estate tomorrow, the Duchess corrects him to say that she was actually talking about what the plans were in heaven, not tomorrow, and that she wants to make a will. She says that she wouldn’t need to if she had a husband, but since she doesn’t she’ll make Antonio the overseer of her will.
It’s notable that the Duchess uses finance to transition into courtship, as financial and commercial imagery are quite common in English Renaissance love poetry. It’s also notable that her first indication that she wants a husband is in the context of a conversation about religion and death, which might not bode well for the potential marriage. Here her courtship of Antonio is done with puns, hints, and second meanings; it isn’t direct and overt yet.
Antonio responds by saying that she should find a husband and give herself to him, and the two then make a joke about sheets and coupling. The Duchess comments that they are writing a strange will, but Antonio says it’s even stranger if she has no will to marry again. The Duchess then asks Antonio what he thinks of marriage and he responds that he thinks of it like people who reject the idea of purgatory; marriage contains within it heaven or hell, it can be good or bad, but it’s not its own entity or place.
Antonio at once seems to be aware that the Duchess is flirting with him while pretending that he isn’t. He makes a sex joke with her and says he thinks it strange that she doesn’t want to remarry, but when asked about his feelings on marriage he offers no indication of his desire to marry or not. In a sense, it seems that class structure is trumping gender roles here: the Duchess must flirt with Antonio because Antonio, as someone from a lower class, cannot court her.
The Duchess continues by asking him to expand on these thoughts and tell her what he feels about marriage. Antonio says that when his loneliness is making him sad, he often reasons that the only thing he loses by not marrying is the title of father and the small delights of watching his children play and ride on wooden horses. The Duchess notes that one of Antonio’s eyes is bloodshot and she offers him her ring, which she claims has healing and royal power. She notes that this is her wedding ring, which she vowed she would never give to anyone other than her second husband.
Again, the Duchess must court Antonio through innuendo and double meaning: by offering Antonio her ring, the Duchess offers a supernatural cure, but she also uses it as another indication that she wants to marry Antonio. At the same time, she reinforces her royalty, which Antonio conspicuously lacks.
Antonio notes that the Duchess has just given him the ring, and she says that she did to help his eyesight. He responds that it has made him blind, because there is a little devil in the ring. To remove the devil, the Duchess makes a small “conjuration” and puts the ring on Antonio’s finger. He kneels, and she tells him that his head is built too low, and that to talk to him she needs to raise him up. He stands and responds that ambition is “a great man’s madness” and extremely dangerous. He seems to know what she is suggesting (raising up his status), but he says it’s foolish to take too extreme of a measure, like a cold man shoving his hands directly into a fire.
The devils, circles, and conjurations in the scene reference necromancy, popularized in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, and it’s a somber omen that such devils are associated here with the wedding ring. It becomes explicit here that Antonio recognizes that the Duchess’s intentions are to marry him, and it’s also clear that he understands the danger inherent to a lower class person trying to move up in society.
The Duchess makes a metaphor about breaking ground at a mine, where the discovery of the valuable underground resource represents her fortune that Antonio could have access to. He calls himself unworthy, but the Duchess says that he’s selling himself short. She says that his darkening of his own character is not like salesmen who use poor lighting to sell faulty products. She assures him that she speaks without flattery, and that he is a “complete man.” Antonio responds that if there weren’t a heaven or hell, he’d be honest and say that he has served virtue for a long time without reaping any benefits.
Antonio reveals that his hesitancy to be ambitious and his claim that he deserves benefits for being virtuous is not just based on cultural norms. Referencing heaven and hell and spiritual consequences, he seems to believe that staying in his social status and accepting that virtue and merit do not guarantee benefits are religious obligations.
The Duchess responds that now Antonio will get the benefits of being virtuous. She then laments with frustration that those who are born great (noble) are forced to woo because no one dares to woo them, driving them to express their feelings in “riddles and in dreams” without being direct. Deciding to invert this frustration, she says pointedly that Antonio can go and brag that he has left her heartless, since her heart is in his chest, and that she hopes it will generate more love there. She notices him trembling and asks him to make his heart alive and not allow himself to fear more than he loves her. She tells him to be confident, and that she is “flesh and blood,” not an alabaster statue kneeling at her dead husband’s tomb. She cries out for him to wake up as a man, and without any ceremony she simply says that she’s a young widow hoping to claim him for her husband.
The Duchess inverts both the tradition of men wooing women and the class hierarchy that says she must marry someone noble. Up until this point, she has courted Antonio through double meanings, but she seems to realize that while she is indirect he can only respond indirectly (like his comment about not having reaped benefits for his virtue, which seems to imply that he might deserve to marry the Duchess). For this reason, the Duchess states with beautiful simplicity that she wants to marry Antonio—she wants to liberate him to respond openly with his feelings.
Antonio agrees, and the Duchess pays him for his service as her steward with a kiss. Antonio is worried about how the Cardinal and Ferdinand will react, but the Duchess reassures him that he should not think of them, since everything and everyone outside of their relationship should be pitied, not feared. Even if they find out, she coaxes, the passing of time will eventually ease their tempestuous reaction. Antonio seems to accept this response, as he simply says that he should have been the one speaking, wooing, and reassuring.
The Duchess uses a kiss as both a romantic gesture and an erasure of the employer/employee relationship she previously had with Antonio. Though Antonio is rightly concerned about the reaction of the Duchess’ brothers, the Duchess, caught up in her love, she seems to overestimate her brothers’ powers of forgiveness.
After the Duchess instructs Antonio to kneel, Cariola enters and surprises Antonio, but the Duchess reassures him that Cariola is her trusted counsel. She goes on to say that legally, marriage by simple agreement of both parties is “absolute marriage” and legally binding. They both kneel, and the Duchess calls out for heaven to bless their union that violence can never untie, and Antonio calls for their affections to be constantly moving. They finish their vows and the Duchess asks how the church could possibly make a marriage more quickly or more secure. She then declares that she is blind, so that Antonio can lead her by the hand to their marriage bed, where they’ll lie with a sword between them to stay chaste and share secrets. The newlyweds exit, and Cariola closes the scene by saying that she can’t tell if it’s the spirit of greatness or of woman that’s leading the Duchesss to act this way, but either way it shows madness and deserves pity.
In another inversion of power structure, the Duchess opts for her marriage to be done outside of a church. She invokes a legal precedent by which she and Antonio can simply declare themselves wed, and she seems more concerned with the legal implications of the marriage than the religious ones. The notion that they’ll stay chaste is a confusing one (as we’ll soon have evidence that they do not), but the Duchess also indicates that they will have a true equal partnership in which they confide in each other, continuing to subvert the contemporary notion that women serve men in marriage.