It is nine months after the events of Act 1. Bosola and Castruccio, an old Italian lord, enter in discussion about Castruccio’s desire to be an “eminent courtier,” meaning that he wants to become both a courtier of high rank and a lawyer or judge. Bosola makes fun of Castruccio’s appearance, and he says that Castruccio would be a ridiculous and absurd judge. He gives Castruccio advice about what to do in this hypothetical role as a judge, and he tells him a trick to know if he is well liked or not: pretend that he’s dying and see how the common people react.
Castruccio is the type of person Bosola must be careful not to seem like: he is ambitious to raise his social rank. That Bosola just makes fun of Castruccio by giving him terrible advice and ridiculing him could indicate a combination of jealousy for Castruccio’s naked ambition and Bosola’s desire to distance himself from gauche social positioning.
At this point in the conversation an Old Lady enters, and Bosola asks her if she has “come from painting” (painting her face by putting on makeup). He goes on to talk about a woman from France who tried the cosmetic technique of flaying her face to get rid of smallpox, which Bosola compares to scraping the side of a ship. The Old Lady jokes that it seems like Bosola is well acquainted with her closet (a private room), and he launches into a speech in which he says her closet must be filled with items used for witchcraft, and that he’d rather eat a plague-ridden pigeon than kiss a woman who was fasting.
In this era, Painting and sculpting were both commonly used as figurative representations of cosmetics, and cosmetics were akin to witchcraft, as they’re used to try to improve on a face that God has already made. This type of “painting” is meant to cover up blemishes, and is therefore dishonest, which explains Bosola’s dislike of cosmetics, since we know that he seems to hate lying more than murder.
Bosola continues on, saying that physicians grow wealthy by profiting on older people. He then begins speaking in verse, ruminating on the outward appearances of man. He says that we call it ominous when we see anything resembling humans in other animals, but in our own bodies we have diseases that are named for animals. Even though we are covered in a rotten and dead body, we try to hide it with medicine and cosmetics in fear of our doctors burying us. He closes the tirade with a joke about syphilis.
Bosola offers an interesting evaluation of human nature, saying that when we recognize human features in other animals we are disgusted, because it allows us to see just how disgusting humans are. This can be seen as a justification for class hierarchy, too. Bosola also notes that when we become diseased, we become animalized, since diseases are named for animals. This line of thinking could been seen to foreshadow Ferdinand’s diagnosis of werewolf disease later in the play.
Castruccio and the Old Lady exit, and Bosola transitions to his other work. He notes that the Duchess has ben sick and she wears loose dresses that are out of fashion. He is suspicious, and has a trick to discover what is going on: he has brought apricots, which were believed to be labor inducing.
Here Bosola reminds himself (and the audience) that he is a spy and it is his job to know if the Duchess is pregnant. Bosola will administer apricots to force the Duchess into labor, a devious and physical assertion of male authority over the female body.
On the other side of the stage, Delio and Antonio enter into a discussion about the secret marriage, revealing that Antonio has confided in Delio. They meet Bosola and, since he’s always melancholy and contemplative, they joke and ask him if he’s trying to become wise. Bosola then compares wisdom to a skin disease running all over a body. Simplicity, he says makes happiness, and even the slightest wisdom produces folly, so he wants to remain simple. Antonio responds that he doesn’t understand Bosola, since he always appears so melancholy.
It’s unclear how much of Bosola’s melancholy behavior is his true character and how much is his performance as a spy. He seems to suggest that knowing too much (being wise) can lead to folly and bad behavior. Accordingly, he hopes to remain ignorant. Such a position is ironic from Bosola, because he is employed as a spy, gathering information that will undoubtedly lead to chaos.
Bosola responds that he needs to remain in his station, since it is dangerous to reach higher. Antonio says that Bosola might look to heaven, but it seems like a devil is blocking his view. Bosola then talks about Antonio’s rank, which seems on the rise since he is the Duchess’s steward, and Bosola says that royal men are made of the same substance as regular people; they are moved by the same passions and think with the same reason.
Though Bosola notes that Antonio’s status is rising, he does not at this point suspect that Antonio has married the Duchess. While the Duchess appealed to flesh and blood as evidence that she is equal to Antonio, Bosola here says that all humans are equal because they are moved by the same passions and governed by the same laws of reason.
At this point, the Duchess and her ladies enter. She asks for Antonio’s arm and, since she is out of breath, she asks if she is growing fat. She then asks Bosola to provide her a horse like the one the Duchess of Florence had. Bosola notes that she used such a litter when she was pregnant, and the Duchess agrees, before complaining that she is suffering from “the mother,” which means heartburn. In an aside, Bosola comments on the clear second meaning of the Duchess’ complaint.
The Duchess thinks she’s being subtle about her pregnancy, but since Bosola already suspects her, he catches her double meanings and only becomes more suspicious.
Antonio and the Duchess talk about traditions of wearing hats or not in court, comparing the Italian courts to the kingdom in France. Bosola then offers the Duchess the apricots. In another aside, he notes how greedily she eats them. She says that they are good, but soon after she comments that the fruit and the stomach are not her friends, as they are swelling her. Bosola gives a clever aside, saying she is too swelled already. She breaks into a cold sweat, and she heads for her chamber fearing that her pregnancy will be discovered. Everyone then exits in a scramble leaving only Antonio and Delio.
The conversation about the French court echoes Antonio’s conversation with Delio in the play’s opening. By this point, Bosola is very confident that the Duchess is pregnant, since the apricots he gives the Duchess have the immediate effect of inducing labor. Bosola’s clever aside hinges on the fact that, since she is pregnant, her belly is already swollen.
Alone on stage with Delio, Antonio fears that the Duchess has fallen into labor with no time to get her out of Amalfi in order to keep the pregnancy a secret. Delio suggests a way to preserve the secret. He says that to keep people away, they can say that Bosola poisoned the apricots and caused the Duchess to fall ill, but Antonio responds that this will bring doctors around. Delio says that in that case, they can say that she used her own remedy. Lost in confusion, Antonio and Delio exit.
Since Bosola is a known criminal, Delio suggests a lie that trades on Bosola’s bad reputation in order to draw attention away from the Duchess’ pregnancy. Antonio apparently had a plan to get the Duchess out of Amalfi to have the child in secret, but thanks to Bosola, this plan has been thwarted.