In Amalfi, Ferdinand asks Bosola how the Duchess is bearing herself during her imprisonment. Bosola responds that she is doing it so nobly as to give majesty to adversity. Bosola seems to pity her. Ferdinand expresses frustration with himself since he is not making her more miserable, and he instructs Bosola to tell the Duchess his message. Ferdinand then exits.
Ever noble, the Duchess is taking her punishment and imprisonment well, which infuriates Ferdinand, who wants to make her miserable. Bosola begins expressing more pity for the Duchess, not just for Antonio as he did in previous scenes.
The Duchess enters, and Bosola greets her kindly, to which she responds that he is wrapping poison in gold and sugar. Bosola relays Ferdinand’s message: Ferdinand is going to visit her, but since Ferdinand vowed never to see her again, he’ll come at night. She is therefore not to use any candles or torches in her chamber so that he won’t be able to see her. When he visits, he’ll kiss her hand and they will reconcile.
To the Duchess, Bosola’s kind greeting is just another false face hiding bad intentions. Ferdinand has sworn never to see the Duchess again; therefore, in another creepy moment, he has decided to reconcile with her in her chamber in complete darkness.
The two of them put out the lights, and Ferdinand enters. He comments that the darkness suits her well. The Duchess asks for his pardon, and he says that he grants it, since it is the most honorable revenge to pardon when he could kill. Then he calls her children bastards and her a slut, and puts a hand into hers. She kisses it, thinking the hand is Ferdinand’s, but soon comments that his hand seems very cold and unhealthy. Ferdinand then asks for the lights to come on, but quickly exits before they come on. In the light, the Duchess sees that she has been holding a dead man’s hand.
Ferdinand begins by making a rude remark about his sister’s appearance, continuing to exhibit strange sexual feelings. He then plays the horrifying trick of getting her to kiss a dead man’s hand in the hopes of convincing her that her husband has been murdered. By keeping her alive when he could kill her, Ferdinand says he seeks honorable revenge. In reality, he simply wants her alive so that she can suffer greater hardships before death.
Suddenly a curtain is illuminated, upon which appear the silhouettes of Antonio and their children, looking as if they were dead. Bosola states that the hand came from Antonio, that her family members are all dead, and that she should stop grieving for that which she can never recover. The Duchess replies that this knowledge consumes her like a disease, and she asks to be tied to the dead body so she can freeze to death. Bosola says she must live, to which the Duchess replies that living when you want to die is the greatest torture souls feel in hell. He reminds her that she is a Christian, which prompts her to say that she’ll starve herself to death.
Bosola once compared wisdom to a disease, and similarly, the Duchess compares the news that her family is dead to a disease. Living when she wants to die, she says, is the greatest torture in all of hell, thereby showing that for a moment Ferdinand achieved his goal of a torturous “honorable revenge.” The Duchess can’t kill herself, however, as the Christian consequence of suicide is eternal damnation.
Bosola tries to comfort her, saying that things get better when they are at their worst, but she equates this to a kind of torture and says again that she wants to die, calling the world a “tedious theater” in which she plays a part against her will. A servant enters and wishes her long life. She curses him for it, before going on to curse the stars, the seasons, and the whole world. She calls for plague and disease to consume families, and for those families to be remembered only for the bad things they have done while heaven punishes them. She concludes by saying that she longs to bleed, and it would be a mercy to die quickly.
In a meta-theatrical moment, the Duchess refers to the entire world as a theatre, and she says that in this theater she is forced to play a part (i.e., live) against her will. Her suffering is such that what would once be a blessing (a wish for long life) is transformed into a horrible curse, echoing the inversion of sacred and profane that Bosola earlier attributed to the devil.
The Duchess then leaves the room (though probably not the palace, as she’s imprisoned), and Ferdinand reenters, excited that she finally seems to be experiencing despair. Bosola urges Ferdinand to cease his cruelty, but Ferdinand yells “Damn her!” and says that her body was once worth more than her soul, back when her blood was pure. He then outlines a plan to relocate a group of madmen from the asylum and lodge them next-door to the Duchess. The plan is that their mad howling will torture her by preventing her from sleeping. Bosola tries to refuse to see the Duchess again, but Ferdinand says that Bosola must. Bosola replies that he will only ever visit her when in disguise. Ferdinand responds that Bosola’s pity doesn’t suit him well, and then begins to plan his revenge on Antonio, who he knows is in Milan.
Though Bosola pities the Duchess and urges Ferdinand to be kind to her, Ferdinand is still not satisfied with her torture. He even goes as far to suggest that, when her blood was pure, her body was worth more than her soul—this is an inversion of traditional church doctrine, which elevates soul above the body. Bosola feels so guilty about his involvement in these tortures that he elects never to see the Duchess without a disguise again to prevent him from feeling as ashamed. Ferdinand characterizes this pity as weak and moves on in plotting his revenge