The play opens (and remains throughout) in a non-specified Italian court. Vindice appears on stage, holding the skull of his deceased fiancée, Gloriana. He watches from afar as the Duke, the Duchess, Lussurioso (the Duke’s eldest son by an earlier marriage), and Spurio (the Duke’s bastard son) go by. Vindice expresses fierce hatred for all of them.
At the time of writing, Italy was seen as a hotbed of immorality and corruption. Setting plays there was also a way for English writers to critique society without getting into trouble with their own authorities. The skull quickly establishes death as a strong presence in the play, while Vindice’s name means revenge in Italian.
Vindice addresses the skull of Gloriana, which he has carried around with him since her death. He laments how beautiful she was when alive and states the reasons for her death, making clear that the Duke poisoned her because she refused to have sex with him; Vindice promises to get his revenge when the time is right.
This makes clear who the main “revenger” of the play will be and fleshes out his motive. It also provides an early example of the Duke’s insatiable lust and unrepentant corruption. Furthermore, this shows that women in the world of the play are frequently regarded as little more than sexual objects. Vindice doesn’t just want revenge—he could theoretically have jumped out at the Duke just now and killed him—but a specific type of revenge, for which he’ll have to wait for the right opportunity.
Vindice’s brother Hippolito enters. Vindice asks whether Hippolito has sensed any opportunity for Vindice to enact his revenge, given that Hippolito is closer to the court than Vindice—a side effect, Hippolito says, of the Duchess’s attraction to him. Hippolito explains that there has indeed been an interesting development: Lussurioso has asked Hippolito to provide him with “some base-coined pander.”
Here Hippolito gives an early indication of the Duchess’s willingness to be unfaithful to the Duke. Lussurioso, whose Italian name roughly translates as “lust,” wants an immoral man to act as his pimp (“pander”). It’s worth noting the way Middleton names most of his characters according to their dominant attribute; they are archetypes. This is a technique seen often in Morality plays, a popular medieval and early Tudor form of theater.
Vindice says he isn’t surprised to hear Lussurioso’s request, because the Duke’s eldest son is notoriously lusty. He doesn’t think there’s any woman that Lussurioso wouldn’t want to have sex with. The brothers agree that Vindice should disguise himself as the “pander.”
Technically Vindice’s main gripe is with the Duke; but Lussurioso, as the Duke’s son and heir, represents a part of the overall revenge project. Vindice frequently appears in disguise in the play, both demonstrating the skill and guile he needs to enact his revenge and, perhaps, his diminishing sense of self in service of his one sole cause—vengeance.
Gratiana and Castiza arrive, the brothers’ mother and sister respectively. As they enter, Vindice notes to Hippolito that he would “stake” his “soul for these two creatures,” despite the corruptible nature of women more generally.
If anyone comes out of this play with a sense of moral virtue, it’s Castiza, whose name roughly translates as “chastity.” Though Vindice praises her and his mother, his general attitude belies little faith in women as a whole—something all the men in the play seem to share.
Gratiana asks Hippolito for news from the court. Hippolito informs her that the Duchess’s youngest son (and the Duke’s stepson), Junior Brother, is rumored to have raped the wife of Lord Antonio, a court nobleman. Vindice says he must make “speedy travel.” Vindice and Gratiana briefly discuss the worthiness of Vindice’s deceased father, who was also mistreated by the Duke. They all exit the stage.
The rumor about Junior Brother adds to the sense that lust is a rife, unstoppable force in the Duke’s court. Vindice and Gratiana’s conversation, meanwhile, adds further motive to Vindice’s ambition to kill the Duke.