Lussurioso is crowned Duke, and celebratory music plays. He and three noblemen sit down to a banquet as a “blazing star” appears in the sky. They exchange niceties.
The blazing star is a comet, a traditional harbinger of doom often feared during the Elizabethen and Jacobean eras. Little has been done in the play to create a tangible sense of a connection between the heavens and the earth, but as the action is now drawing to a close—and the venomous revenge plots are not yet resolved—the comet increases the sense of impending violence.
In an aside, Lussurioso states that he has banished the Duchess, and plans to kill Spurio, Supervacuo, and Ambitioso. Lussurioso looks to the star, thinking it to be a bad omen—though at least he has already been crowned, he reasons. The nobles tell him not to worry and that they foresee a long reign of sixty, eighty, or a even a hundred years or more.
Lussurioso is engaging in wishful thinking, firstly in his plan to kill his stepbrothers, and secondly in thinking that the fact he has been crowned means that he has escaped any horrible fate that might have come his way. The nobles implicitly agree, praising him disingenuously by stating they expect his reign to last up to a hundred years (extremely unlikely even with today’s average life expectancies).
Vindice, Hippolito, and their accomplices enter, disguised in costumes for the masque. Suddenly they draw their swords and stab Lussurioso and the noblemen. Thunder sounds, leading Vindice to comment: “Dost know thy cue, thou big-voiced crier? / Dukes’ groans are thunder’s watchwords.” The revengers exit.
A masque is a form of courtly entertainment consisting of costume, pantomime, and dance, offering Vindice and his accomplices the perfect opportunity to disguise themselves and get close to Lussurioso. Vindice has been in disguise more often than he has been himself during the play, reinforcing the idea that his identity is destabilized by his all-consuming quest for revenge. Here, the play begins its logical conclusion: a bloodbath. Vindice’s rhetorical question aimed at the heavens is again darkly comic: his previous appeals for divine intervention were unanswered.
As Lussurioso lies groaning on the floor, Ambitioso, Supervacuo, Spurio, and a “Fourth Man” enter, also dressed in masque costumes. They notice that all of the men have been fatally wounded. Supervacuo proclaims himself Duke, for which his brother, Ambitioso, stabs him. Spurio in turn stabs Ambitioso, before being knifed himself by the Fourth Man.
The fact that almost all characters at this point are in disguise demonstrates the way in which each has been governed by an ulterior motive—they have all been dishonest and harboring private ambitions. Though this scene is gory, it’s also darkly funny: Supervacuo is Duke for all of five seconds. On a more serious note, the sheer amount of deaths in this scene emphasizes the way that life has been devalued at the court.
Vindice and Hippolito re-enter, cunningly calling for help: “Pistols! Treason! Murder! Help! Guard my lord / The Duke!” Antonio and guards enter. Vindice and Hippolito seize the Fourth Man, alleging him to be the murderer. Lussurioso says it was the men in the masque that murdered them; Vindice and Hippolito have guards take the Fourth Man away.
Vindice and Hippolito’s plan is so far coming off perfectly. Lussurioso’s attempt to inform Antonio of the identity of his killers is unsuccessful because there are too many people disguised for the masque to make it clear who he means.
Vindice leans into Lussurioso, who is nearly dead. He whispers to him that it was he, Vindice, who murdered Lussurioso and the Duke. At this, Lussurioso draws his last breath.
Vindice achieves the perfect revenge. As with the Duke’s dying moments, Vindice revels in confessing his true identity to his revenge target.
Hippolito addresses Antonio, telling that the “hope / Of Italy” now rests in his hands. Antonio vows to be a just and reasonable leader. Vindice says that the rape of Antonio’s wife has now been revenged; Antonio wonders “how the old duke came murdered.”
This is only the second reference to Italy in the whole play, demonstrating that the setting is not especially important. Vindice and Hippolito could leave at this point, having successfully carried out their revenge. Antonio is a generally ambiguous character—the audience doesn’t see much of him—but he stands out in his lack of murderous or lust-inspired activity.
Vindice announces to Antonio that it was he and Hippolito who orchestrated the murder of the Duke, bragging that it was “witty carried.” Antonio orders the guards to seize the two “villains” and take them off for “speedy execution.”
Vindice can’t help but brag about his achievements. Perhaps this is because of hubris, or it could be that, having carried out his revenge, Vindice has no other reason to live and deliberately implicates himself to bring about his own death.
Vindice appeals to Antonio, saying that the murders served him well—but Antonio counters that “you that would murder him would murder me.” Vindice accepts his and Hippolito’s fate, viewing it as their “time to die” now that their enemies are dead. At least, he says, their sister, Castiza, is “true” and their mother, Gratiana, morally redeemed.
Antonio’s character seems fairly virtuous, but only in comparison to the others. The truth is Middleton doesn’t show enough of Antonio for the audience to get a deeper sense of his character. It’s possible that he relishes the sudden opportunity for power and wishes to secure his place at the top of the court hierarchy by removing its murderous elements. Vindice compares his imminent death to his approach to revenge—he was always waiting for the right time to kill his targets, and now that “right time” has come for him. In this way his fate is linked first of all with his deceased wife, Gloriana: she is already dead, and so he must die too (once he has avenged her death). Secondly, as though a life force has left his body, the successful killings of those he has hunted means it is time for him to die too—all are linked in death, and the revenger has served his one true purpose.
Vindice and Hippolito are dragged away by guards, leaving Antonio alone on stage. He expresses his disbelief at the recent bloody events and hopes Hippolito and Vindice’s deaths will put an end to such activity: “Bear up / Those tragic bodies; ‘tis a heavy season. / Pray heaven their blood may wash away all treason.”
Antonio’s comment doesn’t ring particularly true. The audience is still recovering from the bloodbath, and the bodies are still on the stage. “Heaven” has shown itself to be far removed from the goings on at the court. His call for the bodies to “bear up” is a reference to the ascension of the dead characters’ souls to heaven—which the rest of the play has made seem very unlikely. The overall atmosphere at the end of the play, then, is one of emptiness and futility.