The scene now shifts to the Roman court. Just as Lodovico said, Brachiano is desperate to have sex with Vittoria. Flamineo, one of Vittoria’s brothers, encourages Brachiano to pursue his sister, assuring him of Vittoria’s desire. Flamineo explains that Vittoria is simply being coy, because she knows that men’s “desire is increased by the difficulty of enjoying; whereas satiety is a blunt, weary, and drowsy passion.”
As the play shifts back to Rome, it introduces its most complex trio: as Brachiano’s servant and Vittoria’s brother, Flamineo often plays go-between for this adulterous pair. Here, he lays out a misogynist theory of sexual longing: women must make themselves “difficult” to attain, because as soon as a man has easy access to a woman, he becomes “weary” of her.
Brachiano frets that Vittoria’s husband Camillo will get in the way, but Flamineo promises that Vittoria has no sexual feelings toward Camillo. Flamineo also suggests that Camillo no longer desires his wife because he cannot please her sexually.
This man-to-man conversation between Brachiano and Flamineo puts the burden on women to simultaneously curb their own sexual desire, excite their male partners, and be ready for whatever sexual acts men desire of them.
Camillo enters the room, interrupting Brachiano and Flamineo’s conversation. Brachiano promptly exits. Camillo complains to Flamineo that he does not remember the last time he slept with Vittoria; she constantly points out his flaws and tries to distance herself from him. Camillo also suspects that Brachiano is trying to get into bed with Vittoria.
In contrast to what Flamineo has said, Camillo’s wife does not tire him; in fact, the opposite is true. In addition to providing Camillo with evidence of the affair, Vittoria’s refusal to have sex with someone she is not attracted to displays her determination to assert her own agency, even as a woman.
Flamineo mocks Camillo for his jealousy, telling him that it is in fact his fear of being made “cuckold” that his driving his wife away. After teasing Camillo for having horns and “large ears,” Flamineo tries to convince him that all the evidence he has of Vittoria’s unfaithfulness is merely paranoia.
A cuckold is a man who has been cheated on by his wife; in the English Renaissance, this was one of the easiest ways men could insults each other. Ram’s horns were a symbol of cuckoldry, which is why Flamineo mocks Camillo for having both horns and “large ears” (as in, horn-like ears).
Vittoria enters, and Flamineo seizes the moment: though he is still loyal to Brachiano, Flamineo pretends to sing Camillo’s praises to Vittoria. Loudly, Flamineo tells his sister of Camillo’s high status and intelligence—but quietly, he whispers mockery to Vittoria, calling Camillo “lousy” and labeling him “a counterfeit diamond.”
For the first time, we see Flamineo’s expert deception in action: he presents himself as an ally to Camillo while disparaging Camillo to Vittoria (thus gaining favor with Brachiano). In addition to demonstrating how tricky external appearances can be, this comic moment also shows the extent of Flamineo’s craftiness.
To give Vittoria time to see Brachiano, Flamineo then executes the final step of his trick: he tells Camillo to separate himself from Vittoria for a night, thereby increasing her desire. Flamineo even convinces Camillo to lock himself in his room so he’s not tempted to go to Vittoria in the night. “I’ll be your jailor,” Flamineo coos.
Clearly, Camillo’s intelligence is lacking: even though he was nervous about his wife’s betrayal only moments ago, Camillo now agrees to be locked in his room at night…which will give Vittoria ample time to sneak off with Brachiano.
Camillo, excited by this plan, hurries off, and Brachiano returns. As soon as he does, Vittoria’s face changes, prompting Flamineo to scoff that “women are like cursed dogs: civility keeps them tied all daytime, but they are let loose at midnight.” Unbeknownst to anyone, Cornelia—Vittoria and Flamineo’s mother—sneaks up behind the other characters, listening in to their conversation. No one else notices that she has arrived.
Again, while Flamineo normalizes—and even encourages—both Brachiano and Camillo’s lust, when Vittoria expresses any sort of sexual excitement, her brother compares her to a “cursed dog.” It is still worth noting, however, the sudden shift in Vittoria’s demeanor: she is just as capable of deception as her brother is.
While Flamineo and Vittoria’s maid Zanche look on, Brachiano and Vittoria flirt, admitting their feelings for each other. Cornelia panics, realizing that Vittoria and Flamineo are about to bring shame onto her entire family.
There is an element of surveillance here: Zanche and Cornelia are both taking all of this in. But while Zanche listens quietly, Cornelia feels she must intervene, as she is horrified to discover how devious and manipulative her children can be.
Vittoria tells Brachiano about a dream she had the night before. In the dream, Vittoria was sitting peacefully in front of a yew tree when Camillo and Brachiano’s wife, Isabella, approached her. Without explanation, Camillo and Isabella began to chase Vittoria, telling her they wanted to uproot the yew tree and bury her alive. But before they could do so, a gust of wind blew over the yew tree, crushing and killing Camillo and Isabella.
Yew trees, an important symbol in the play, often grow in graveyards—so when Vittoria uses such a tree to signify her relationship with Brachiano, she is suggesting that their love grows out of the death of their respective marriages. And then she makes that death literal, describing (or perhaps fantasizing) about Camillo and Isabella’s demise.
Flamineo, realizing that Vittoria is trying to convince Brachiano to kill her husband and his wife, applauds his sister as an “excellent devil.” For his part, Brachiano promises to remove all the obstacles between himself and Vittoria, putting her “above law, and above scandal.” Zanche, who has been setting up a picnic spread and listening in, exits.
As a woman in this time and place, Vittoria cannot openly plot murder—but Flamineo now sees that while his sister feigns purity on the outside, she is scheming like a “devil” within. Brachiano’s response is also telling: his own status and wealth allow him to put his bad behavior with Vittoria literally “above” the law.
Cornelia reveals herself, telling her children she is deeply ashamed of them. Vittoria protests that the intensity of Brachiano’s pursuit has made her feel that she has no choice but to give in to him. Cornelia scolds Brachiano, telling him that as a man of high status he should set an “example” for others, and she wishes death on her daughter. Cornelia also reveals that Isabella is coming to Rome later that day. Vittoria leaves in distress. Brachiano, too, heads home, ordering Flamineo to send for a mysterious figure named Doctor Julio later that night.
Once more, the idea of leading by “example” becomes important—and given Brachiano’s wealth and influence, Cornelia feels that it is extra important that he act as a role model. Interestingly, while Cornelia has no real connection to Isabella, she favors her over her own daughter—perhaps because Isabella more immediately lives up to Cornelia’s standards of womanly decency.
Now that Flamineo is alone with Cornelia, he explains that he is trying to help Brachiano so that Brachiano will make him a wealthy man. Cornelia cannot abide this logic, asking, “because we are poor shall we be vicious?” Flamineo reflects on the hardships of his life: after his father died and left the family penniless, he tried tutoring and working in various courts, but he was never able to become rich.
Cornelia’s insistence on goodness in all circumstances is admirable. But the play is sympathetic to Flamineo, too: he has tried to earn money through honest means, but he has been unable to do so. Flamineo’s turn to crime then happens in part because he is desperate to provide for himself and his family.
Cornelia tells Flamineo she wishes he had never been born, and Flamineo retorts that he would rather have “a common courtesan” as a mother. Cornelia leaves in anger, and Flamineo frets that Isabella is in town. Still, he recognizes that he must finish what he has started—but that the only way forward is to move like a “snake,” “winding and indirect.”
Misogyny is so much a part of the play’s everyday language: when Flamineo wants to insult his mother, he does so by unfavorably comparing her to a “common courtesan” (a prostitute). Flamineo’s focus on “snake”-like success once more reflects his deceptive nature.