The Pope has died, and ambassadors from all over Europe have gathered to elect the next Pope. As a prominent cardinal, Monticelso is up for the position. Because the various candidates and ambassadors are busy sucking up to each other, however, they are paying less attention to day-to-day governance.
Webster was writing 15 years after the Protestant Reformation began, so it is unsurprising that he is so critical of the Catholic Church. Still, the play takes a remarkably bleak view of the papacy, suggesting that the Pope is not a particularly holy man so much as a skilled (or manipulative) politician.
A servant informs Francisco that Vittoria and Brachiano have seized on this political confusion to make their escape to Padua. Francisco laments that they have followed exactly the plan that he laid out in his letter to Vittoria, intended to break the couple up and not to draw them even closer together.
Francisco is now learning firsthand about the danger of setting bad examples—rather than letting Francisco destroy him, Brachiano has learned from Francisco.
Monticelso enters dressed in elaborate robes; the election has finished, and he has been made the new Pope (Pope Paul IV). In his first act as Pope, Monticelso calls for Vittoria and Brachiano’s excommunication.
Monticelso has consistently abused his virtuous reputation for less-than-virtuous ends, and here, he does so yet again. More worrisome still is the fact that a man who is clearly deceitful and selfish can rise to become the Pope, ostensibly the highest source of moral authority in all of Europe.
Privately, Francisco confirms with Lodovico that he is willing to assassinate Brachiano. Witnessing this conversation (but not being able to hear it), Monticelso asks Lodovico what Francisco is plotting. Lodovico at first refuses to tell Monticelso the truth, which frustrates Monticelso greatly.
Like Brachiano, Francisco is able to outsource his dirty work. And Monticelso, probably wanting to update his book of names, is determined to figure out what’s going on between these two men.
To make peace, Lodovico admits that he comes not as “an intelligencer, but as a penitent sinner”: he was in love with the married Isabella, and he is determined to avenge her murder alongside Francisco. Monticelso is dismayed by this plan, and he gets up to leave—but before doing so, he compares Lodovico to the “black and melancholic yew tree” that grows in dead men’s graves.
Though Lodovico’s actions are still violent, his time in exile—time that he could look inward and reflect—has caused him to become “penitent,” acting not out of impulsive desire but out love and protection. Monticelso’s horror at this makes sense for a Pope…but is hypocritical, since audiences have seen this seemingly religious man obsess over revenge schemes of his own.
Francisco gives Lodovico a great deal of money, explaining that it is from the Pope. Lodovico realizes that though Monticelso pretended to be outraged at the idea of murdering Brachiano, he’s actually helping to sponsor Francisco’s plot. Lodovico reflects that Monticelso is deceptive like “brides at wedding dinners” who pretend to be modest while secretly thinking of “hot and lustful sports” for their wedding night. Monticelso’s support reinvigorates Lodovico’s quest for revenge.
Indeed, though Monticelso acted shocked, he is actually bankrolling the assassination. Lodovico now recognizes the giant gap between Monticelso’s holier-than-thou exterior and his manipulative inner life. And tellingly, when Lodovico reaches for a metaphor for deception, he comes up with one that scorns women: the ultimate liar, in the count’s mind, is a woman who pretends to be chaste while secretly fantasizing about sex.