Act 4 scene 2

Synopsis

Flamineo reassures the nervous matron of the house of convertites, where Vittoria has been imprisoned, that everyone is more concerned with the imminent death of the Pope than with who is visiting Vittoria.

Francisco's servant enters and delivers Francisco's letter, which Flamineo takes charge of. He shows it to Brachiano (who has just arrived) who opens it, then asks Flamineo to read it aloud. It is a love letter written as though Francisco had been in love with Vittoria for some years. Brachiano is furious, believing Vittoria to be a prostitute.

Flamineo defends his sister, standing up to his master, despite Brachiano's threats. He acknowledges that Brachiano may poison him, but offers to lead Brachiano to Vittoria – although he does not trust his master enough to turn his back on him.

Vittoria enters and is shown the letter by Brachiano who accuses her of unfaithfulness. Vittoria is shocked as she knows nothing about this or any other letter. She tries to convince her lover that it is a plot of Francisco's. Despite the fact that she is weeping, Brachiano says he will leave her and compares Vittoria to Isabella, his dead wife. This infuriates Vittoria, who declares she will cut him out of her life and throws herself on the bed weeping.

This causes a change of heart in Brachiano, who now tries to win her back. Vittoria is not prepared to co-operate and also turns on Flamineo, accusing him of facilitating their relationship. Brachiano continues to try to win her round but she refuses to listen.

Flamineo attempts to reason with the lovers and reconcile them, and finally Vittoria allows Brachiano to kiss her. They now plot to escape from Rome to Padua, whilst everyone is concerned with electing the new Pope. Brachiano says that he will take his son, Giovanni, and the siblings can take their mother, Cornelia, and brother, Marcello. The Duke promises to marry Vittoria and make her a duchess.

Flattering Brachiano for his own advancement, Flamineo tells Brachiano a complicated tale about crocodiles to remind Brachiano to be grateful to him.

Commentary

This letter: The letter becomes an important device in the scene causing intense feelings and quarrels as it is passed around.

Shall hang your wishes … strange equivocation: As Flamineo notices when he mentions the halter, hang is an ambiguous term and could imply a threat as well as a promise. Flamineo's comments puncture the high flown poetry of the letter.

atheists: A reference to Francisco's evoking of the gods i.e. pagan ones. Flamineo seems more critical of Francisco's use of language than of his supposed seduction of Vittoria.

Where's this whore: This is not the first time that Vittoria has been called whore (prostitute). This is the term always used about Vittoria whenever there is any judgement on her behaviour. This is despite the fact that Francisco's letter states that he is in love with her and that she has not succumbed to him, preferring a younger lover (Brachiano). This is more evidence of the harsh judgements meted out to women in this society.

curst disease: Syphilis, one of the symptoms of which is hair loss.

changeable stuff: Inconstant/unfaithful i.e. prostitute.

run: A pun – running in fear and a suppurating sore

neck broke: A reminder that he broke Camillo's neck and got away with it.

Russia; /.. shins.. whole: A contemporary Russian punishment for debtors was to kick their legs for up to three hours daily.

Would you be kicked ... behind me a whirlpool: Flamineo stands up to his master, Brachiano. He is realistic about his status, but he refuses to behave in a servile way.

Spanish fig … Italian sallet: Flamineo expects to find poison in the fruit or salad he is fed.

PolyphemusPolyphemus to Ulysses: One of the Cyclops who captured Ulysses, determined to eat him last of his compatriots

God's precious: The oath usually concluded ‘body' or ‘blood', the elements of the Catholic Mass / Protestant Holy Communion

give you the bells: A hawking metaphor. Let her fly to the devil rather than bring her back as he would a hawk.

Ware hawk: Flamineo is saying, ‘Beware Francisco'.

devil in crystal: Self-deception, credulity. It was believed that evil spirits could be trapped within crystal, belying its beauty – an appropriate image for Vittoria.

differing as two adamants: Like two opposing magnets.

wild Irish: Irish keening at funerals was renowned.

O my sweetest Duchess: Brachiano demonstrates his hypocrisy, given that he divorced Isabella and had her poisoned.

Weeping to heaven on crutches: Vittoria refers to Jesus' teaching in Mark 9:45. He used the hyperbolic image of cutting off a part of the body that leads to sin, to stress the seriousness of sinful behaviour and the judgement of hell. Brachiano refers to the same teaching when he asks whether his eyes should Be now put out.

Lethe: The Duke has forgotten himself. According to Greek myth, drinking from the River Lethe led to oblivion.

mercer … tows'd: Flamineo says no other trader would take ‘soiled goods' – Vittoria is thus just an object to be traded.

Hare, photo by Vera Buhl available through Creative CommonsYoung leverets: Women are compared to young hares. It is fine to hold out for a while, but they should eventually give in.

Suck'd … / From women's breasts: Flamineo refers to the misogynistic medieval teaching that women were responsible for male sin, since Eve caused Adam to commit the original sin.

I'll speak not one word more: Vittoria does not speak again in the scene. She appears to be reconciled with Brachiano, but never speaks her forgiveness.

Grecians … wooden horse: Refers to the story in Homer of how the Greek army defeated the Trojans by concealing themselves within the body of a wooden horse which the Trojans then accepted as a gift.

Barbary: Refers to the North African coast, whose peoples were considered barbarian.

Crocodile with a bird in its mouthI'll tell you a tale ... and scorn ingratitude: A tale from Topsell, History of Serpents 1608. The crocodiles on the Nile have worms in their teeth. Small birds help them by picking them out. They have to enter a crocodile's mouth in order to do this. A crocodile, who is ungrateful, may try to swallow the bird, but the bird has a quill on its head so that the crocodile cannot swallow it, and thus it escapes. Brachiano and Flamineo interpret this in different ways but the important aspect is the symbiotic relationship which means that all three are locked together in a complex relationship involving love, desire, self-interest and cruelty.

Investigating Act 4 scene 2

  • How does Webster use the exchanges between the three characters in this scene to show the effectiveness of Francisco's plot?
    • Provide some examples from the scene which you think best demonstrate this.
  • What further evidence of Flamineo's attitude to women is provided in this scene?
  • What arguments does Vittoria put forward to defend herself?
  • Why does Flamineo believe that he and Brachiano will be able to smuggle Vittoria unnoticed out of the city?
  • Flamineo uses an allegory at the end of the scene
    • Where else are allegories used in the play?
    • What is the effect of the allegories in the play?
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