Act 4 scene 1


Monticelso urges Francisco to think about how to avenge the death of his sister, Isabella. Francisco is reluctant to declare war and Monticelso advocates patient cunning. Francisco asks to see a book that Monticelso possesses which contains the names of all the villains in the city.

While Monticelso goes to get it, Francisco confesses that he does not trust Monticelso and has his own careful plans. Monticelso returns with the book and describes the different types of villains listed, offering to lend it to Francisco.

After Monticelso leaves, Francisco looks through the list of villains which provide him with a good choice if he wants to make use of them. He closes his eyes in order to recall his sister Isabella's face and her ghost enters. He speculates on this ‘vision', then wishes it away and the ghost disappears.

Now Francisco devises a plan for his revenge on Vittoria and Brachiano. He writes to Vittoria, feigning love, asking his servant to deliver it so that Brachiano's followers notice. He also decides that Lodovico can be co-opted into his plans to ensure the death of Brachiano.


let them dangle loose as a bride's hair: Loose hair was the symbol of a virgin bride in the seventeenth century. Also loose or disheveled hair was a sign of distraction or grief.

Bear your wrongs concealed: The idea of using subterfuge and cunning fits in with the ideas of Machiavelli. Monticelso is recommending that Francisco be a politician rather than a war leader. (see Themes and significan ideas> Machiavellian corruption)

Shall I defy him … in his seed: The idea of the just war is an important philosophical idea going back to Roman times with Cicero, but it is also important throughout the Middle Ages. Both this speech and the next are concluded with rhyming couplets, strengthening the advice within them.

More on the just war: The theory lays down conditions for judging when it is right to go to war and how that war should be fought. The main thinkers who contributed to the ideas were St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.

black book: The colour links it to the black arts because it contains the names of devils or villains.

Flax, photo by Lokilech, available through Creative CommonsYour flax ... will hot remain: Flax (the plant from which linen is made) catches fire easily but soon burns out. This is what Monticelso is like, while Francisco compares himself to gold which heats slowly but retains its heat.

Intelligencers .. panders .. pirates ... attain this knowledge: This catalogue of villains reflected the corruption of contemporary England. The list includes crooked lawyers and priests. Webster was able to criticise his own society in the guise of writing about Italy. The audience would have recognised this.

politic: Always used with the negative meaning of being a schemer or trickster.

Enter Isabella's Ghost: Isabella's ghost enters as Francisco closes his eyes and thinks about her. Is she a real ghost or a projection of his mind? Ghosts had the effect of reminding characters of the need for vengeance (see The Theatre > Revenge Tragedy > Features of revenge tragedy > Ghosts).

tribute of wolves: A Saxon king demanded a tribute of 300 wolves per year from the Welsh so as to rid the country of them.

one that lately skipped .. / .. justice' chair: Another potential criticism of James I's policy of promoting his favourites

Irish rebels … sell heads: Trying to quell rebellion, the English had offered a bounty for the heads of rebels.

ten leash: 30 (leash was a sporting term for three hounds)

divinity … factious blood / Draws swords: Another comment on the church's political in-fighting. (See Social / political context > Renaissance Italy > The Borgias.)

‘Tis my melancholy: Melancholy was thought to be a physical disease which could produce hallucinations (see Religious / Philosophical context > Renaissance in England > Jacobean melancholy).

a man's head: The brains must lead the limbs i.e. body/strength, not the other way round.

the wild Irish: The Irish had a reputation for being bloodthirsty.

Flectere ... movebo: Latin – ‘If I cannot prevail upon the gods above, I will move the gods of the infernal regions.' Virgil Aeneid VII, 312. A stock remark for villains in drama.

Investigating Act 4 scene 1

  • Look again at the opening exchange between Francisco and Monticelso
    • What reason does Francisco give initially for not seeking revenge?
    • What action is recommended by Monticelso?
    • How does Francisco's speech following Monticelso's exit emphasise the level of deceit in the play?
  • Identify the images used in the first 30 lines of the scene which illustrate the plotting and deceit of the characters
    • Where else and for what purpose has similar imagery been used in the play?
  • What does the ‘black book' contain?
    • Which characters in the play might the audience think of during Francisco and Monticelso's discussion of the book?
    • How does the introduction of the book further shape our view of Francisco, Monticelso and the world of the play?
  • How does the appearance of the ghost alter the mood of the scene (ghosts are often used in revenge plays to encourage a character to seek revenge)?
    • What does Francisco do immediately after he sees Isabella's ghost?

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.