“Pure silver drops in general; but if ‘t chance
Some cursed example poisoned ‘t near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread.”
The rhyming couplet makes it almost seem like a curse, and exerts a sense of doom. This already gives the impression that the court of Malfi is it self distorted, as Antonio describes the goodness of the French court, and then quickly goes onto describe how easily any court could be corrupted, as if ‘pointing a finger’ at the court of Malfi. Webster uses this contrast quite effectively to convince the audience from the beginning that there is more to the Court of Malfi than it may primarily seem.
Interrupting the conversation, Bosola arrives, and before he even speaks, Antonio speaks of him to Delio, and creating a distinct impression of Bosola.
“Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud,
Bloody, or envious, as any man,
If he had the means to be so.”
This unpleasant impression of Bosola given to the audience is further supported, as Delio reveals that he was “a fellow seven years in the galleys for a notorious murder”, making him appear as an evil character who is capable of murder.
Aside from the information the audience receive from Antonio and Delio, the way in which Bosola speaks makes him appear to be very negative.
“He and his brother are like plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools; they are rich and o’erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them.”
The constant use of dark and distasteful imagery attributes him to be quite bitter, and so completes the overall impression that he is indeed an unpleasant character. However, as Bosola leaves, Antonio says he has heard good things about Bosola, but his “railing at those things which he wants” overcomes these positive aspects.
“’Tis great pity
He should be thus neglected; I have heard
He’s very valiant. This foul melancholy
Will poison all his goodness.”
This indicates to the audience that Bosola may have a good side which he may or may not reveal later. Either way, this is another way in which Webster explores the theme of first impressions not being all that they seem.
As Ferdinand and the Cardinal are introduced, their personal qualities aren’t so apparent at first, as the audience can only judge them from what they can see. Another theme introduced with these characters (which is soon emphasised) is the idea of the social status of women, as the Duchess’ brothers decide that they forbid her to marry again, as if it is their decision to make because she is a woman. They even send Bosola to spy on her, which is another obvious indication of the corrupt nature of the Malfi court. This theme of sexism is further explored through the relationship between Antonio and the Duchess. Antonio clearly has strong feelings for the Duchess, which he describes in detail.
“But for their sister, the right noble Duchess…
... Let all sweet ladies break their flatt’ring glasses,
And dress themselves in her.”
Inequalities of power associated with gender and social status are highlighted in the relationship between the Duchess and Antonio, and the reactions of others towards their relationship. In their meeting, the Duchess is very forward, and this is consistent in her nature. She is presented as a powerful woman with a dominant will, and has no qualms about defying her brothers’ wishes. The social/gender inequality is inversed as the Duchess seems much more in control of the situation than Antonio, and it was unusual in those times for a female to be dominant and confident, especially over a man.
“I cannot stand upright in ‘t, nor discourse,
Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,
Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.”
In this instance, the Duchess is helping Antonio, and effectively raising his status to her level, so that he feels comfortable with their pending marriage, even though others don’t approve due to his low social status.
The fact that Webster explores the idea of gender inequality in such a manner was unusual for his time, and almost ironic considering this was a time when only men were allowed to act on stage.
This introductory act, although quite short, is still essential in terms of the entire structure of the play, and how the themes are presented. As well as all the themes of deceit, spying, social inequality, and gender inequality, being presented to the audience, the way in which some of the characters’ personalities are dictated to the audience also implies that there is more to each character than these first impressions. This is likely the most fundamental element of the play, and thus gives the audience to figure out what really lies behind each character as the play unfolds.