Delio's welcoming Antonio back from France and asking how it was.
The French court was super, Antonio tells him: it's a clean operation, fairly and wisely run.
Hey look, Bosola's coming in—he's "the only court gall," meaning he complains a lot about the court.
The Cardinal comes in, and Bosola complains that the Cardinal is treating him unfairly; Bosola apparently went to prison (actually, he was made a galley-slave, which is way worse, but the point is he was a convict) for work he did in service of the Cardinal.
The Cardinal doesn't want to hear it, and leaves Bosola unsatisfied.
Antonio and Delio go over to the Bosola, and ask him what's up.
Bosola harshes on the corruption of the Italian court for a while, bemoaning both the competition for social climbing and the stuff you have to do to get to the top, and then leaves. What a Debbie Downer.
Delio sheds some light on the Cardinal's relationship with Bosola: Bosola spent seven years as a galley slave for committing a murder the Cardinal was rumored to have commissioned.
Antonio's a glass-half-full kind of guy. He says something along the lines of, "Aw, that's too bad; Bosola seems like a good man who's just in a bad mood."
Ferdinand enters, chatting with a few members of his courtly entourage.
Then even more people come in: the Cardinal comes back in, this time accompanied by the Duchess, her lady Cariola, and Julia, the wife of courtier-posse member Castruchio.
A quick note: think about how this scene must look as it's being staged. We're watching Antonio and Delio as they watch different groups of people go in and out of the room. So at this point we're watching a few people watching a whole bunch of people. Crowded, no?
Delio wants the dirt on the Cardinal, and Antonio isn't shy about telling him.
Apparently, the Cardinal's really bad news; he surrounds himself with sycophants and assassins while baldly plotting and bribing his way to get what he wants. He's basically the Regina George of 16th-century Italy.
Ferdinand's no better: in addition to being "perverse" and "turbulent," he's totally immoral and corrupt.
Their sister, the Duchess (who's also Antonio's boss, by the way; Antonio is her steward), is a totally different story: she's beautiful, intelligent, and virtuous—other women should try to be like her. We're thinking someone's got a crush.
Ferdinand asks the Duchess to give Bosola the job of provisorship of the horse, which she immediately agrees to.
Proviso-What-Now? The provisor of the horse was, nominally, the guy who took care of your horses. Moreover, though, it's a very prestigious social position in the Renaissance court, so it's a big deal that Bosola's landing the gig.
Everybody leaves but Ferdinand and the Cardinal, and the Cardinal immediately tells Ferdinand to get Bosola to be his spy. Ferdinand tells him Antonio would have been a better choice, but the Cardinal protests that Antonio's too honest a guy to become a spy for them.
People move around again, and now Ferdinand and Bosola are alone.
Ferdinand gives Bosola gold and asks him to spy on the Duchess for him; in particular he wants to make sure she doesn't remarry.
Bosola doesn't want any part of it, and refuses until Ferdinand tells him that he's made Bosola the Duchess's provisor of the horse.
Bosola is unhappy with the situation, but wants the provisorship, so he agrees to be Ferdinand's intelligencer (that's a fancy word for spy).
After Bosola leaves, Ferdinand and the Cardinal start talking to the Duchess, making it clear that they are really, really not okay with her remarrying, even threatening her with their dead father's Wow-That-Couldn't-Be-A-Phallic-Symbol-At-All poniard (which is an old-school dagger).
Women get dragged through the mud in this scene. The brothers go on about how women don't know what's good for them, are slaves to their desires, and make terrible decision just to make them. After setting feminism back farther than it already was in the 16th century (which is really saying something), they leave the Duchess alone.
Her response to all of this? "Screw that, I do what I want." Four for you, Duchess Coco.
Cariola comes in, and promises to keep it a secret that the Duchess intends to remarry.
The Duchess tells Cariola to hide herself as Antonio enters to have a chat.
She has him sit down and start writing for her, telling him that she's making her will.
They go back and forth a little bit on what she would leave her husband, if she had one. This of course leads to the super subtle question of, "So, Antonio, buddy, what do you think about marriage, huh?"
Things progress quickly—our Duchess is seriously putting the moves on Antonio. She's all, "here, hold my ring… actually, you know what, how about I just put it on your finger."
How's that fit, Antonio?
Antonio is understandably gobsmacked; this lady's not only a Duchess, but his personal boss, and therefore way out of his league.
The Duchess stops playing around—she thinks Antonio is a really good man, and she proposing to him. For real.
It's rough being an aristocrat, she says. Most guys are too chicken to court her because of her social position, so she has to take the reigns herself if she wants to remarry.
Antonio's still hesitating, but the Duchess knows that Antonio's really into her and just afraid of making a move on somebody so noble. She reassures him, "please, I'm a widow—I'm not dead. I've already done the married thing once; let's not pretend this is my first rodeo."
He's on board, but is still wary—what about her brothers?
"Psh, who cares about my brothers? Haters gonna hate."
The Duchess has Cariola come out of hiding. After Antonio gets over the fact that somebody was watching that entire very personal exchange between him and his honey, the Duchess explains that Cariola's going to marry them right then and there. She moves fast.
As it so happens, in Elizabethan England a man and a women could be legally considered married so long as they declared themselves "man and wife" You didn't even need a witness. Pretty useful if your toolish brothers don't want you to get hitched, no?
The happy couple wanders off, looking forward to their blissful future, but Cariola stays onstage.
She's not so happy about all of this. She really loves the Duchess, and she's worried because she thinks this whole getting-married-in-secret-to-her-social-inferior thing is crazy.