The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
Table of Contents
1. The Duchess of Malfi: Introduction
2. The Duchess of Malfi: John Webster Biography
3. The Duchess of Malfi: Summary
The Duchess of Malfi: Summary and Analysis

¨ Act 1, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 1, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 2, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 3, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 4, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 4, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 5, Scene 1: Summay and Analysis
¨ Act 5, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
¨ Act 5, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
The Duchess of Malfi: Quizzes
¨ Act 1, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 1, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers
¨ Ace 2, Scenes 3-5: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 3, Scenes 3-5: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 4, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 4, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 5, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 5, Scenes 2: Questions and Answers
¨ Act 5, Scene 3-5: Questions and Answers
The Duchess of Malfi 1
6. The Duchess of Malfi: Themes
7. The Duchess of Malfi: Style
8. The Duchess of Malfi: Historical Context
9. The Duchess of Malfi: Critical Overview
10. The Duchess of Malfi: Character Analysis
The Duchess of Malfi: Essays and Criticism
¨ Webster's Manipulation of the Five-Act Structure
¨ The Duchess of Malfi: Overview
¨ Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi
12. The Duchess of Malfi: Suggested Essay Topics
13. The Duchess of Malfi: Sample Essay Outlines
14. The Duchess of Malfi: Compare and Contrast
15. The Duchess of Malfi: Topics for Further Study
16. The Duchess of Malfi: Media Adaptations
17. The Duchess of Malfi: What Do I Read Next?
18. The Duchess of Malfi: Bibliography and Further Reading
19. The Duchess of Malfi: Pictures
20. Copyright
The Duchess of Malfi: Introduction
Webster's The Duchess of Malfi was written in 1613 or 1614 and had at least two successful productions in
London before it was published in 1623 under the title The Tragedy of the Duchesse of Malfy. Generally
considered to be Webster's masterpiece, it tells the story of a young widow who marries against the wishes of
her powerful brothers, setting off a storm of revenge. The startling violence, the unbelievable plot twists, the
mysterious motives of the brothers, and the calm strength of the Duchess have made The Duchess of Malfi a
subject for fierce debate for hundreds of years. Critics and reviewers have loved or hated the play, with equal
The Duchess's story is based on actual events that took place in Italy in the early sixteenth century. Webster
freely borrowed elements of his story from several sources, including William Painter's popular collection of
stories, The Palace of Pleasure (1566-1567), and Sir Philip Sidney's romance, Arcadia (1590), and also
borrowed dramatic elements from the Revenge Tragedy tradition, but he adapted the source materials to suit
his own themes and dramatic purpose. The Duchess of Malfi is widely available in high school and college
anthologies. It is also available separately as a Dover Thrift edition and collected in The Duchess of Malfi and
Other Plays (1998), part of the Oxford World Classics series.
The Duchess of Malfi: John Webster Biography
John Webster was born in London, England, probably in 1579 or 1580. Like most of the facts about Webster's
life, his birthdate is not recorded in any documents that survive to this day; scholars estimate his birthdate by
extrapolating from existing records of his parents' marriage in 1577. It is known that his father was also
named John and that the father earned a good living as a coachmaker, but the name and background of
Webster's mother is not known.
It is likely that Webster attended the prestigious Merchant Taylors' School, an institution established for
children of members of the Company of Merchant Taylors. There, he would have received a solid basic
education, which included exposure to literature in Latin and English, and he would have participated in
musical and dramatic performances.
eNotes: Table of Contents 2
Although the play itself has been lost, there is evidence that Webster was part of a group that was paid in 1602
for writing Caesar's Fall. This play, written on commission, is the earliest known work to which Webster
contributed. Webster would continue to collaborate with other playwrights, including Thomas Dekker,
Thomas Middleton, and Michael Drayton, for much of his career. Most of these plays were written for
performance by particular theatrical companies. They were intended to be popular successes, not texts for
study, and the successful playwright was able to produce histories, comedies, tragedies—whatever the market
demanded. In or near 1605, Webster married a woman named Sara Peniall. Their first son, also named John,
was baptized in 1606, and several other children followed. Webster was apparently able to support his family
through his writing.
Webster's two most important plays were both written by him alone: The White Devil (1612) and The
Duchess of Malfi (published 1623, but written in 1613 or 1614). Both draw heavily on the Italian tradition of
sensation and tragedy, which was popular at the time. Webster also wrote prose “character” sketches, a
ceremonial pageant, and various odes and verses, none of which is as important today as his plays. Over his
career, Webster wrote approximately ten plays in collaboration and at least four individually. During his
lifetime, he was well-known as a playwright and as a visible member of London's upper middle class.
Webster's last known play, Appius and Virginia, was produced in London in 1634. Though no records of his
death have been found, references to Webster in the work of other writers seem to indicate that he died no
later than late 1634.
The Duchess of Malfi: Summary
Act 1
The Duchess of Malfi is divided into five acts, each comprising several scenes. In the three scenes of act 1, the
major characters and conflicts are introduced. The setting is the Italian city of Amalfi in the sixteenth century,
in the audience chamber or ‘‘presence’’ of the widowed Duchess. Antonio, the Duchess's steward, talks
with his friend Delio as they observe the others who pass through the chamber. The first to enter are the
Cardinal and Bosola. Although Bosola has recently been released after serving seven years for a murder he
committed at the behest of the Cardinal, the Cardinal is cold to him and will not acknowledge his debt.
Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, enters with his entourage. Ferdinand learns that Antonio has proven himself
the best at a knightly competition, and he congratulates Antonio for his prowess and for his eloquent speech.
When the Cardinal reenters with the Duchess, Antonio gives Delio his impression of the three siblings: the
Cardinal is jealous and vengeful, Ferdinand is ‘‘perverse and turbulent,’’ and the Duchess is sweet and
noble. Ferdinand asks the Duchess to accept Bosola as a servant, and she agrees; in fact, the brothers have
hired Bosola to spy on the Duchess.
The two brothers warn the Duchess not to remarry, and she promises that she will not. However, as soon as
they leave her chamber, she summons Antonio and the two perform a private marriage ceremony, with the
Duchess's trusted servant Cariola as witness.
Act 2
The second act, which has five scenes, begins several months later as the Duchess is about to give birth to a
child. Her marriage to Antonio is still secret, and she has concealed her pregnancy by wearing loose clothing.
Bosola, however, suspects that she is pregnant and tries to trap her by giving her a present of apricots. When
she devours them hungrily and then vomits, he has confirmation of the pregnancy but does not reveal what he
knows. The incident sends the Duchess into labor, and she is rushed to her chamber.
The Duchess of Malfi: John Webster Biography 3
To avoid suspicion that the Duchess is giving birth, a ruse is invented: it is announced that jewels have been
stolen, and everyone must stay in his or her room while a search is conducted. The Duchess delivers a healthy
son, and when Cariola tells Antonio the good news, he prepares a set of calculations based on astrology to
determine the baby's future. Meanwhile, Bosola sneaks out to the courtyard beneath the Duchess's window
and hears her crying out. Antonio finds him there, and they argue about Bosola having left his room. As he
leaves Bosola, Antonio accidentally drops the paper on which he has written his astrological notes, and Bosola
retrieves it, discovering that a baby has been born to the Duchess—a baby who will have a short life. Bosola
knows that Antonio is in on the secret but does not consider that a man of Antonio's social class could be the
In Rome, the Cardinal meets in his chamber with Julia, his mistress. Delio arrives and propositions Julia, but
she refuses him. In another part of the Cardinal's palace, Ferdinand has received a letter from Bosola, telling
him of the baby's birth. The Cardinal and Ferdinand discuss their sister's betrayal, and Ferdinand's rage takes
him to the brink of insanity.
Act 3
Several years pass before the five scenes in act 3 take place. The Duchess has given birth to two more
children, but her marriage is still a secret, and Bosola still has not discovered the identity of the father.
Ferdinand, finally stirred to action, arrives at the Duchess's palace to confront her. To play an affectionate
joke on her, Antonio and Cariola step out of the room while the Duchess is talking to herself in the mirror, and
Ferdinand comes into the room at the same moment. He accuses her of shaming the family with her
promiscuity, and although she tells him that she is married, he vows never to look at her again.
Afraid of Ferdinand's anger, the Duchess sends Antonio to safety by pretending that he has stolen money and
been banished. Tenderly, the couple say goodbye to each other, planning to reunite in Ancona. In her grief,
the Duchess confides in Bosola, telling him everything. Bosola plots to entrap the Duchess and Antonio. He
speeds to Rome to tell what he knows and find his reward, and the brothers respond with expected fury. The
Cardinal decides to contact the authorities at Ancona and have the Duchess and her family banished.
At the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, the Duchess and Antonio review their situation. Bosola brings a letter
from Ferdinand calling for Antonio's death, and Antonio and the Duchess say goodbye again. They know that
this will be their final parting. Antonio takes their oldest son and flees to Milan. The Duchess is arrested by
Bosola, in disguise, and taken by guards to her palace.
Act 4
Act 4, with its two scenes set in the Duchess's chambers, moves quickly. Trying to drive her to despair so that
she will be damned as well as killed, Ferdinand arranges for a series of horrors. He visits the Duchess in a
darkened room (because he has vowed never to see her again) and places in her hand a dead man's hand that
she will assume to be Antonio's. He shows her wax figures that look like the bodies of Antonio and the three
children. He arranges for eight madmen to scream outside her window. Through it all, the Duchess maintains
her quiet nobility, saying ‘‘I am Duchess of Malfi still,’’ and Bosola begins to feel a grudging respect for
Finally, Bosola brings two executioners to the Duchess's chamber, and they strangle her. She faces her death
with dignity. Cariola is also strangled, though she resists her death with all her energy. Offstage, the two
younger children are strangled. When Ferdinand sees his dead sister, he has a dramatic change of heart, and
rather than rewarding Bosola, he blames him for the murders.
Act 5
The action of the five scenes of act 5 is also rapid. Four days after the events in act 4, the Cardinal has had all
of Antonio's property seized. Antonio decides to visit the Cardinal and attempt a reconciliation. Ferdinand's
The Duchess of Malfi: Summary 4
madness has increased, and he has been seen digging up bodies in the cemetery and carrying a man's leg over
his shoulder. Bosola arrives in Milan, and he and the Cardinal try to determine what the other knows. The
Cardinal pretends that he does not know the Duchess is dead, so that he will not seem to have been involved
in the murder, but Bosola persuades Julia to find out the truth. The Cardinal confesses to Julia that he has had
his sister killed, but then he immediately kills Julia with a poisoned book.
Outside the Cardinal's home, Antonio and Delio speak with a ghostly echo that comes from the Duchess's
grave. Bosola vows to protect Antonio from harm, but he accidentally kills Antonio with his sword, mistaking
him for the Cardinal, who has promised to kill Bosola. In the final scene, an anguished Bosola kills the
Cardinal's servant and stabs the Cardinal. Ferdinand rushes in and stabs Bosola and the Cardinal. Bosola stabs
Ferdinand. As they all lie dead, Delio enters with Antonio's son and calls for a unified effort to support the
young man as the new Duke.
The Duchess of Malfi: Summary and Analysis
Act 1, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Bosola: an ex-convict and keeper of the Duchess’s horse who also serves as a spy for Ferdinand
Cardinal: Ferdinand and the Duchess’s brother, as well as Julia’s lover
Antonio: the steward of the Duchess’s household who is also secretly married to her
Delio: a friend of Antonio
The action opens in the court of Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, with Antonio, the steward of the Duchess of
Malfi, and his friend, Delio, in conversation. Antonio gives his favorable impression of the French court, from
which he has recently returned. However, he also warns that poison near the head of government makes
“[d]eath, and diseases through the whole land spread,” making honest council to the ruler crucial for “blessed
government.” Antonio describes Bosola as “the only court-gall” in Ferdinand’s court. Bosola, whose current
occupation in the court is not described, arrives shortly before the Cardinal, and Bosola rails against both the
Cardinal and his brother Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. The Cardinal asks Bosola to “become honest,” but
Bosola continues his diatribe by saying the brothers never reward those who serve them—namely, himself. He
leaves, and Delio notes that Bosola is an ex-convict who spent seven years in jail for a murder possibly
instigated by the Cardinal, but “was releas’d by the French general, Gaston de Foix.” Antonio closes the
scene by commenting on Bosola’s great valor and bemoaning that his “foul melancholy will poison all his
As part of the preface to the play John Webster published a letter dedicated to Baron Berkeley, an English
aristocrat who had supported Webster and his colleagues, claiming the play will grant immortality to
Berkeley. Webster further claimed that “the ancientest nobility, being but a relic of time past, and the truest
honour indeed being for a man to confer honour on himself” serves to introduce a theme his play will pursue.
The three ensuing testimonials to the merits of Webster’s play proclaim it will give Webster lasting fame,
which indeed it has.
The Duchess of Malfi is based on the true story of a woman, the Duchess of Amalfi, who had married the
Duke of Amalfi. Amalfi is located on Italy’s southwestern coast a few miles south of Naples. The Duchess’s
The Duchess of Malfi: Summary and Analysis 5
husband died, and after his death, the Duchess ruled the dukedom as regent during Italy’s tumultuous early
1500s. At that time, the country was split into many small kingdoms and principalities, such as the republics
of Florence and Venice, and the Papal lands surrounding Rome. Each of the rulers of these kingdoms had a
court which served bureaucrats charged with collecting taxes, maintaining the kingdom’s army, and other
official duties. However, each court also contained groups of local aristocrats known as courtiers, who
typically resided near the ruler’s palace and spent much of their time scheming against each other, trying to
win the ruler’s favor and gain power and influence. Frequently these schemes developed into attempts to
depose the ruler by seizing power forcibly and installing one of the ruler’s relatives as head of state. Set
against these courtiers were the common people, who had very little status and very little say in the rule of
their kingdom.
The play itself opens with Antonio’s comments on the need for an honest, virtuous court, a theme of courtly
morality that the play will continue to address. Bosola does not give a favorable impression at first, and it is
difficult to take his condemnation of the Cardinal and Ferdinand at face value. The comment from Delio that
Bosola was imprisoned for murder furthers this suspicion towards Bosola, but it is a surprise to read that the
Cardinal was suspected of inducing that murder by bribing Bosola. Antonio’s closing testimony that Bosola
is in fact “very valiant” and good conflicts with the initial negative impression that Bosola gave. So the
opening scene, with its conflicting testimony, hints at the deceptive world of the court and the difficulty of
discerning anyone’s true character. In the midst of this immoral court, Bosola’s “foul melancholy” may
indeed decay his soul, as Antonio warns.
Act 1, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Ferdinand: the Duke of Calabria, and brother to the Cardinal and the Duchess
Silvio: a Lord who leaves for Milan in act 1; he later gives counsel to the Cardinal
Roderigo: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court
Grisolan: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court
The Duchess: the Duchess of Malfi, a widow who is the sister of Ferdinand and the Cardinal
Cariola: the Duchess’s servant who is the sole witness to the marriage of the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio
Julia: Castruchio’s wife and the Cardinal’s mistress
Castruchio: a Lord who is married to Julia
Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as the Lords Castruchio, Silvio, Roderigo, and Grisolan reveal
through their jocular conversation that Antonio has won the court’s jousting competition. Castruchio advises
Ferdinand not to become a soldier because whenever a ruler becomes a soldier, his realm becomes unsettled.
Ferdinand answers by making jibes against Castruchio’s wife, Julia. Ferdinand promises to visit Lord Silvio
in Milan shortly, and the Duchess, the Cardinal, Cariola, and Julia enter. In a lengthy aside, Antonio tells
Delio that the Cardinal is “a melancholy churchman” full of schemes and jealousy, who threw away a
possible Papacy by bestowing bribes, and calls Ferdinand a similarly evasive and lying hypocrite. However,
Antonio says their sister, the Duchess of Malfi, is meek, very beautiful, and virtuous, and he adds that she
“lights the time to come.”
Act 1, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis 6
Ferdinand assigns Bosola to keep the Duchess’s horse, and after Silvio and all the others leave, he comments
that the Cardinal “could never abide you” because, Bosola says, he “was in my debt.” Ferdinand, remarking
that Bosola’s “inclination to shed blood rides post” as a predictor of his performance in the role he is about
to assume, tells Bosola to serve as an intelligencer and spy on the Duchess to keep her, “a young widow,”
from marrying again. Fearing that he will be forced to do evil in that role, Bosola agrees to it only because he
has already been assigned to keep her horse. Ferdinand advises Bosola, in his new role, to “keep your old
garb of melancholy” in order to “gain access to private lodgings.” Bosola leaves after vowing “I am your
creature,” and the Cardinal and Ferdinand then tell the Duchess not to marry. Though the Duchess calls it
“terrible good counsel,” the Cardinal fears she may “privately be married under the eaves of night.”
The Cardinal leaves after warning the Duchess that “the marriage night is the entrance into some prison,” but
she suspects the brothers’ “speech,” as she calls it, was so smoothly done only because they had practiced it.
After giving the Duchess a warning of his own, Ferdinand leaves, and the Duchess, promptly proving their
fears are well-grounded, sets forth on her “dangerous venture” of marriage. Antonio comes forth, and after
some talk of accounts, the Duchess and Antonio talk of “the sacrament of marriage.” Antonio dismisses
fatherhood as giving “weak delight,” but the Duchess puts her wedding ring on his finger. She speaks of the
difficulty aristocrats and royalty face in finding love, but she, “a young widow that claims you for her
husband,” approves his account with a “Quietus est,” freeing him from his debt to her. So, with her lady
Cariola as witness, the Duchess marries Antonio, making a “sacred Gordian, which let violence never
untwine.” They go to bed, but she says they shall “lay a naked sword between us” to “keep us chaste.”
Cariola closes the act by commenting on the Duchess’s “fearful madness” and says she owes her “much of
Castruchio’s warning that Ferdinand’s hunger for war was dangerous seems to strike a chord with Ferdinand,
who immediately begins to jibe him about the loose morals of his wife, Julia. The play has begun to explore
the issues of courtly illusion, proper sexual behavior, courtly morals, and truth. Who can be trusted in
Ferdinand’s court, and what are the consequences of placing one’s trust in the wrong hands? Thus far, there
are only hints and seemingly minor signs of these issues and their importance, but it is still very early in the
play, and the early signs are not positive. And, furthermore, Antonio has already warned that malevolence at a
prince’s court creates problems for everyone ruled by that prince.
Ferdinand’s later objection to the laughter of Roderigo and Grisolan, who have laughed on their own without
sensing that they should laugh only when he laughs, furthers the courtly theme that behavior is artificial, it is
based on flattery, and it centers on doing what the prince wants done, not necessarily what should be done.
Antonio, though, rejects flattery to see past the superficial talents of the Cardinal and reads him as “a
melancholy churchman,” full of political intrigues, jealousy, and fraud. Similarly, Ferdinand’s external mirth
is false, and the contrast of their sister the Duchess, radiant with beauty, honesty, and virtue, presents a case of
like appealing to like: amidst the fraud and violence of Ferdinand’s court, the honest Duchess and Antonio
are bound to come together.
The employment of Bosola as Ferdinand’s intelligencer, or spy, which also shows the lingering ill will
between the Cardinal and Bosola, deepens the sense that things are awry at this court. Bosola already has
blood on his hands, which somehow qualifies him for the job of spying on the Duchess; presumably
Ferdinand wants a hardened, bold man for the job, but perhaps he also anticipates that Bosola will someday be
asked to murder the Duchess. He has forced Bosola to do the job, which Bosola has his own suspicions about,
by giving him “the provisorship o’th’ horse.” It is appropriate for that secret appointment to lead Bosola
into his secretive occupation. In this court, direct knowledge is evidently hard to come by.
Even the Duchess and Antonio follow this general rule in their marriage. Her brothers, unsurprisingly, given
their scheming natures, suspect she has secret plans to marry, and she does. It is clearly ironic, though, for
Act 1, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis 7
them to give her counsel against courtly cunning and underhanded ways. The Duchess, although possessing
simple virtues, is also aware of the value of her fame and status, and her conversation with Antonio includes
talk about him keeping her accounts, the need to raise “this goodly roof of yours” which “is too low built,”
and the hardship those born to great status face in wooing those below their station. She is fully conscious of
the legal meaning of their marriage, and she knows she is marrying a man well beneath her in terms of money
and nobility. So the Duchess must sign his Quietus est before they marry, and she notes that Cariola’s
presence is needed to make their “contract in a chamber” legitimate. The intrusion of such legalisms into the
“sweet affections” of this pair presents an uneasy contrast. Given such circumstances, Cariola seems rightly
fearful of the Duchess’s alleged madness. Although Antonio and the Duchess feel great affection for each
other, they have married in secret. So it is that the Duchess’s last line in the act proclaims herself covered by
Antonio’s bosom, “since ‘tis the treasury of all my secrets.” She has made herself vulnerable by marrying
him and must hope he will indeed retain her secrets.
Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Old Lady: speaks with Bosola about her makeup and the Duchess’s pregnancy
Forobosco: the keeper of the key to the park gate
Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as Bosola and Castruchio briefly talk about the qualifications to
be a courtier just prior to the Old Lady entering. Bosola comments on her foul makeup before giving his
meditation on the deformed nature of man. He goes on to reveal his suspicion of the Duchess’s pregnancy in
a brief monologue before Antonio and Delio arrive. Bosola tells Antonio that Antonio’s ancestry is worth
nothing before presenting the Duchess with some “apricocks.” Upon eating one of the fruits, she falls ill, and
Delio advises Antonio to make use “of this forc’d occasion” to enable the Duchess’s removal to give birth
by saying Bosola has poisoned the fruits, and the Duchess will privately take her own “prepar’d antidote” for
the poison.
As scene 2 opens, Bosola is talking with the Old Lady about the Duchess’s pregnancy. But Antonio comes in
and gives the command to “shut up the court gates” on the Duchess’s orders. Four thousand ducats worth of
her jewels are missing, and “she is very sick.” Cariola promptly brings Antonio his newborn son.
The courtly mire deepens with the talk between Bosola and Castruchio on the way to “be taken for an
eminent courtier,” not to actually be an eminent courtier. Bosola advises Castruchio to pursue rigorous
duplicity and earn the hatred of the commoners. Bosola, though, knows what lies beneath the courtly mask: he
disdains the Old Lady’s makeup, which merely covers up inward decay and disease. Bosola claims we are
“made sweet” only upon death. However, the Duchess’s outward sickness houses a burgeoning life inside
her: she is pregnant, and he gives her apricots to discover that fact. But before Bosola does, he tells Antonio
he wishes to “be simply honest” rather than “a great wise fellow.” The truth of this statement is open to
judgment, given Bosola’s scheming thus far. In any case, Bosola reiterates his emphasis on the unimportance
of external qualities; not just makeup, but lineage as well, are of little worth, and princes are motivated by the
same desires and fears as anyone else. The Duchess, in sympathy with Bosola’s sentiment, wonders why
courtiers should have to take off their hats before the King. Antonio, who, of course, is of lesser status than
the Duchess, begs to differ; he may be more conscious and respectful of such ways to pay homage than she is.
The pungency of Bosola’s views on human nature is brought to bear by his comment that the apricots were
fertilized with horse dung. The scene closes with more double-dealing: Delio advises Antonio to “make use
then of this forc’d occasion” of the Duchess’s illness to accuse Bosola of poisoning and thereby give cover
Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis 8
for her to give birth. It seems worth noting, though, that Antonio is stunned by this advice: he has not learned
the courtly art of taking advantage of opportunities for scheming as they arise.
Bosola does not say if the “more precious reward” he claims inspires women to give entertainment to men is
sexual pleasure, money, power and status, or birth. Given the Duchess’ circumstances, birth is the most
likely, but sexual pleasure is also possible. The theme of sexual play and mischief arises again in the
servants’ joking about a cod-piece. But Antonio needs to claim the Duchess’s jewels have gone missing in
order to clear the way for her to secretly give birth in her bedchamber. His motivation may be honorable, but
his means are not. Delio, in assuring Antonio that the trust placed in him is guaranteed and that Antonio
should not heed superstitions, affirms the clarity of an honest, unguarded life unclouded by duplicity or
Act 2, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
Bosola hears a shriek “from the Duchess’ lodging.” In his position as intelligencer, he feels obligated to
investigate. He encounters Antonio armed with a sword, and in their questioning of what each other is doing
out, Antonio says he was setting the Duchess’s jewels, and Bosola says he was saying his prayers. They
exchange bitter words, and after Antonio leaves, Bosola sees a note dropped by Antonio indicating that the
Duchess has been “deliver’d of a son, ‘tween the hours twelve and one” of the night. He wonders who the
father is and resolves to send a letter to her brothers, who are in Rome, to notify them of his discovery.
Scene 4 begins with the Cardinal and Julia in Rome. They converse about their relationship but are interrupted
by a servant bringing the news that Castruchio has arrived in Rome. Delio, one of Julia’s “old suitors,” says
Castruchio is very tired from his riding, but their conversation as well is interrupted by the servant, who says
Ferdinand, having seen Bosola’s letter, is “out of his wits.” Before exiting, Delio expresses his fear that
Antonio has been betrayed.
He has, and the brothers respond to the letter containing that betrayal. In his rage, Ferdinand calls for them to
take violent measures against the Duchess, and vows to murder her. The Cardinal, surprised by his brother’s
extreme anger, asks him to calm down. But at the end of the scene and act, Ferdinand further vents his rage
before vowing to act only after discovering who impregnated the Duchess.
The rancor between Antonio and Bosola derives from both the tension each feels over the Duchess’s
pregnancy and birth and their headstrong, determined, and unguarded natures. Their mutual accusations show,
however, that in Ferdinand’s court evil is expected and situations arising in it tend to reveal the worst of
human nature. Antonio, like the Duchess, is in agreement with Bosola’s affirmation that people are
essentially the same: “the great are like the base; nay, they are the same, when they seek shameful ways to
avoid shame.” It’s no surprise that Bosola deems Antonio a “false friend” or that he learns of the Duchess’s
childbearing not directly but through Antonio’s dropping of the paper noting their son’s birth. Again,
indirectness, duplicity, and rumor prevail; Bosola, not having seen the Duchess give birth, must rely on a
piece of paper to confirm that fact. In that note, great emphasis is placed on astrology, but its prediction of
short life and a violent death for this eldest son is wrong.
Julia’s lies to her husband, Castruchio, an act that contrasts with her professed constancy to the Cardinal. The
Cardinal's advice for her to avoid “a voluntary torture, which proceeds out of your own guilt” over betraying
her husband, introduces the Cardinal’s emphasis on conscience. He is, though, not feeling any shame in
making Castruchio a cuckold. Prudence nonetheless prompts the Cardinal to retreat when he suspects
Castruchio is about to enter. Julia reprises the Cardinal’s refrain of “still you are to thank me” when she asks
Act 2, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis 9
Delio what the condition for his present of money is; like the Cardinal, Julia assumes affection is tied to
bargaining and making demands, and that love is not given freely. Julia, despite her wanton nature, does
recognize that gold does not match the qualities of nature; she has not entirely abandoned the natural world.
Whatever Delio’s intentions were upon coming to Rome, he spends this scene flirting with Julia and fails to
protect Antonio from the release of the news of the Duchess’s childbirth. Delio has not even managed to
judge if Julia’s “wit, or honesty” was on display when she promised to ask Castruchio if she could be
Delio’s mistress.
Ferdinand’s rage in response to the news of the Duchess’s newborn child contrasts with the Cardinal’s
counsel for reason and restraint. Ferdinand ironically criticizes the Duchess for secretly having “most cunning
bawds to serve her turn,” not realizing that he has employed Bosola for similarly underhanded purposes. His
distrust of not just the Duchess, but women in general, is revealed by his criticism of men who “trust their
honour” to the “weak bulrush” of woman. Ferdinand suspects the Duchess has not only given birth
illegitimately, but that she has also mated with a man far below her station. The Cardinal, echoing Bosola’s
soliloquy on man’s deformed nature, says nothing “makes man so deform’d, so beastly as doth intemperate
anger.” Ferdinand continues the theme of distortion by vowing that he “will only study to seem the thing I am
not,” but Ferdinand’s hidden guilt comes through in his comment that “it is some sin in us, Heaven doth
revenge by her.” The Duchess, rather than being valued in herself, is merely a vessel by which Heaven sends
its moral judgment upon the brothers.
Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Malateste: a count who the Duchess refuses to marry
After a considerable length of time, Delio has returned to the court, along with Ferdinand. In the meantime,
Antonio has informed him that the Duchess has given birth to a son and a daughter. Antonio adds that the
common people think of her as a “strumpet,” and they think Antonio has become wealthy through fraudulent
means. Ferdinand arrives to assure the Duchess that he does not suspect her, and even if she were a strumpet,
“my fix’d love would strongly excuse” her faults. Bosola reports to Ferdinand the rumor that the Duchess
has three children, and tells him that he has “a false key into her bed-chamber.”
Antonio, the Duchess, and Cariola joke about the secret marriage and discuss relations between men and
women. As the Duchess, now alone, says Antonio should keep to his own bed with Ferdinand having
returned, “she sees Ferdinand holding a poniard.” He expresses his anger with her disgraced position and
pronounces his readiness to kill her lover, though he hopes never to see him and would prefer to simply shut
him up in a dungeon forever. The Duchess protests that her “reputation is safe” and she should be able to
marry. Ferdinand answers by bemoaning her permanently tarnished reputation and vows, “I will never see
you more.”
Ferdinand leaves, and Antonio, thinking he is betrayed, enters with a pistol and accuses Cariola of giving
them away to Ferdinand. She pleads innocent, and the Duchess says Ferdinand intends for her to kill herself
with the poniard. Bosola enters as Antonio leaves, and the Duchess tells him Antonio has “dealt so falsely
with me, in’s accounts,” by letting bonds she and Ferdinand had issued go into forfeit. Bosola exits, Antonio
enters again, and the Duchess tells Antonio her plan is to send him to Ancona while she accuses him of “a
feigned crime,” which she justifies by explaining that her noble lie “must shield our honours.” She promptly
makes her accusation before Bosola and some officers, and proceeds to punish Antonio with banishment.
Bosola protests her decision by saying that Antonio “was an excellent courtier, and most faithful,” a modest,
virtuous man.
Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis 10
The Duchess, taking Bosola into her confidence, tells him that Antonio is her children’s father. Bosola
praises their relationship, and he agrees with her instruction for him to take her coin and jewelry to Antonio.
Bosola suggests the Duchess disguise her plan to meet Antonio at Ancona by feigning “a pilgrimage to Our
Lady of Loretto, scarce seven leagues from fair Ancona.” The Duchess and Cariola leave, and Bosola, now
alone, feels he must tell Ferdinand of this news, hoping to gain from the revelation.
Antonio reveals that after an indefinite but lengthy interval of time, he and the Duchess have two more
children. The possible consequences of the discovery of their marriage have become that much greater.
Antonio, in his remarks to Delio about how time quickens when in law, in prison, at a court, begging “the
reversion of some great man’s place,” or living with an old wife, shows how much one’s circumstances
affects one’s perceptions. Also, all of the examples he gives are of people put in servile positions. These two
facts appear highly relevant not just for Antonio but for the court as a whole; status and distorted reality are a
constant for Ferdinand’s court. And Antonio’s avowal that no one suspects him of any amorous relationship
with the Duchess, and the Duchess’s claim to Ferdinand that “I will marry for your honour” again shows
how living in the court affects and distorts behavior, for outside the court they would have no need to hide
their marriage. Ferdinand’s reassurances of his support for the Duchess are yet another lie. In the midst of so
much uncertainty in his court, it might make sense for Ferdinand to turn to magic and the stars for knowledge,
but he rejects them as horrid inventions. Ferdinand must instead “force confession” from the Duchess, and he
also trusts Bosola to tell him the exceedingly scarce truth. The Duchess, in hoping for the time when
“noblemen shall come with cap and knee, to purchase a night’s lodging of their wives,” again shows her
focus on status. Antonio’s comment some lines later that Paris, when beholding three naked, amorous
goddesses, could scarcely depend on his reasoning faculties, cuts to the physical fact of his and the Duchess’s
situation: theirs is not an ethereal courtly romance. The Duchess picks up this theme by fearing that her hair is
turning gray and wanting all the court to match her grayness. Her comment that Antonio has “cause to love
me, I ent’red you into my heart” may reflect her fear that when her hair is gray, Antonio’s love will fade. In
any case, she will have “no more children till my brothers consent to be [Antonio’s] gossips.” Their love will
remain hidden unless her brothers give their approval of it. That approval will not come, however. Ferdinand,
upon telling her to commit suicide, unwittingly responds to Antonio’s earlier comments on Paris and reason
by bemoaning reason for foreseeing “what we can least prevent.” His denunciation of the Duchess, tellingly,
contains his wish to never know her lover’s name and the comparison of men—both himself and
Antonio—with animals. Those two comments indicate that Ferdinand’s court has become base and ignorant.
Immediately after Ferdinand leaves, Antonio, succumbing to the courtly instinct for suspicion, aims his pistol
at Cariola. Things have become unstable: the Duchess stands “as if a mine, beneath my feet, were ready to be
blown up.” Although declaring that “unjust actions should wear these masks and curtains; and not we,” she
continues the trend of deceit by telling Bosola that Antonio has merely mismanaged her accounts. Bosola
realizes that “this is cunning”: in his role as intelligencer, he is aware that others are playing the game of
duplicity and deceit. When the show of Antonio’s feigned banishment commences, Antonio, in blaming “the
necessity of my malevolent star” for his misfortune, blames astrology, not himself. However, in this and the
rest of his short speech, he is only trying to play a convincing role, so it is hard to know if his words are
Bosola, though, supports Antonio as a humble, faithful and honest courtier, someone who does not flatter
princes. Antonio is “basely descended,” but Bosola says that means nothing. But in the unjust world of
Ferdinand’s court, virtue is repaid with cruelty. Even the Duchess’s honesty with Bosola, whom she believes
to be sympathetic, will be punished. The unequal match of her and Antonio will come to grief, despite what
Bosola says in his monologue praising both of them. He advises a false pilgrimage to Loretto, which, over
Cariola’s objection as “jesting with religion,” the Duchess takes. Cariola’s superstition succumbs to the
Duchess’s pragmatism, and Bosola hopes his misdeeds will be rewarded, even as Antonio’s virtue is
Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis 11
Act 3, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Pilgrims: two pilgrims to the shrine at Loretto who witness the Cardinal’s investiture as a soldier and Antonio
and the Duchess’s banishment
The Marquis of Pescara: converses with Silvio and Delio, and later seizes Antonio’s lands
The Cardinal and Ferdinand, together with Malateste, Pescara, Silvio, and Delio, open scene three by planning
to join a military coalition with the Marquis of Pescara and Lannoy. Bosola enters, and Ferdinand, questioning
the truth of the Duchess’s alleged pilgrimage, wonders if her children “were ever christ’ned.” The Cardinal
sets off for Loretto, and Ferdinand tells Bosola to get together 150 of his horses and write to the Duke of
Malfi, the Duchess’s son from her first marriage. Scene four is devoted to the investiture of the Cardinal as a
soldier at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto as well as his banishment of Antonio, the Duchess, and their
children. The Duchess’s dukedom is also seized by the church. Two pilgrims provide commentary on the
Antonio and the Duchess, leading their train of children and attendants, are lamenting their condition. Bosola
arrives bearing a letter from Ferdinand asking Antonio to return to the court for “his head in a business,”
which the Duchess reads as meaning Ferdinand intends to kill Antonio. She rejects Bosola’s plea for her to
accept the brothers’ “noble and free league of amity and love,” and Bosola responds with a guarded threat
for the Duchess as he departs. The Duchess tells Antonio to depart with their oldest son to Milan, and they
take their leave of each other. Bosola returns with an armed guard, and tells her she is to be separated from
Antonio. He announces he will bring her back to her palace, but again promises that her “brothers mean you
safety and pity.”
The Cardinal’s decision to “turn soldier” signals the topsy-turvy world of the court: rather than offering
peace, a religious man has resolved to make war. The dismissal of Malateste as a non-combatant contains the
telling comment that he “keeps two painters going, only to express battles in model”: once again, superficial
appearance trumps reality. Pescara’s subsequent remark that “factions amongst great men” bring their
country to ruin brings to mind previous comments in the play about the link between the court and the people
it governs. The two brothers criticize the Duchess for hiding under religion, and Ferdinand openly doubts her
religion. In act one, Antonio had praised the Duchess’s beauty as displaying her true virtue, but Ferdinand
distrusts her beauty as a mask for her depravity. Ferdinand’s closing lines of the scene express his outrage
that Antonio, “a slave, that only smell’d of ink and counters” and only dressed as a gentleman at audit time,
should marry the Duchess and betray the court. He has again commented on the link between external
appearance and inner worth: Antonio is not fit to marry the Duchess because he does not look right.
The brief scene at the Shrine of Loretto serves the simple task of showing the banishment of Antonio, the
Duchess, and their children, and the Cardinal’s investiture as a soldier. The pilgrims function as a sort of
Greek chorus, offering their own common sense judgment of the action. The theme of fame, honor, and status
appears again, this time in the ditty which seeks for the Cardinal “fame’s eternal glory” and fame that “sings
loud thy powers,” and in the first pilgrim’s bewilderment that “so great a lady would have match’d herself
unto so mean a person.”
Antonio’s matter-of-fact statement that dishonest flatterers flee from “decay’d fortunes” fits nicely with the
Duchess’s wistful jealousy of the birds, who “may choose their mates, and carol their sweet pleasures to the
spring.” Low status has its advantages, as she has realized. If neither she nor Antonio were rich, they would
Act 3, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis 12
not face so many difficulties. She comments on Ferdinand’s letter that “false hearts speak fair to those they
intend most mischief.” Yet again, lies have replaced the truth. Bosola tells Antonio his fear of small things,
such as Ferdinand’s request for Antonio’s “head in a business,” displays Antonio’s low status, which is
again called a stain on his character. The religious theme displayed in scene four is elaborated in the
Duchess’s comparison of Antonio’s cold kiss to that given a skull by an anchorite, or nun, and in her
accusation that Bosola “counterfeits Heaven’s thunder.” Bosola continues to deceive the Duchess by
proclaiming her brothers “mean you safety and pity,” but she, grown wiser from experience, cannot accept
that statement. Her closing parable embodies her predicament as one joined to a low-born man: the Duchess is
surely thinking of Antonio when she says “men oft are valued high, when th’are most wretch’d.”
Act 4, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Bosola tells Ferdinand that the Duchess is bearing the ordeal of her imprisonment “nobly.” Ferdinand leaves,
and the traverse is drawn to show the Duchess. Bosola offers her comfort and says Ferdinand means to
reconcile with her. Ferdinand returns and, speaking accusatory words, gives her a dead man’s hand to kiss.
Ferdinand leaves before she is given a show of “the artificial figures of Antonio and his children; appearing as
if they were dead.” Bosola falsely confirms their death to the Duchess, and she vows to die. Bosola offers
encouraging words, and after she leaves unconsoled, Ferdinand and Bosola talk. Ferdinand repeats his vitriol
against the Duchess, tells Bosola to see her again, and orders him to seek out Antonio in Milan.
Antonio’s description of the Duchess in act 1 is repeated by Bosola at the start of act four: Ferdinand,
however, has abandoned any notions of empathy for her. The Duchess, who had been hidden behind the
traverse—another example of the theme of secrecy—furthers the theme of duplicity by asking Bosola why he
wraps his “poison’d pills in gold and sugar.” The traverse is employed in another falsehood by showing the
Duchess images of her husband and children, dead. She picks up on the theme of artificial figures by saying
the knowledge of those deaths grieves her more than if a voodoo doll of her were “buried in some foul
dunghill.” The Duchess rejects life and its torments for a quick death, without knowing that she will shortly
receive that death. Ferdinand, in remarking that she has taken the figures of her husband and children “for
true substantial bodies,” points out that the Duchess may be honest, but she cannot always distinguish
substance from appearance. Ferdinand objects to Bosola’s sympathy for the Duchess. He claims that her
body, while Ferdinand’s “blood ran pure in’t, was more worth than that which thou wouldst comfort, call’d
a soul.” This statement shows, again, that he thinks of the Duchess as merely a vessel upon which her
brothers can act.
Act 4, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Mad Men: these men, including an astrologer, doctor, priest, and lawyer, are sent to the Duchess by Ferdinand
The Duchess and Cariola are hounded by “the wild consort of madmen” put in the Duchess’s lodging by
Ferdinand. The Duchess remarks that “the robin red-breast and the nightingale never live long in cages,” and
she too is likely to die soon. A servant arrives to tell the Duchess that Ferdinand means to have the madmen
cure her melancholy, and they enter to speak several lines apiece. Bosola, made up like an old man, arrives as
the madmen dance. He observes that the Duchess is aging prematurely because of the distress caused her by
being, as she proclaims, “Duchess of Malfi still.” He has come to make her tomb and offers “a present from
your princely brothers,” her executioners. Bosola sings a song announcing her execution before the
executioners carry Cariola off. The Duchess gives two brief monologues on death, which “must pull down
Act 4, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis 13
heaven upon me,” before being strangled.
The pregnant Cariola is strangled next, and Bosola draws the traverse, which shows two of the Duchess’s
children, strangled. Ferdinand, in conversing with Bosola, tells that he was the second-born twin of the
Duchess. He expresses his remorse for her murder and his hatred of Bosola for carrying it out. Ferdinand
declares that Bosola’s only reward for the murder of the Duchess will be a pardon for it. Ferdinand answers
Bosola’s objections to this statement by claiming Ferdinand did not formally convict her; therefore, Bosola is
at fault for the murder and deserves to forfeit his life. They exchange violent remarks before Ferdinand leaves.
Bosola notices the Duchess returning to life and has just enough time to tell her that Antonio still lives and has
reconciled with her brothers before she dies. In a soliloquy, Bosola, expressing his regret for her death,
promises to deliver her body “to the reverend dispose of some good women,” and he sets off for Milan.
In her conversation with Cariola, the Duchess uses natural imagery again, but this time only to compare
herself to caged birds who, like her, live short lives. Cariola uses the theme of painting in a similarly negative
way by saying the Duchess, like her painted picture, has “a deal of life in show, but none in practice.” The
purpose of sending the madmen into the Duchess’ lodging is difficult to discern: perhaps Ferdinand, in his
madness, seeks other madmen to haunt his sister, or perhaps he simply means to torment her, but it is hard to
believe that he intends to cure her. When Bosola enters with another of his commentaries on the weakness of
flesh and erosion of the Duchess’ youth, the Duchess responds by simply proclaiming “I am Duchess of
Malfi still.” Her inborn honor has been retained even in the midst of so much tumult and madness. Bosola
gives his pessimistic and fatalistic song on death before the executioners enter. As he does, it is easy to think
of Iago and Shakespeare’s other cruel and pessimistic villains: like them, Bosola has abandoned all concern
for anything but the grim world of mortal flesh, which offers not pleasure but strife, sadness, and finally death
and decay.
So the Duchess, awaiting her death, realizes that it does not matter how she is killed; luxury items will do as
well as daggers or poison, and her wealth will not keep her alive. She repeats the motif of elevation that runs
throughout the play when she wishes “for your able strength” to “pull down heaven upon me.” Even princes
must enter those gates on their knees. Ferdinand, who is absent while his sister and nephew and niece are
murdered, appears just in time to confirm those children as dead. The murders have been carried out by proxy.
Ferdinand quickly repents the murders, but only by seeking revenge upon Bosola, not by seeking to ensure
Antonio or the surviving child’s safety. Ferdinand seems to refer to himself when he says, “the wolf shall
find her grave, and scrape it up” in order to “discover the horrid murther.” Bosola and Ferdinand’s mutually
planned violence has created mutual recriminations as both realize the gravity of their sins. Bosola has “rather
sought to appear a true servant than an honest man” in obeying Ferdinand’s orders. Bosola has just enough
time to tell the Duchess Antonio still lives, though he does not tell her that her two children are indeed dead,
before she expires. Bosola’s murders have brought him “below the degree of fear,” and while they may have
raised his courtly status, they have sunk his moral condition.
Act 5, Scene 1: Summay and Analysis
Antonio and Delio, who had opened the play, open the fifth act as well, but they are now in Milan, which
serves as the setting for the entire act. Delio informs Antonio that the Marquis of Pescara has seized
Antonio’s lands and distributed them to the Marquis’ own relatives. Delio sees the Marquis and asks to be
given some of Antonio’s land, but his request is rejected. The Marquis instead gives Julia some of the land
and the citadel of Saint Bennet, to Antonio’s dismay. The Marquis justifies his actions by saying since the
Cardinal has told him to seize Antonio’s lands, they are “a gratification only due to a strumpet: for it is
injustice.” The Marquis leaves after noting that a sick Ferdinand has arrived in Milan. Antonio proclaims to
Act 4, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis 14
Delio his plan to visit the Cardinal’s chambers around midnight to seek an end, whether good or bad, to his
Pescara, who not only enjoys royal status but has a “noble nature” as well, sees clearly that the lands taken
from Antonio by disreputable means should be given to those who are disreputable. So, he advises Delio “to
ask noble things of me, and you shall find I’ll be a noble giver.” Antonio, willing to seek a clear resolution of
his fate and preferring that clarity to the murk he currently lives in, resolves to visit the Cardinal privately and
hopes to spark the Cardinal’s genuine, gentle sentiments.
Act 5, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
The Doctor: treats Ferdinand for his madness
Pescara returns to talk with a doctor about Ferdinand’s “lycanthropia.” The Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste,
and, in the background, Bosola, enter. Ferdinand promptly tries to attack his shadow, fails to identify his
doctor, and “tries to take off his gown.” Ferdinand beats the doctor before leaving, and the Cardinal explains
that Ferdinand’s madness comes from seeing the nocturnal apparition of a murdered ghost. As the others
leave, Bosola steps forward, and the Cardinal, before briefly promising to greatly reward him for doing “one
thing for me,” vows not to let Bosola know that the Cardinal has any responsibility for the Duchess’s murder.
After a brief interruption from Julia, he asks Bosola to go to Milan and murder Antonio, which will open the
way for the Duchess to marry someone who is “an excellent match for her.” The Cardinal exits, and in a short
monologue, Bosola says he thinks the Cardinal does not know of the murder of the Duchess, but Bosola
remains suspicious of him. Julia returns to confess her infatuation with Bosola: they flirt, and Bosola tells her
to find out the cause of the Cardinal’s melancholy.
Bosola retreats behind the traverse as the Cardinal enters, and Julia begins to query him. She learns the cause
of his melancholy: although the Cardinal warns her of the danger of knowing his secret, he says that he
ordered the strangling of the Duchess and two of her children. He makes a shocked Julia kiss the Bible, and
once she has, the Cardinal immediately tells her he has poisoned it “because I knew thou couldst not keep my
counsel.” Bosola enters; Julia confesses she has heard the just-revealed secret, and she dies. Despite the
Cardinal’s threats against him, Bosola blames the Cardinal for the triple murder but also agrees to kill
Antonio. The Cardinal leaves after telling Bosola to arrive after midnight to help him move Julia’s body to
Julia’s own lodging. Bosola’s closing soliloquy emphasizes the danger of his current circumstances,
proclaims his penitence for the Duchess’s murder, and his desire to put Antonio “into safety from the reach
of these most cruel biters, that have got some of thy blood already.”
Ferdinand’s court is sick, and Ferdinand, with his “lycanthropia,” embodies the fact that his court has sunk
to the basest, most savage level of human nature. Ferdinand, said by the Cardinal to be haunted by the ghost
of an old woman “murther’d by her nephews, for her riches,” is probably actually haunted by his guilt over
the murders he has ordered. Antonio, like the Duchess before him, is accused of irreligion, this time by the
Cardinal, who has traded his religious garb for the outfit of a soldier but nonetheless sees fit to criticize the
religious practices of others. The Cardinal makes a comparison that echoes Ferdinand’s likeness to a wolf
when he compares Bosola to an old fox. The lengthy scene between Julia and Bosola, then the Cardinal and
Julia, is harder to explain. Julia’s romantic advances on Bosola seem to indicate that while the Cardinal
cannot be cuckolded by her, she can still betray him. Julia also contrasts with the “nice modesty” of the
Duchess and other noble ladies and, of course, furthers the theme of courtly deceit: Bosola, even while he
Act 5, Scene 1: Summay and Analysis 15
works for Ferdinand and the Cardinal, is wooing the Cardinal’s lover. Julia though, like the Duchess,
proclaims that she is not wanton: Julia has simply fixed her interest on a certain man. Perhaps she lacks either
the guile or the stubborn honesty that might enable her to successfully maneuver in Ferdinand’s court. In any
case, Julia agrees to serve as an intelligencer on the Cardinal for Bosola, previously the intelligencer on the
Duchess. The Cardinal’s warning to Julia that she “think what danger ‘tis to receive a prince’s secrets” is a
good one for both Julia and Bosola. The irony of the Cardinal using a Bible for murder is a logical extension
of his prior conversion to soldier: he is using religion to murder rather than heal. But Bosola, in promising to
kill Antonio, has realized that while his path may lead to the grave, he can at least deny the dozen attendants
offered him by the Cardinal, and therefore his sins from corrupting the attendants as well.
Act 5, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Echo: an echo heard near the Duchess’s grave by Antonio and Delio
The characters of scene 3 are Antonio and Delio, who are at a fortification built on “the ruins of an ancient
abbey,” as well as “an Echo from the Duchess’s grave.” The Echo is thought by Antonio to resemble the
Duchess’s voice, and both Delio and the Echo advise him to stay away from the Cardinal’s rooms. Antonio
protests that necessity compels him to visit the Cardinal and settle his fate, and Delio promises to fetch
Antonio’s oldest son.
The Cardinal, Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan open scene 4. The Cardinal tells his four guests not
to respond to any of Ferdinand’s violent fits and says he may “make trial of your promise” by feigning some
of Ferdinand’s “mad tricks, and cry out for help, and feign myself in danger.” They leave, promising to stay
away, which the Cardinal says will allow him to take “Julia’s body to her own lodging.” A
conscience-wracked Cardinal vows to kill Bosola once he has delivered Julia’s body to him. But Bosola has
overheard this vow: after Ferdinand appears briefly to ask Bosola to strangle Antonio in the dark, Bosola spies
Antonio and a servant. Mistaking Antonio for the Cardinal, he strikes at him with his sword: realizing the
mistake only too late, Bosola has just time to tell Antonio of the murder of the Duchess and two of their
children before Antonio dies. Antonio’s final soliloquy expresses his wish to die if he can’t live with the
Duchess, and a desire to “let my son fly the courts of princes.” Bosola tells the servant to take Antonio’s
body to Julia’s lodging.
The Cardinal wonders about hell and his tedious guilty conscience, which prompts him to see demons. Bosola
and the servant come in with Antonio’s body, and Bosola, rejecting the Cardinal’s attempts to bargain, tells
the Cardinal he will kill him. The Cardinal’s shouts for help at first go dismissed by his guests, who are
keeping their promise to not disturb him. Pescara alone thinks something is amiss and goes down to “force
ope the doors” and come to the Cardinal’s aid. The other guests follow him, and Bosola kills the servant to
keep him from opening the door and letting in the Cardinal’s rescuers. He shows the Cardinal Antonio’s
body, and stabs the Cardinal repeatedly. Ferdinand enters with his sword drawn, but thinking his brother
fights “upon the adverse party,” he stabs the Cardinal as well as Bosola. Bosola stabs Ferdinand, who dies
regretting the murder of the Duchess. Bosola tells Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan that he has
murdered out of revenge for the Duchess, Antonio, Julia, and himself, “an actor in the main of all, much
‘gainst mine own good nature.”
The Cardinal dies telling his four guests to give aid to Ferdinand, and praying that the Cardinal himself will be
“never thought of.” Bosola’s last words describe the murder of Antonio, declare the suitability of his death
coming “in so good a quarrel,” and proclaim that worthy minds should “ne’er stagger in distrust to suffer
death or shame for what is just”; but Bosola’s “is another voyage.” Delio arrives, “too late,” as Malateste
Act 5, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis 16
says, with Antonio’s son, who is also the Duchess’s heir. Delio closes the play by asking the guests to join
“to establish this young hopeful gentleman in’s mother’s right,” mourning the evanescent fame of those
killed, and, in contrast, proclaiming that truth and “integrity of life is fame’s best friend, which nobly,
beyond death, shall crown the end.”
Antonio and Delio’s conversation near the Duchess’s grave establishes the mournful character of the play’s
dénouement. The Echo, in its emphasis on death, sorrow, fate, and separation, foreshadows the death of not
just Antonio, but the two brothers as well. In his closing lines Antonio, like the Duchess before him, rejects
the meek, unending desperation of his current life and resolves to bring things to a head, no matter the
At this late stage in the play, little remains but for the tragedy to conclude. The Cardinal, in his instructions for
the lords to keep away from Ferdinand, sets the scene for himself to be undone by his own scheming. But in
this scene, it is Antonio who falls when he is mistaken for the Cardinal by Bosola. Bosola hardly atones for
his accidental murder of Antonio by telling him the Duchess and the two children are dead, but at least he
does allow Antonio to die with full knowledge of the fate of his wife and two children: again, truth is mingled
with suffering. Bosola resolves to cease imitating others and instead serve as “mine own example,” advice he
will finally firmly follow in the next scene.
The Cardinal, still wracked by his guilty conscience, neither prays nor repents: instead, he sees demons and
consults a book for counsel. Rather than see things as they are and act accordingly, he maintains his numb,
detached existence. Bosola explicitly tells him the killing of the Duchess has unbalanced the scales of Justice,
leaving Justice “naught but her sword.” He wields his sword to stab the Cardinal twice, and Ferdinand, who
in his madness identifies his brother as fighting for “the adverse party,” brings all three of them to death’s
door. However, Ferdinand’s identification of his brother may very well be accurate. Ferdinand, the Cardinal,
and Bosola all realize their base, degraded existence, and die. Delio, who throughout the play has done very
little, appropriately arrives with Antonio’s son too late to do anything other than hope for a better future,
comment on the miserable legacy of the three just-killed men, and proclaim his belief that “integrity of life is
fame’s best friend, which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.”
The Duchess of Malfi: Quizzes
Act 1, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Where was Antonio before he returned to Ferdinand’s court?
2. Why does Bosola agree to serve Ferdinand as intelligencer?
3. What does Antonio call Bosola?
4. What does the Cardinal ask Bosola?
5. How long did Bosola spend in prison?
1. Antonio was in France.
Act 5, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis 17
2. Ferdinand has procured him the provisorship of the Duchess’s horse. Bosola’s gratitude, therefore,
requires him to serve Ferdinand as intelligencer.
3. Antonio calls Bosola “the only court-gall” in Ferdinand’s court.
4. The Cardinal asks Bosola to “become honest.”
5. Seven years.
Act 1, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. What does Castruchio say about rulers serving as soldiers?
2. How does Antonio describe the Cardinal?
3. What is the significance of Antonio’s release from the Quietus est?
4. What does Bosola call an intelligencer?
5. What is the Duchess’s objection to the speech between Ferdinand and the Cardinal?
1. Castruchio says that it is ill-advised, that “that realm is never long in quiet, where the ruler is a soldier.”
2. Antonio describes the Cardinal as “a melancholy churchman” who plots against those he is jealous of and
who lost the Papacy by bestowing egregious bribes.
3. Antonio's release from the Quietus est frees him from being in the Duchess’s debt by testifying that his
accounts are correct.
4. Bosola calls an intelligencer a “very quaint invisible devil in flesh.”
5. The Duchess suspects that the speech was practiced beforehand because “it came so roundly off.”
Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Why does Bosola suspect the Duchess is pregnant?
2. What is Delio’s advice for Antonio after the Duchess falls ill?
3. What does Bosola say is the sure way to know that you are an eminent courtier?
4. What does Bosola say caused his apricots to ripen quickly?
5. What does Bosola say about princes?
1. The Duchess throws up, has an upset stomach, and “wears a loose-bodied gown.”
Act 1, Scene 1: Questions and Answers 18
2. Delio advises that he “make use then of this forc’d occasion” to keep the Duchess concealed and let her
give birth secretly.
3. Bosola says to spread the rumor that you are dying, and after doing so, hear that “the common people curse
4. The apricots were fertilized with horse-dung.
5. Bosola says that princes are motivated by “the like passions” as commoners.
Ace 2, Scenes 3-5: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. What excuse did Julia give to make her trip to Rome?
2. What does Ferdinand fear he will see the Duchess do?
3. Why does Bosola pray at night?
4. In what month and year was the Duchess’s oldest son born?
5. Why has Delio brought Julia gold?
1. Julia told Castruchio she “came to visit an old anchorite here, for devotion.”
2. Ferdinand fears he will “see her in the shameful act of sin.”
3. Since the court is asleep at night, Bosola “thought the devil has least to do.”
4. The Duchess's son was born in December, 1504.
5. The reasons for Delio bringing Julia gold remain unclear throughout the play.
Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. What does the Duchess think of Malateste?
2. What is Ferdinand’s opinion of astrology and magic?
3. Why do “hard favour’d ladies” generally keep “worse-favour’d waiting-women,” rather than fair ones?
4. What is Cariola’s opinion of the Duchess’s faked pilgrimage to Loretto?
5. What does Bosola say has raised Antonio?
1. The Duchess calls him “a mere stick of sugar candy,” and she will not marry him.
Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers 19
2. Astrology and magic are “mere gulleries, horrid things invented by some cheating mountebanks to abuse
us,” according to Ferdinand.
3. Doing so keeps the “hard favour'd ladies” from looking bad in comparison to their waiting-women.
4. Cariola opposes “this jesting with religion.”
5. Bosola says that Antonio has been raised by the “curious engine” of the Duchess’s “white hand.”
Act 3, Scenes 3-5: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. What is Ferdinand’s criticism of Antonio?
2. What is the reason for the seizure of the Duchess’s dukedom?
3. What does Antonio say is the result of human endeavors?
4. What will the Duchess teach her children?
5. How does Antonio interpret the Duchess’s dream in which the diamonds on her coronet of state “were
chang’d to pearls”?
1. Ferdinand calls Antonio “a slave” who never “look’d like a gentleman but in the audit time.”
2. The Cardinal instigated the Pope to make the seizure.
3. Antonio says that human endeavors “bring ourselves to nothing.”
4. The Duchess will teach her children curses because “they were born accurs’d.”
5. Antonio says the dream means that the Duchess will “weep shortly.”
Act 4, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. What is the Duchess’s response to her imprisonment?
2. Why does Ferdinand show the Duchess figures of Antonio and their children?
3. Why does the Duchess plan to starve herself to death?
4. Who made the figures of Antonio and their children?
5. Why does Ferdinand plan to put madmen near the Duchess’ lodging?
1. The Duchess bears her imprisonment “nobly.”
Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers 20
2. Ferdinand does this to bring the Duchess despair.
3. The Duchess wants to die, and “the Church enjoins fasting.”
4. Vincentio Lauriola made the figures.
5. Ferdinand wants to make the Duchess insane.
Act 4, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Who does the Duchess compare herself to?
2. What is Bosola’s trade?
3. What is the Duchess’s attitude toward her imminent death?
4. Who does Ferdinand blame for the Duchess’s death?
5. Who does Bosola plan to give the Duchess’s body to?
1. The Duchess compares herself to the “robin red-breast and the nightingale.”
2. Bosola's trade is to “flatter the dead, not the living.”
3. The Duchess does not fear her own death, and in fact welcomes it as she seeks to enter heaven by being
4. Ferdinand blames Bosola.
5. Bosola plans to give the Duchess’s body to “some good women.”
Act 5, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Why does Pescara refuse to give Delio any of Antonio’s land?
2. What does Delio think of the prospect of Antonio’s reconcilement to Ferdinand and the Cardinal?
3. Why does Delio ask Pescara for some of Antonio’s land?
4. What does Pescara say is wrong with Ferdinand?
5. What does Antonio call Delio?
1. The land was illicitly taken, so it would be wrong to give it to anyone but a strumpet.
Act 4, Scene 1: Questions and Answers 21
2. Delio doubts that there can be a reconcilement, and he believes they have instead set nets to trap Antonio in
3. Delio asks for the land in order to find out who the land was being given to.
4. Pescara says that Ferdinand either has apoplexy or a frenzy.
5. Antonio refers to Delio as “My lov’d and best friend.”
Act 5, Scenes 2: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. How does the Cardinal kill Julia?
2. What does Bosola consider doing with Antonio?
3. Why does Bosola say he has come to the Cardinal?
4. How does Ferdinand justify his solitude?
5. What will Bosola do if the Cardinal falls out of favor?
1. The Cardinal forces Julia to kiss a poisoned Bible.
2. Bosola considers joining Antonio “in a most just revenge.”
3. Bosola has come to the Cardinal in order to find a great man who is “not out of his wits” and can
remember Bosola’s services.
4. Ferdinand considers himself to be like an eagle, who flies alone, while other birds like crows and starlings
flock together.
5. If the Cardinal falls out of favor, Bosola will leave him and “shift to other dependence.”
Act 5, Scene 3-5: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. What does Antonio resolve to do while he is by the Duchess’s grave?
2. Why don’t the Cardinal’s guests come to his aid as he’s attacked by Bosola?
3. What does Antonio say about churches and cities?
4. Why does Bosola kill Antonio?
5. What does Delio hope to do for the Duchess’s oldest son?
1. Antonio resolves to leave “this ague” and “not henceforth save myself by halves; lose all, or nothing.”
Act 5, Scene 1: Questions and Answers 22
2. The Cardinal has told his guests not to disturb Ferdinand or himself posing as Ferdinand.
3. Antonio says that churches and cities have the same diseases men have, and they “must have like death that
we have.”
4. Bosola mistakes Antonio for the Cardinal, who has just said he plans to kill Bosola.
5. Delio hopes to establish him in his mother’s dukedom.
The Duchess of Malfi: Themes
Fate and Belief
Considering that one of the main characters of The Duchess of Malfi is a Cardinal, one of the highest-ranking
officials in the Roman Catholic Church, there is a surprising lack of reference to God in the play. The
characters do not turn to God for help in trouble, and they do not seek forgiveness when they come to believe
they have acted wrongly. The only certainty in life is death, and there is no promise here of an afterlife. The
world of The Duchess of Malfi is controlled not by God, but by fate.
Ferdinand is the character most conscious of his religion, but his Christianity is not a religion of love but one
of vengeance, not of forgiveness but of damnation. In act 2, in his anger at learning of the Duchess's child,
Ferdinand's first instinct is to call her ‘‘a sister damn'd.’’ Naming wild punishments he would like to
administer to her, he declares that he would like to have the Duchess and the unknown father of the child
‘‘burnt in a coal-pit’’ with no vents so that ‘‘their curs'd smoke might not ascend to heaven.’’ In act 4, he
brings a series of horrors to the Duchess to drive her to despair so that she will renounce God and be sent to
hell when he has her murdered. Ferdinand is so clearly insane that his understanding of religion must be seen
as a product of rage, not of religious teaching.
Other characters turn elsewhere for their understanding of the world. Antonio learns by astrological
calculation that his first child will have a ‘‘short life’’ and a ‘‘violent death.’’ The Cardinal, whose lavish
lifestyle and mistress would seem to distance him from the teachings of his church, does not suggest that the
Duchess pray for guidance if she finds herself tempted to remarry, but advises that ‘‘your own discretion /
Must now be your director.’’ Cariola warns the Duchess not to use a false religious pilgrimage to fool her
brothers, but the Duchess rejects the warning, calling Cariola ‘‘a superstitious fool.’’ Although she faces
her death on her knees to more easily pass through heaven's gates, there is no real sense of faith in her last
Of all the characters, it is Bosola who most changes during the play and whose psychology is revealed the
most clearly. As he watches the conduct of the three siblings, he comes to a new understanding of the
differences between a good servant and a good man, and he grows in respect for the honesty of Antonio and
the dignity of the Duchess. If anyone was going to turn to God in the end, it would be Bosola, but he does not.
Instead, when he realizes that he has accidentally killed Antonio, he utters the line that expresses the world
view for the entire play: ‘‘We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded / Which way please
Appearances and Reality
Repeated throughout The Duchess of Malfi is the idea that people cannot be trusted, that things are not as they
appear. People, both the essentially good people and the villains, disguise their bodies and their motives. In
act 1, several instances of pretending and concealing occur to set the tone for the rest of the play: the Cardinal
pretends to have no interest in Bosola; Bosola is hired to spy on the Duchess, pretending only to tend her
horses; the Duchess pretends to have no interest in marriage; Cariola hides behind the arras without Antonio's
Act 5, Scene 3-5: Questions and Answers 23
knowledge and promises the Duchess that she will ‘‘conceal this secret from the world / As warily as those
that trade in poison / Keep poison from their children.’’ Antonio, who is known for his honesty, agrees to
keep the marriage a secret. The Duchess complains that women of wealth and stature cannot be honest about
their feelings but are ‘‘forc'd to express our violent passions / In riddles, and in dreams, and leave the path /
Of simple virtue, which was never made / To seem the thing it is not.’’
Further incidents of deception and disguise occur throughout the play. The Duchess and Antonio invent
stories to conceal the birth of their first child and their plans to escape to Ancona. Ferdinand brings the
Duchess a dead man's hand that he knows she will take for Antonio's and shows her wax figures that look like
her husband and children. Bosola visits the imprisoned Duchess in disguise, appearing as an old man and a
bellman. Even Bosola's one kindness to the Duchess is a deception, as he tells the dying Duchess that her
husband is alive and reconciled with her brothers. The Cardinal kills Julia (with whom he has been having an
affair without her husband's knowledge) by giving her a poison disguised as a holy book, not knowing that
Julia has deceived him by hiding Bosola behind the door. The Cardinal, Bosola, and Ferdinand die without
anyone coming to save them because the Cardinal has lied to keep the servants from entering his chambers.
Although none of these deceptions brings about its desired end, the characters turn again and again to secrecy
and disguise to solve their problems, as though they know no other way to move in the world. It is not an
optimistic picture, as Bosola realizes just before he dies: ‘‘O, this gloomy world! / In what a shadow, or deep
pit of darkness, / Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!’’ If the world is steered not by God but by
uncaring stars, and if men and women cannot trust their own perceptions to steer through it, it is a gloomy
world, indeed.
The Duchess of Malfi: Style
Revenge Tragedy
Between 1542 and 1642 in England, many dramatists looked back to early Latin writers for their models. In
particular, one group of English Renaissance plays, later called Revenge Tragedies, was based on the
tragedies written by the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca, who lived from 4 B.C. to A.D. 65.
Seneca's tragedies employed a set of conventional characters and plot devices that these Renaissance writers
found appealing, and at the end of the sixteenth century, English plays imitating Seneca began to appear.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote two plays, Titus Andronicus (c. 1590) and Hamlet (c. 1601), that are
generally considered to be revenge tragedies. Although The Duchess of Malfi is often labeled a revenge
tragedy, it is more accurate to say that it was strongly influenced by the movement, but that Webster uses
revenge tragedy conventions to create a different kind of play.
The nine Senecan tragedies have several features in common: a five-act structure; a theme of revenge;
long-suffering nobles; trustworthy female companions; ghosts; gruesome violence inspired by lust, incest, and
vengeance; the death of children; and a chorus that comments on the action and describes the violent acts,
which happen offstage. During the Elizabethan period, playwrights began to present the violence onstage in
response to demands from audiences, who were accustomed to public executions and other forms of public
violence. To Seneca's ingredients, they added a hero who is called upon but unwilling to seek revenge, actual
or feigned insanity, and an emphasis on schemes and secrets.
Clearly, many of these elements are present in The Duchess of Malfi, but it varies from the conventions in
important ways. The revenge tragedy has a hero whose honor has been wronged (often it is a son avenging his
father); in this play, the brothers seek revenge on the Duchess, who has done them no harm. The Duchess is
surely the hero of the play named for her, and yet she does not seek or win vengeance for the harm done to
her. The fact that she is killed in act 4 (and does not die in the act of winning revenge) deflects attention away
from her as the center of the action and moves the play out of the category of revenge tragedy. The motive for
The Duchess of Malfi: Themes 24
the actions of the two brothers is unclear, but revenge—whatever they may think themselves—is not at the heart
of it.
Blank Verse
Many of the lines spoken by the characters in The Duchess of Malfi are written in a poetic form called blank
verse. Blank verse is the name given to unrhymed lines of ten syllables each, accented on the even-numbered
syllables, though lines need not be in perfectly regular iambic pentameter (the name given to lines constructed
in this way) for the poetry to be labeled blank verse. For example, Ferdinand at one point wishes he were a
wild storm ‘‘that I might toss her palace ‘bout her ears, / Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads.’’
Each of these lines has exactly ten syllables, and the underlying pulse or stress felt as one reads the lines
naturally gives a slight accent on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables of each line. If every line
were so regular, however, the speeches would develop a singsong rhythm that would be unnatural and
distracting, so the poet's task is to write lines that are near enough to the regular pattern but with enough
variety that different characters speak differently, and different tones can be heard. In fact, very few lines in
The Duchess of Malfi are regular ten-syllable lines; most have more or fewer syllables or stresses in different
places, as in the line ‘‘We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded.’’
Not all of the lines in The Duchess of Malfi are written in verse. Antonio speaks in prose with Bosola and with
Ferdinand before Antonio marries the Duchess, and the eight madmen speak in prose. The Duchess and
Bosola speak in prose while he is disguised as the tomb-maker, but they shift to verse when he declares his
intention to kill her. The blank verse is thought to convey solemnity and nobility, and all of the important
speeches by important people are in blank verse. (An interesting use of this idea is Shakespeare's Henry IV,
Part I, in which Prince Hal speaks in prose when he is with his friends in the tavern and speaks in blank verse
when he is with the King or on the battlefield. )
Using blank verse for tragedy was a convention for Elizabethan dramatists. The first English tragedy,
Gorboduc (1561), was also the first English drama written in blank verse, in a deliberate attempt to echo in
English the regular rhythms of Senecan tragedy, written in Latin. Christopher Marlowe and William
Shakespeare brought the form to its greatest heights with their writing some thirty or forty years later. A
generation after these two, Webster and his contemporaries were still writing tragedies in blank verse, though
never as well.
Webster frequently ends a scene with two rhyming lines, called a couplet. The rhyme catches the audience's
ear, making the last lines of a scene slightly more noticeable and giving a finished quality, rather like a period
at the end of a sentence. Within fifty years after the publication of The Duchess of Malfi, most English poetic
drama was written entirely in couplets.
The Duchess of Malfi: Historical Context
The Renaissance
The term “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and the period known as the Renaissance was a time of new
beginnings in Europe, an emergence from the Middle Ages. The Renaissance brought with it new ways of
thinking about science, religion, philosophy, and art. During the earlier medieval period, Europeans had come
to think of themselves as insignificant creatures subject to and inferior to divine beings. When some Italian
scholars began to read ancient Latin and Greek texts that had been ignored for centuries, they began to look
for ways to combine contemporary Christian thought with the classical belief in human capabilities. This
belief in what is now called Renaissance humanism drove a new passion for celebrating human endeavor and
potential. The ideal “Renaissance man” would be talented in science, mathematics, poetry, art, and athletics.
The Duchess of Malfi: Style 25
As an intellectual movement, the Renaissance touched every aspect of life. Science and exploration
proliferated. Political theorists attempted to apply the best features of classical thought, and religious
reformers asserted the rights of the common person to have direct access to Biblical texts. There was a new
passion for reading classical literature in the original Greek and Latin and for incorporating classical
mythology into literature and art. New forms emerged, based on classical forms, as the revenge tragedy grew
out of the study of Senecan tragedy. Literature, including drama, moved beyond its role as an outgrowth of the
church and turned to stories that celebrated or decried human capabilities.
Of course, there was no particular day on which the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. The
transformation happened over many years and did not affect every country at the same time. Generally, the
Renaissance is said to have begun in Italy during the fourteenth century and to have reached England about a
century later. The height of the English Renaissance was during the sixteenth century and the beginning of the
seventeenth. Webster's career comes at the end of this period, and The Duchess of Malfi shows many traces of
its creation during this period. The Duchess's insistence that she be allowed to make individual choices, the
secular tone of the play, the five-act structure and blank verse, the allusions to classical mythology, and the
Cardinal's many references to new technology and science all point to the play as coming from the
One aspect of Renaissance literature that may strike readers in the twenty-first century as peculiar is the
notion of imitation. Greek and Roman students frequently copied from models to create their own
compositions, and the Renaissance writers adopted this technique. The basic story of The Duchess of Malfi,
for example, is a true story that occurred in Italy around 1510. The story was adapted in Italian in a
sixteenth-century novella, and in English in William Painter's collection of stories, The Palace of Pleasure,
and Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia. Webster used incidents from all of these sources—sometimes using lines and
phrases word for word—in creating his own play. He also kept a journal throughout his career, jotting down
scraps of poetry and quotations he found interesting. He drew freely from this journal in writing his plays,
inserting lines where they fit pleasingly. This was not considered plagiarism, but a sensible way to draw on
the learning of those who had come before.
Jacobean Age
The period within the Renaissance when England was ruled by King James I is known as the Jacobean period,
from the Latin form of the name James. James I ruled from the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 until his own
death in 1625, and although he was not a beloved king, the years of his reign saw a great period of English
drama. William Shakespeare for example, began his career before James came to the throne, but his greatest
and most mature work was produced during the Jacobean age. Webster also produced his best work during
these years, as did many other important dramatists.
James's rule was guided by the strength of his religious convictions. He was a member of the Church of
England, and it was under his direction that the King James Bible was produced. James also believed devoutly
in the divine right of kings, or the idea that kings and queens are accountable only to God, and that the system
of inheriting the monarchy was created by God. Because the Church of England was the official religion of
the monarch and of the country, religion and politics were intertwined in a way that is not the same in England
today. The divine right of kings gave James power, while the Roman Catholic idea of a pope chosen by God
opposed that power. To protect his stature, James dealt severely with those who believed differently, including
Puritans (who eventually began to leave England for the New World), Catholics (who are portrayed with
irreverence in Webster's character of the Cardinal), and Jews (who are treated with casual disrespect in The
Duchess of Malfi and other popular works of literature from the period).
The Duchess of Malfi: Historical Context 26
The Duchess of Malfi: Critical Overview
The Duchess of Malfi is considered one of Webster's two greatest works and one of the canonical works of
Jacobean drama. It is also roundly criticized as being weak, confusing, and illogical. In his thorough overview
of more than three centuries of criticism, John Webster and His Critics 1617-1964, Don D. Moore writes that
there may be no one other than Webster ‘‘whose plays have received a more varied reception and whose
critics have been so divided among themselves on whether the writer was due praise or excoriation.’’ In
Webster's own time, The Duchess of Malfi sold enough tickets to be profitable, and the publication of the play
in 1623 was accompanied by verses from other playwrights who seem to have found the play worthy of
Harriet Walter, as the Duchess in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Duchess of Malfi
From the second half of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth, the play was seldom performed and
there was no extended criticism of it. Criticism of the nineteenth century tended more toward appreciation
than study, and Webster was alternately praised for his overall effect or reviled for specific flaws in logic or
ideology. Much of this criticism was based on performances rather than on scrutiny of the text. Academic
criticism, beginning in the late nineteenth century, focused at first on uncovering the sources for Webster's
understanding of the Duchess's story.
In the twentieth century, dozens of critics have written about the play. William Archer, writing a 1920 article
for Nineteenth Century, is typical of those who have found the play lacking. Inspired to examine the play
closely after seeing a production, Archer found it ‘‘three hours of coarse and sanguinary melodrama’’ and
pronounced it ‘‘fundamentally bad.’’ With unblinking honesty, Archer points out several bits of
inconsistency and illogic in the play, including the son of the Duchess and her first husband, who is
mentioned only once in the play and then forgotten. Inga-Stina Ekeblad, on the other hand, explains in an
article in Review of English Studies that Webster, ‘‘though he often leaves us in confusion,’’ does achieve
in this play a fusion of convention and realism, ‘‘creating something structurally new and vital.’’
Psychological questions about the play have been raised by several critics. What is Ferdinand's motive for
tormenting his sister? Sheryl Craig believes that the answer lies in the fact that the Duchess and Ferdinand are
twins. She explains in an article in Publications of the Missouri Philological Association that for Renaissance
audiences, the siblings would have resembled biblical twins, whose ‘‘conflicts with each other are symbolic
of their conflicts with God; one twin is the chosen one, God's elect, and the other twin is the outsider.’’
Much more common is the opinion expressed by James Calderwood in Essays in Criticism that within
Ferdinand's actions are ‘‘unmistakable suggestions of incestuous jealousy.’’ Calderwood finds that when
The Duchess of Malfi: Critical Overview 27
Ferdinand becomes aware of his own sinful desires, he becomes a ‘‘physician-priest-executioner who seeks
the purgation of his own tainted blood in the purging of hers.’’
Another central question that has engaged critics grows out of the fact that the title character dies in act 4. Is
the Duchess really the main character of the play, and if so, what is the play about? Charles Hallett and Elaine
Hallett in The Revenger's Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs write that the play is a drama of
initiation, much like Hamlet, and that the Duchess is at the heart of it: ‘‘The test she must pass is whether she
will remain the woman she was, once she sees what the world is.’’ Kimberly Turner examines the play as a
critique of the female ruler within the context of Renaissance patriarchy in an article in the Ben Jonson
Journal and finds that Webster creates a new kind of female hero who ‘‘participates actively in her own
The Duchess of Malfi: Character Analysis
Antonio Bologna
Antonio is the steward, or the manager, of the Duchess of Malfi's palace. He is good with a horse and a lance,
and he is widely known to be honest—so honest that the Cardinal rejects a suggestion that Antonio be hired to
spy on the Duchess. He is also a good judge of character, delivering to his friend Delio insightful descriptions
of the others as they appear. He is in awe of the Duchess because of her beauty and her disposition, and
humbly accepts her proposal of marriage without regard for the wealth he will obtain by marrying her. In fact,
he agrees to keep the marriage secret, and so he gains no power or prestige from it. After he is married,
Antonio is less sharply drawn, but the glimpses given of him do not fulfill the promise of act 1. He loses the
paper on which he has calculated the baby's future. He follows the Duchess's plans for avoiding capture,
making no suggestions himself. Finally, he is killed as he walks to the Cardinal's door to ask for a
reconciliation. Still, he is a good man, and the Duchess clearly loves and trusts him until the end.
Daniel de Bosola
Bosola is the Duchess's Provisor of Horse. As the play opens, he has just been released from imprisonment
because of ‘‘a notorious murder’’ the Cardinal hired him to commit. Now, he is employed by Ferdinand,
who arranges his position with the Duchess so he can spy on her and prevent her from marrying. In many
ways, Bosola is the most complex character in the play and the only one whose thinking and personality
change from beginning to end. Antonio predicts this change at the beginning, when he comments that Bosola
is ‘‘very valiant’’ but worries that his melancholy will ‘‘poison all his goodness.’’ In fact, Bosola is
capable of great evil. He spies on the Duchess (though he is unable in three years to discover that Antonio is
the Duchess's husband), supervises her murder and the murder of her children and of Cariola, accidentally
kills Antonio, and deliberately kills the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and a servant. As he observes the nobility of the
Duchess and Antonio in facing death and also sees that committing heinous acts for the Cardinal and
Ferdinand does not win him gratitude or financial reward, he begins to question his belief that it is better ‘‘to
appear a true servant, than an honest man.’’ But, when the ‘‘stars’’ drive Bosola to kill Antonio, whom he
has resolved to protect, he concludes that all human endeavor and human goodness are meaningless.
The Cardinal
The Cardinal is the brother of the Duchess and Ferdinand, as cold and calculating as Ferdinand is excitable.
He is a high-ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church, but he does not live the life of a Christian saint:
he has a mistress, he hires spies and murderers, and he does not seem to have any religious duties or religious
thought. As Antonio explains to Delio, ‘‘Where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plots for them than
ever was imposed on Hercules for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a
thousand such political monsters.’’
The Duchess of Malfi: Character Analysis 28
The Cardinal is the quiet force behind the plotting against the Duchess. It is his idea to hire Bosola to spy on
her, but even Bosola does not know of the Cardinal's involvement. When Bosola has killed the Duchess, the
Cardinal pretends to have no knowledge of the crime. He shares Ferdinand's desire that the Duchess not marry
and Ferdinand's anger when she bears a child, but he ‘‘can be angry / Without this rupture’’ of
‘‘intemperate noise.’’ He demonstrates no love or loyalty, treating with startling coldness Bosola, who
killed and was punished in his employment, and Julia, who is his mistress, and the Duchess and Ferdinand,
who are his siblings. His motives for tormenting his sister are not clear. He does not want her money or her
love, and he is incapable of feeling humiliation or shame. He does not care for his reputation or legacy; his
final words are ‘‘now, I pray, let me / Be laid by, and never thought of.’’
Cariola is the trustworthy servant of the Duchess, privy to all of the Duchess's secrets. Cariola witnesses the
marriage between the Duchess and Antonio, helps deliver the Duchess's children, and is with the Duchess
when the Duchess dies. In her own death, she is not as noble as the Duchess, but kicks and screams and tries
to escape. Throughout the play, she is more cautious than the Duchess, thinking that marrying Antonio is
‘‘madness’’ and fearing that the trick of a false pilgrimage will prove unlucky.
Delio is a courtier and a friend of Antonio. His main role in the story is to provide a sounding board for
Antonio. Delio's curiosity about the court gives Antonio the opportunity to speak aloud about the characters of
the Duchess, her brothers, and Bosola in the way an omniscient narrator might in a novel. Delio is also the
friend in whom Antonio confides the secrets of his marriage and the births of his children; like Cariola, Delio
guards the secrets carefully. Delio has no direct connection with any of the siblings, and he does not directly
participate in their plots and deaths. He is the faithful friend, always standing by to help Antonio when he is
needed. In a scene in act 2, Delio comes to Rome and makes advances to Julia, who rebuffs him. Their
interaction affects nothing else in the play, and the two never meet again. Delio speaks the last words in the
play, when he enters ‘‘too late’’ with Antonio's oldest son after his parents have been killed. He urges the
survivors to help the young man gain his inheritance and proclaims, ‘‘Integrity of life is fame's best friend, /
Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.’’
The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is the sister of the Cardinal and the twin sister of Ferdinand. She is never referred to by
name throughout the play, but only by the labels that describe her roles as sister, duchess, and wife. As the
play opens, she is a widow, but still in the bloom of youth. (According to Webster's source materials, the real
duchess was a girl of twelve years old when she was married to a much older man; she became a widow when
she was twenty.) Although her brothers forbid her to marry again, and she promises to obey them, she longs
for a husband. Secretly, she asks her steward, Antonio, to marry her, and they perform a private marriage
ceremony. Afraid of her brothers' anger, the Duchess manages to keep her marriage a secret for years, even
through the birth of three children. When the brothers do learn of the children, she flees with Antonio but is
captured and murdered.
Early in the play, Antonio describes her as a woman whose speech is ‘‘full of rapture,’’ who has a ‘‘sweet
countenance,’’ who lives a life of ‘‘noble virtue.’’ Although her sweet nobility casts no spell over her
brothers, her every word and action support Antonio's judgment of her, and her subjects love and respect her.
She is clever, able to match her brothers' wit in her exchanges with them, and able to quickly craft intricate
plots for escape. She is affectionate with her husband, children, and servant, showing a tenderness that is far
beyond the capabilities of the Cardinal and Ferdinand. And she is dignified in the face of her brothers'
torments, stating even at the worst of it, ‘‘I am Duchess of Malfi still.’’
Some critics have commented that the Duchess deserves death because of her rashness in marrying beneath
her station, but most reject that notion, agreeing that there is nothing in the play to indicate that Webster found
The Duchess of Malfi: Character Analysis 29
fault with the marriage of Antonio and the Duchess. What happens to her is not her fault, but the result of
living in a ‘‘gloomy world.’’
Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, is the twin brother of the Duchess, younger than her by a few minutes. He is
as emotional as his brother the Cardinal is icy, and his response to the idea of his sister marrying is beyond all
bounds. Ferdinand's motivation has always been a central question for critics of this play, and many critics
have seen incestuous feelings in his rage. Whatever the cause, when he learns that his sister has given birth to
a child, he declares her a whore and ‘‘a sister damn'd,’’ creates a mental picture of her ‘‘in the shameful
act of sin,’’ and imagines burning her and her lover in a coal pit with no vent, so that ‘‘their curs'd smoke
might not ascend to heaven,’’ or boiling her child into a soup and serving it to the father.
As with other characters, Antonio's early description of Ferdinand proves insightful. Antonio tells Delio that
Ferdinand has ‘‘a most perverse, and turbulent nature.’’ Even the Cardinal wonders whether Ferdinand is
‘‘stark mad,’’ and after brooding over his sister's betrayal for a time, Ferdinand does approach insanity.
After he has had the Duchess killed and sees her lying dead, he regrets that he ordered Bosola, ‘‘when I was
distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend,’’ but there has been no hint previously that he and the
Duchess shared any closeness.
The realization of what he has done pushes Ferdinand over the edge into insanity, perhaps even to the point of
imagining that he is a werewolf. He is found in the graveyard digging up dead bodies and is seen ‘‘with the
leg of a man / Upon his shoulder; and he howl'd fearfull, / Said he was a wolf.’’ Ferdinand is not seen again
until the last scene, when he charges in on the Cardinal and Bosola and stabs them both. Bosola stabs him in
return, and just before Ferdinand dies, he ‘‘seems to come to himself,’’ saying, ‘‘Whether we fall by
ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.’’
Julia is the wife of an old nobleman and is the Cardinal's mistress. While she is staying with the Cardinal, she
is propositioned by Delio, whom she refuses; she also tries to seduce Bosola. Ironically, the Cardinal kills her
by tricking her into kissing a poisoned book while she is swearing to keep his secret.
The Duchess of Malfi: Essays and Criticism
Webster's Manipulation of the Five-Act Structure
When John Webster sat down to write The Duchess of Malfi, he had several goals in mind. He was a
professional playwright, trying to earn a living and support a large family by writing plays that people would
pay to see. To achieve that goal, he needed a fascinating story with enough intrigue and violence to appeal to
his audience. He wanted, as all artists do, to earn a reputation for quality. Although he was writing plays to be
performed on the London stage during his lifetime (he never could have dreamed that five hundred years later
scholars would be studying the texts of his plays in libraries and classrooms—without even seeing them
performed), he shared the awareness of his age that art is a continuum, that the literature of one period
influences, and is influenced by, the literature of other times. As a serious writer, he followed literary
convention, finding the idea for his story from early sixteenth-century Italy via a late sixteenth-century
English collection of stories, and finding the structure for his play in first century Rome.
Although the idea of ‘‘imitation,’’ or borrowing ideas and even phrases from earlier models, might strike
the modern reader as hack work, simple cobbling together of other people's ideas, the task Webster faced was
quite difficult. He had before him two or three versions of the story of one Giovanna, who in 1490 at the age
of twelve married a man who would later become Duke of Amalfi and leave her a widow at twenty. At least
The Duchess of Malfi: Essays and Criticism 30
one of these retellings was in English prose; one may have been in Italian. To create the play as he envisioned
it, Webster had to follow the general arc of the true story, which some of his audience would have read in
William Painter's collection The Palace of Pleasure, turn narrative into drama, create dialogue and render it in
blank verse, and shape the whole thing into the five-act structure that he had inherited from the Roman
philosopher Seneca. Webster saw The Duchess of Malfi as a tragedy, and in Renaissance England, a tragedy
called for Seneca's five acts.
The idea of following a pattern in creating art may be counterintuitive, but it is actually quite common.
Anyone who has been to a lot of movies knows about the plot that runs ‘‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy
gets girl.’’ Even audiences who could not articulate the pattern are subconsciously aware of it—they know
what to expect, and part of the pleasure in watching the film is in seeing the old story unfold in a new way.
Many romance novels are written with strict formulas that dictate how many chapters the book will run, which
chapter will include the heroine's first meeting with her dream man, and so on. Epics from the Iliad and the
Odyssey to The Call of the Wild and Star Wars follow the same arc. We like pattern, we expect it, and we rely
on it to help us make sense of complexity.
The idea that a drama might be divided into five parts actually came from Aristotle a Greek philosopher in the
third century B.C. Four hundred years later, the Roman playwright Seneca refined Aristotle's ideas and wrote
nine tragedies in five acts, each act having a particular function in the drama. Elizabethan playwrights knew
Seneca's plays and used them as a model for their own work, and Webster is among those whose own
tragedies follow Seneca's pattern of Exposition, Complication, Climax, Resolution, and Catastrophe. Or do
In Seneca's plan, the first act presents the Exposition, or the background information an audience needs to
understand the play. This act will introduce the characters, establish the setting, and hint at the conflicts to
come. This is clearly what happens in act 1 of The Duchess of Malfi. We meet Antonio, Delio, Bosola, the
Cardinal, Ferdinand, and the Duchess. Because a drama typically does not have a narrator who steps in to
interpret characters for the audience, Webster creates reasons for the characters to talk about each other. Delio
asks Antonio ‘‘to make me the partaker of the natures / Of some of your great courtiers,’’ and Antonio
obliges by standing off to the side and commenting on the personalities of Bosola and the three siblings.
Likewise, the Cardinal and Ferdinand talk about Antonio, so it is established early on that Antonio's ‘‘nature
is too honest.’’ Lines such as ‘‘I knew this fellow seven years in the galleys / For a notorious murder’’ and
‘‘Here comes the great Calabrian duke’’ serve the purpose of conveying information to help the audience
make sense of what will come.
Setting is established beginning in the first line, when Delio says, ‘‘You are welcome to your country, dear
Antonio— / You have been long in France.’’ Throughout the act, there are references to Naples, Milan, the
sea coast, and other locations in Italy. The central conflict is set in motion when the Cardinal and Ferdinand
order the Duchess to remain unmarried, and she defies them by marrying Antonio. When the first act ends, the
audience has gotten everything expected from the Exposition.
Act 2, according to Seneca, should present the Complication, sometimes called the Rising Action. In this
section, the forces that will be opposed gather together and intersect—that is, they become complicated. In the
second act of The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess gives birth to the first child of her marriage to Antonio,
Bosola's suspicions are raised and then confirmed, Bosola shares the knowledge of the birth with Ferdinand
and the Cardinal, and Ferdinand begins his descent into madness. With the Duchess and Antonio on one side,
and Bosola, the Cardinal and Ferdinand gathered on the other, the action pauses, as on the night before a great
In fact, the action pauses for several years, while the Duchess gives birth to two more children and Bosola
tries to determine who their father is. Seneca placed the Climax, the turning point and the moment of the
Webster's Manipulation of the Five-Act Structure 31
highest emotional response, in act 3. In The Duchess of Malfi, act 3 presents the sweetly touching scene with
Antonio and the Duchess in the bed chamber, immediately followed by Ferdinand's sudden appearance.
Coming at the center of the play, the scene between the Duchess and Antonio is the last moment of happiness
they will share; from this point on, there is a steady progression of sorrow and torment until both are dead.
The rapid juxtaposition of the Duchess's happiness with her husband and conflict with her brother takes the
audience on a rapidly shifting roller coaster of emotion, rather like the ‘‘whirlwind’’ that takes Ferdinand
away. This is followed by a tender parting as Antonio flees, the Duchess's innocent sharing of her secret with
Bosola, another tearful parting, and the Duchess's arrest.
Act 4 presents the Resolution of the conflict, sometimes called the Falling Action. As the hero ascended in
stature through act 2, the hero descends through act 4. Act 5 is the Catastrophe, or the conclusion. Typically,
the hero of a tragedy dies in act 5, often accompanied by more deaths. Here The Duchess of Malfi seems to
break from the five-act structure of Seneca. The Duchess does not decline in any significant way through act
4. In the face of unspeakable torment, she remains dignified and noble, ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi still.’’ She
does not die bravely, a result of her tragic flaw, in act 5, because she has already died in act 4. (In addition, it
would seem to be a perversion of the notion of tragic flaw to find one in the Duchess, whose only error seems
to have been in marrying for love.) What might this mean? How can the hero die in act 4? If she does, what is
act 5 for?
What if the play is not really about the Duchess after all? Some critics have identified Bosola as the only
character in The Duchess of Malfi who undergoes any psychological growth or change. Could he be the real
hero of the play? What would the five-act structure look like if one foregrounded Bosola instead of the
Act 1 presents the Exposition. The audience is introduced to the characters and setting, but they pay perhaps
more attention to Bosola's situation. He has just returned from seven years in prison for a murder he
committed for the Cardinal. The Cardinal shows Bosola no gratitude but secretly arranges for him to be hired
by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess. Act 1 ends with Bosola in position, poised for action.
Act 2 is the Complication, or the Rising Action. After at least nine months of fruitless spying, Bosola suspects
and confirms a pregnancy through a combination of his own wiles (the apricot trick) and good fortune
(Antonio's dropping the paper). Bosola's star is certainly rising. His letter to Ferdinand shows that he has done
his job well, and Bosola might well expect a reward for his success. However, the letter to Ferdinand
ironically ‘‘hath put him out of his wits,’’ driving Ferdinand's attention far away from his faithful servant.
In act 3, the audience finds a turning point and a strong emotional response. Bosola begins to turn away from
Ferdinand and finds himself speaking admiringly of Antonio. When the Duchess sends Antonio away for
supposedly stealing from her, Bosola scolds her for not seeing Antonio's true value: ‘‘Both his virtue and
form deserv'd a far better fortune.’’ Learning that the Duchess and Antonio are married, he wonders ‘‘can
this ambitious age / Have so much goodness in't?’’ It is his highest moment. One admires the eloquence with
which he celebrates virtue, but his path from this point is a steady descent. The next time the audience sees
him, he is himself again, arresting the Duchess and speaking ill of Antonio's humble birth.
Act 4 finds Bosola in Resolution or Falling Action. Trying to drive the Duchess to despair, he turns to despair
himself and cannot even face her without a disguise. He continues to do Ferdinand's bidding, bringing the
madmen and supervising the murders of the Duchess, the children, and Cariola, but his heart is not in it. At
the end of the act, he realizes that Ferdinand has no intention of paying him for his evil work. He has chosen
poorly, misread the world, lived a life in which he ‘‘rather sought / To appear a true servant, than an honest
man.’’ Now, he sees the flaw (the tragic flaw) in his thinking, and says ‘‘I am angry with myself, now that I
wake.’’ In act 5, the spiraling descent continues, until Bosola has killed Antonio, a servant, the Cardinal, and
Ferdinand, and until he dies himself. Of all the characters, he is the only one whose thinking has changed in
Webster's Manipulation of the Five-Act Structure 32
fundamental ways through the play, the only one who has changed his situation through his own actions, the
only one who has learned. He is the one who obtains revenge in the end, just before dying: ‘‘Revenge, for
The Duchess of Malfi, murdered,’’ for Antonio, for Julia, ‘‘and lastly, for myself, / That was an actor in the
main of all.’’ Bosola is a good candidate for hero of The Duchess of Malfi.
Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on The Duchess of Malfi, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Bily teaches writing and literature at Adrian College.
The Duchess of Malfi: Overview
The Duchess of Malfi's emotional power and theatrical potency, first defined by Charles Lamb and A. C.
Swinburne, derives from its persuasive dramatic realism and its tirelessly intelligent and complex poetry.
The plot follows an account in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567) based on true events in early
16th-century Italy. Two powerful brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, are determined that
their widowed sister, the Duchess, shall not remarry. They set Bosola, a malcontent courtier, to spy on her.
She secretly marries her steward, Antonio Bologna, and bears him several children. Bosola betrays her and, on
instructions, imprisons her, torments her with false news of Antonio's death and with a grisly display of mad
folk, and finally has her killed, together with two of her children and her maid Cariola. Ferdinand, repentant
after the fact, runs mad. In a grim final sequence of confusion and revenge, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, Bosola,
and Antonio die, and it is left to the Duchess's young son to restore an orderly society.
At every turn in this dark action, the characters identify their fears, their rage, or their despair in language
startling in its specific physical immediacy and its general moral pessimism: ‘‘We are merely the stars'
tennis-balls, struck and banded / Which way please them.’’ The events and the language—equally
painful—mark Webster's characteristic awareness of human impotence before evil and malignant fate.
Critics have observed many ambiguities and inconsistencies. There is no convincing reason for the brothers'
prohibition of the Duchess's remarriage, nor do they justify her murder as an appropriate consequence of her
actions. That a marriage and the birth of three children should remain secret is highly unlikely. A child of the
Duchess's first marriage is mentioned, then ignored. An elaborately presented horoscope does not come true.
Antonio and the Duchess flee in different directions for no clear reason.
Some theatrical problems have been noted. The crucial moment of the Duchess's banishment is relegated to
part of a dumb show. Act V, subsequent to the Duchess's death, may seem anti-climactic: a hectic series of
accidents and random killings.
But such inconsistencies may be validated; Webster's realism depends on his recognition that his characters'
intense emotions create around them, as if by passionate magnetism, a field of irrational behaviour and fatal
consequence. Ferdinand's sexually explicit ravings against his sister—‘‘Are you stark mad?’’ asks the
Cardinal—his extravagant grief and his collapse into lycanthropia cannot be rationally explained, but Webster's
language gives his actions a potent, frightening plausibility.
The malcontent Bosola is ambiguous; a reputedly skilled intelligencer who cannot solve the simple mystery of
the Duchess's marriage and who finally stabs Antonio by mistake, he is conscience-stricken and ashamed,
even while he undertakes the brutal murders. Yet his ceaseless and insightful self-analysis is convincing and
even extenuating.
The events of Act V may be seen not as anti-climactic, but as the unavoidable results of Machiavellian
policies which, after the Duchess's murder, must be played out in a sequence of lesser acts—ignoble,
The Duchess of Malfi: Overview 33
grotesque, but still inevitable. Webster finds an apt symbol of inflexible fate when an ‘‘ECHO from the
Duchess' grave’’ prompts Antonio and his friend Delio by ironic repetition.
Webster is dramatising an historical event which English audiences would believe only possible in the
intolerant and disorderly society of 16th-century Italy, with its dissolute churchmen, corrupt courtiers, and
crazed nobility. The opening contrasts the court of Italy with that of France where the ‘‘judicious king’’ has
sought to ‘‘reduce both state and people / To a fix'd order.’’ Two pilgrims, the only outsiders in the play,
express their opinions with equally judicious balance:
Here's a strange turn of state! Who would have thought
So great a lady would have match'd herself
Unto so mean a person? yet the cardinal
Bears himself much too cruel.
Their comments remind the audience that a world does exist outside the malevolent environment of the action.
The obvious lapse of time in the Duchess's marriage between the scenes similarly draws attention to a period
of presumed tranquillity and domestic love. The moment at which chaos and horror descend on the Duchess
and Antonio is precisely marked. Antonio and Cariola tiptoe from the Duchess's bedroom, leaving her alone.
As she continues talking, Ferdinand enters solus, showing her a poinard when, thinking Antonio is silent
behind her, she queries, ‘‘Have you lost your tongue?’’ The Duchess's instant recognition that the
inevitable discovery has come to pass is brilliantly expressed:
Tis welcome:
For know, whether I am doom'd to live or die.
I can do both like a prince.
These contrasts between an attainable harmony in a time or a place outside the confines of the tragic setting
and the necessary chaos within that setting, are mirrored by the contrasts in the Duchess's character. She
begins the play by assuring her brothers that she will never remarry, but without a pause in the action proceeds
to the dangerous wooing of Antonio: ‘‘If all my royal kindred / Lay in my way unto this marriage, / I'd make
them my low footsteps.’’ Recognising her ‘‘dangerous venture,’’ she undertakes, ‘‘through frights, and
threat'nings,’’ the commitment which Cariola sees as a ‘‘fearful madness.’’ Though full of ‘‘noble
virtue’’ and a model of sweet and pious behaviour, her ‘‘tetchiness and most vulturous eating of the
apricots’’ when pregnant are hardly evidences of nobility. After the birth of three children, she still lies to
Ferdinand: ‘‘when I choose / A husband, I will marry for your honour.’’ Moments later, in conversation
with Antonio and Cariola, she is ‘‘merry,’’ holding that ‘‘Love mix't with fear is sweetest.’’ She can
organise Antonio's escape with good sense and dispatch, but is trapped by her thoughtless and misplaced trust
in Bosola. She meets her torments and death with grandeur—‘‘I am Duchess of Malfi still.’’ Some critics
have suggested that these inconsistencies are flaws in characterisation. By turns deceitful and impassioned,
playful and fearful, practical and naive, haughty and petulant, her character may indeed not be consistent, but
her frailties and strengths are recognisably human responses to the terrible world into which she is thrust.
Source: Richard Morton, ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to English Literature,
2nd ed., Vol. 3, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1557-58.
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi
II. Social Mobility
With Antonio we turn to the issue of upward mobility seen from below. Antonio and Bosola are presented as
members of the new class of instrumental men, functional descendants of fifteenth-century retainers who
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 34
fought the Wars of the Roses for their masters. Under Henry VIII and Elizabeth some of these men came to
major power, and many more served in lesser capacities, often as bureaucratic specialists but also as
all-purpose henchmen. Wallace MacCaffrey notes that ‘‘the practice of the Elizabethan administration
mingled confusedly the notion of a professional, paid public service with that of personal service to the
monarch.’’ These roles interact in Antonio and Bosola—steward and spy, bureaucrat and hit man. Each feels
the new obscure insecurity later to be identified and explained by reference to the cash nexus, the shift from
role to job. Each feels it differently.
Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins in a scene from the 1981 theatrical production of The Duchess of Malfi.
Antonio enters the play as a choric voice, praising French courtly virtues and presenting the dramatis personae
in the reified generic terms of the seventeenth-century ‘‘character.’’ He is thus grounded in our sympathy
(and distanced from the action) by his ideological and narrative spokesmanship, an apparently authorial
substantiation that Webster immediately undermines by plunging him into political elevation. He loses his
distancing footing at once, in part through the very virtues that entitled him to the choric role.
After the choric exposition, we hear of Antonio's first action, his victory in the joust, a traditional arena for
aristocratic character contests. But for this achievement Ferdinand has only perfunctory applause: ‘‘Our
sister duchess' great master of her household? Give him the jewel:—When shall we leave this sportive action,
and fall to action indeed?’’ Such archaic and sanitized—that is to say, fictional—warfare bores the great duke.
Mobile men like Antonio strive continually to grasp such identity as Ferdinand seems effortlessly to possess
(though we know better), but they fail to extract satisfying ratification from its established possessors. This
problem is more pressing—and more developed—in Bosola than in Antonio, so I will postpone full discussion
of it until the next section. But it is important to see that Antonio's efforts are ill-fated from the start.
We must also see Antonio as one who, like Bosola, is a man in the way of opportunity, a man with a fortune
to make. In an early conversation the two servants are superimposed by Ferdinand and the cardinal, who
consider them for a job of spying. As a relatively solid steward, Antonio occupies a more assured position
than Bosola, whose tormenting search for secured identity constitutes his role in the play; perhaps for this
reason Bosola is judged more apt for spying. But they share the a priori situation of men whose identity is
achieved, not ascribed, in a society where such identity has not yet been accepted as fully substantial.
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 35
As we have seen, the duchess's coercive offer animates Antonio's social insecurity. Her steward holds an
achieved status of considerable power and security: the skilled estate manager was a Jacobean eminence. For
Antonio has arrived at a local pinnacle, and he is satisfied to rest there in honorable service. In part because of
this basic satisfaction, he fears the duchess's adventurous proposal. Despite his erotic fantasies concerning his
mistress, he must be coerced into further mobility. Antonio is a ‘‘new man,’’ his position based on new
practices of personal self-determination. But his horizon of mobility is clearly circumscribed; beyond its limits
he is ill at ease, unprepared for a society open to the top.
Once he enters that turbulent realm his public behavior becomes apparently more confident and aggressive,
more typical of a man on the move. His sparring with Bosola, whose espionage he suspects from the start,
takes the form of class insults. He sneers at him as an upstart, publicly adopting the attitude of the class he has
secretly entered as the duchess's consort: ‘‘Saucy slave! I'll pull thee up by the roots’’; ‘‘Are you scarce
warm, and do you show your sting?’’ In so doing, he emphasizes his own capacity to hire and fire, to make
men and break them, ultimately to establish or deny their status; his sneers are combative and self-creative at
Such utterances are actually rooted in insecurity. ‘‘This mole does undermine me … This fellow will undo
me.’’ But Antonio's insecurity is less remarkable than its restriction to himself; he does not consider his wife
and child in his fear. Barely able to cope with the storms of courtly intrigue to which the duchess has brought
him, he is ‘‘lost in amazement’’ when she goes into labor; having presented the cover story, he mutters,
"How do I play the fool with mine own danger!’’ When he hears the threats of Ferdinand's letters, he follows
his wife's instructions, however grievingly, and leaves his family to face Ferdinand's murderous rage without
him. He fears for his own safety more than for theirs.
Antonio's insecurity also appears expressly in terms of gender roles. He agreed to his wife's coercive marriage
proposal with the deference of the subordinate he feels himself to be. Yet he is miserable at one level of this
enforced marriage, insofar as it subordinates him to a woman in that private context where both personal and
gender will are at issue. When she reassures him that her brothers will not ultimately cause them harm, that
‘‘time will easily / Scatter the tempest,’’ he cannot allow the maternal address to his unmanliness. He
asserts that ‘‘These words should be mine, / And all the parts you have spoke, if some part of it / Would not
have savour'd flattery.’’ But clearly he would never have spoken such words to her. It was not for him to
dismiss her brothers as insignificant until she had done so; only then can he painfully claim, for his own sense
of self, that he would have said the words.
A similar compensatory gesture occurs in the boudoir scene. Antonio listens silently in hiding while
Ferdinand threatens his wife. Having sworn not to seek Antonio, the duke leaves; only then does Antonio
claim to wish that ‘‘this terrible thing would come again, / That, standing on my guard, I might relate / My
warrantable love.’’ But he had been free just minutes earlier to defy Ferdinand. Then Bosola knocks;
Antonio cries in dread, ‘‘How now! who knocks? more earthquakes?’’ During the banter before
Ferdinand's arrival Antonio had jested with relative ease about his privately subordinate position. But his
elevation, because covert, has not given release from insecurity. He still feels the need to assert his own
substance but does so only when he can avoid being held accountable for the assertion.
To rebuke Antonio's petty self-defenses would be to miss the point. They should be recognized as unchosen
responses to stresses not of his making. Antonio had filled a place where he felt secure and significant. When
the duchess converts his erotic daydreams to reality, they become social nightmares. He is not prepared for
life in the seismographic realm of noble intrigue. The duchess is not insolvent, for instance, as Webster might
have arranged, with ample contemporary precedent, if he had desired to probe Antonio as a powerful new
man of finance. Antonio is a man of regularities, not an improviser like Bosola. For this reason he is
uncomfortable in his private relations with his wife, feeling bound both to the traditional hierarchy of rank,
which enjoins his submission, and to the traditional gender hierarchy, which enjoins him to dominate. His
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 36
culture has not prepared him to be a subordinate husband or to be a princely consort continually at risk. He is
finally to be seen, and sympathized with, as a man helplessly ruled by problems arising from a superior's
ambitious love. He lives uncomfortably in the courtly world that has enclosed him. Indeed, we might say, the
text infects him with ambition: by the time the news of his child reaches Rome he seems ambitious even to his
best friend, who fears ‘‘Antonio is betray'd. How fearfully / Shows his ambition now!’’ And at his death
Antonio speaks of a ‘‘quest of greatness’’ now his own, retrospectively apparent by its present collapse.
This false dream he would spare his son, bidding him fly the courts of princes (a wish in fact ironically
ungranted: the son's restoration at the play's end bodes ill for him, whatever it may say for Amalfi). Antonio's
final action, the desperately naive journey to the cardinal for reconciliation, freezes him for us, as one whose
unsought elevation never brought much sense of how to navigate the webs of alliance and enmity.
Like the other characters, Bosola is concerned to govern the grounding of his identity. As an employee he
presents one of the most intricate examples of the Renaissance problematic of self-shaping. This
representation is initially adumbrated through a dense blend of the predicates of counselor, malcontent,
have-not, henchman, and aesthete, roles all marked by alienation.
Bosola enters on the heels of Antonio's normative set piece on the French court, a model of public service in
which the solipsistic vanities of the decorative gentleman are given a final cause in political service to the
prince. In Bosola's intensified and privatized enactment of Castiglione' s courtly counselor, Webster dissects
the internal contradictions of the life to which the nation's ambitious young men were drawn.
In swift succession Bosola annexes a variety of stances toward ‘‘courtly reward and punishment.’’ Antonio
first labels him ‘‘the only court-gall,’’ suggesting the standoffish or outcast malcontent, almost a specialist
Jeremiah. Yet this estimate is at once complicated further:
his railing
Is not for simple love of piety;
Indeed he rails at those things which he wants,
Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud,
Bloody, or envious, as any man,
If he had means to be so.
The distanced moralist and the envious parasite coincide in uneasy dissonance.
Webster also evokes the unrewarded servant: in having Bosola immediately demand belated reward from the
cardinal for a suborned murder, Webster links him to the social problem of the veteran soldier, a stranger in
his own land, dismissed from desert as well as from service. Then as now this figure was unprovided for, and
Bosola has not even the minimal fact of service to his country to cushion his return to social life. He has been
a more private soldier and has taken the fall. He will not rise in the pub or feast his friends on Saint Crispin's
Day. He can only sneer bitterly at his employers for their relative depravity. Still, he is more than a
Pedringano, much more than a Pistol, for Antonio has ‘‘heard / He's very valiant: this foul melancholy / Will
poison all his goodness.’’ So ‘‘'Tis great pity / He should be thus neglected.’’ The most complex of
Bosola's ills, however, arise not from neglect but from employment.
For Bosola is preferred, to spy on the duchess. He is made a henchman, an agent, an instrument, and so
suggests the complicated new problems that arise from the status of employee. At this point in English history,
at the beginning of capitalist dominance, service was undergoing the momentous shift from role to job, and
the ways in which it could ground a sense of self were changing. Hitherto the prince had been seen as the
sacramental source of identity. Puttenham specifies this relation in a poem about Elizabeth: ‘‘Out of her
breast as from an eye, / Issue the rayes incessantly / Of her justice, bountie and might’’: these rays make
‘‘eche subject clearely see, / What he is bounden for to be / To God his Prince and common wealth, / His
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 37
neighbour, kindred and to himselfe.’’ In this view service was simply a mode of assent to the static fact of
ascriptive rank. As Stone shows, however, James's sale of honors helped to displace the power to confer
identity from God's representative to the money that bought him. As the human origin of rank was gradually
revealed, it became clear that the power to confer it was freely available to those who could pull the strings of
influence or purse. When ascriptive status emerged as a commodity, the king's sacred role as fount of identity
began to decay, and with this shift came a change in the nature of identity itself. It became visible as
something achieved, a human product contingent on wealth, connection, and labor. Later, when Marx
described it theoretically, the notion could seem a conceptual liberation. As individuals express their life (i.e.,
as they ‘‘produce their means of subsistence’’), so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their
production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. Here human beings create themselves in
the process of work. But in the Renaissance, when this insight began to be visible, it seemed a loss rather than
a liberation. The obligation to found identity on one's actions seemed to sever the transindividual bonds that
bound the polity together; it left one on one's own, save for the new power of cash, which could buy
knighthoods, even titles. Marx of course clearly specifies this historical passage as a demolition: the exchange
relation of capitalism, he says, ‘‘has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his
‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest,
than callous ‘cash payment.’’’ For Bosola, an early transitional figure, such clear formulation was not
available. I think this nexus seemed to him like a lifeline, weaker perhaps than Elizabeth's nearly divine
‘‘rayes’’ but still somehow linked to the ontologically solid ground of the ruling aristocracy. In examining
Bosola's ‘‘neglect,’’ Webster offers us the first tragic figure whose isolation is formulated in terms of
employment by another.
Bosola initially reflects this coincidence of loss and possibility in bitterly deploring his ‘‘miserable age,
where only the reward / Of doing well is the doing of it.’’ Webster inverts the proverb to show that virtue is
no longer its own reward but has become a commodity, only a means to an end. What formerly conferred a
sense of absolute worth based on a collective cultural judgment has now lost its savor and is worthless unless
vendible. Bosola is so far modern that he laments not the absence of the old mode but its residual presence.
Still, he gets what he seems to want almost at once, within about two hundred lines, when Ferdinand says
‘‘There's gold.’’ The rest of the play examines (as Bosola dourly inquires) ‘‘what follows.’’ For the post
of intelligencer aggravates his discontent, though it frees him from the material want and shame that dominate
his galley life. But such a reward is mere hire and salary; he wants more, is miserable without it. Bosola
cannot be said to be merely greedy for gain, a motive that no more explains his actions than it does
Ferdinand's. But we need to understand what more he wants.
Of course the answer is the same total self-realization achieved by Cariola and Kent. But the personal service
by which Bosola seeks this ultimate goal in fact reduces and dehumanizes him.
Where Kent's desires were completely coincident with his master's (‘‘What wouldst thou?—Service’’),
Ferdinand's are withheld from Bosola (‘‘Do not you ask the reason: but be satisfied’’) and so cannot be
adopted as purposes. Bosola is specifically alienated from the utility of the ‘‘intelligence’’ that is his labor's
product, and so he creates a reified commodity and a reified self along with it. Marx formulates this action
[Alienated] labor is external to the worker … it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it
… the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but
someone else's, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to
another … [The worker's activity] … is the loss of his self.
Instead of founding his identity, Bosola expends it in his work. Hungry for spiritual ratification, Bosola offers
up to Ferdinand all he has. He expects this relationship, his relation to his prince, to found him; he expects the
cash relation to carry the same kind of life-giving social blood as the earlier circuit of rule and fealty. But
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 38
instead he merely spends himself and gets paid. Then, of course, he resorts to working harder, presuming he
has not yet sufficiently earned his ontological paycheck; and the more he puts himself into his production, the
more he loses himself. This sense of his desire helps construe what would otherwise seem a simply
‘‘depraved’’ ongoing decision to continue doing Ferdinand's dirty work, much in spite, he claims, of his
own good nature. Compulsively seeking to be paid, recognized, acknowledged, identified, Bosola expends
efforts that intensify his sense of need but prove unequal to the task of filling it. The cash payment is the full
exchange value to be got from this employer.
Bosola tries to obliterate this lack of ratification with a device prominent in the English machiavel's career: the
aestheticizing of intrigue. Noble machiavels may seek this stance in search of Ferdinand's sui generis
alienation, but Bosola's purpose is different, even somewhat the reverse. A clue to his practice can be found in
Georges Sorel's suggestion that artistic creation anticipates the way perfected work will feel in the society of
the future. This kind of activity confers just the unity that alienated labor undercuts. Hence, it may be argued,
aestheticizing can restore a felt unity or wholeness to actions by decontextualizing them, separating them from
the context that displays one's fragmentation. In focusing on the aesthetic shape of, say, a suborned act of
violence or betrayal, to the exclusion of awareness of the context that marks it as suborned violation, alienated
laborers can grasp a false sense of integrity by, as it were, alienating themselves from their alienation. Seen in
this light, Bosola's aestheticizing functions as an evasion, a narcotic that lends a sense of totality while dulling
awareness of its falsity. The part seems the whole, for he can devote his whole self (and so reconstitute it for
the duration) to the means of the task by ignoring the opacity of its end.
The apricot incident offers a specimen of this technique. Here Bosola observes the duchess's physical
condition in considerable specialist detail and applies a test for pregnancy—the typically alimentary
Renaissance device of administering apricots (a laxative and thus labor stimulant). The trick is, he says to
himself, ‘‘A pretty one’’: Bosola watches not only the duchess but himself at work, taking pleasure in his
professional prying, even setting up private dramatic ironies and sotto voce gloating for his own
entertainment. Lukács offers a theoretical frame. ‘‘The specialized ‘virtuoso,’ the vendor of his objectified
and reified faculties does not just become the [passive] [sic] observer of society; he also lapses into a
contemplative attitude vis-a-vis the workings of his own objectified and reified faculties.’’ Bosola is
thoroughly engaged (and thus unifyingly estranged) not only in practicing the technicalities of his craft but in
appreciating his own stylistic flair.
We can see a similar bifurcation of consciousness in the interrogation scene, where Bosola discovers that
Antonio is the duchess's husband. To unfold it properly we must first examine Bosola's youth, which was
characterized by a more ostentatiously aesthetic sense of his actions. For according to Delio, Bosola was
a fantastical scholar, like such who study to know how many knots was in Hercules' club, of
what colour Achilles' beard was, or whether Hector were not troubled with the toothache: he
hath studied himself half blear-eyed, to know the true symmetry of Caesar's nose by a
shoeing-horn; and this he did to gain the name of a speculative man.
Bosola has had the sort of university training that warped his predecessor Flamineo, gave him a sense of
ambition, and fitted him for little but mobility. The Lylyan dandy's mode seems not to have worked for
Bosola; instead he finally found work with the cardinal and thus found his way to the galleys. But Delio's
gossip shows that the exquisitely intellectual management of reputation is to Bosola a familiar tool, cognate
with spying and thuggery; he has only retreated from its more precious manifestations.
Under Bosola's questioning, the duchess screens her liaison by accusing Antonio of peculation (yet another
false financial motive). When Bosola defends him against this accusation and other criticisms from Antonio's
former fellows, she replies that Antonio was basely descended. Bosola then explicitly raises the contrast
between ascription and achievement that is so central to the play: ‘‘Will you make yourself a mercenary
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 39
herald, / Rather to examine men's pedigrees than virtues?’’ This pointed challenge inspires her to reveal that
Antonio is her husband, because it so clearly specifies the terms of her rebellion in choosing him. Bosola's
reply says as much about himself as about her.
No question but many an unbenefic'd scholar
Shall pray for you for this deed, and rejoice
That some preferment in the world can yet
Arise from merit. The virgins of your land
That have no dowries, shall hope your example
Will raise them to rich husbands: should you want
Soldiers, 'twould make the very Turks and Moors
Turn Christians, and serve you for this act.
Last, the neglected poets of your time,
In honour of this trophy of a man,
Rais'd by that curious engine, your white hand,
Shall thank you, in your grave for't; and make that
More reverend than all the cabinets
Of living princes. For Antonio,
His fame shall likewise flow from many a pen,
When heralds shall want coats to sell to men.
Her unequal marriage will legitimate many other sorts of deserving mobility: the unemployed graduate will
find preferment, the impoverished virgin security with a rich husband. Alien Turks and Moors will flock like
Othellos and Ithamores to her side in gratitude for this tolerance of heterodox origin. And this multifoliate
action will be eternized by neglected poets happy to get the work. The duchess has ratified elevation by merit,
and Bosola's applause betrays his own authentic experience of the dream—and of the attendant anomie, a blend
of the loss of old securities and the lack of new ones.
Many readers accept Bosola's speech as sincere; others presume it to be a ploy designed to unlock the
duchess's tongue. I think it is both: his own sincere response managed in pursuit of his employer's goal. This
apparent contradiction is only a particular case of Lukács's reified employee's general deformation: ‘‘His
qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can ‘own’ or
‘dispose of’ like the various objects of the external world.’’ Bosola exchanges his authentic emotional
stance for the information his master wants. But this self-commoditizing exchange manipulation is
asymmetrical, for Bosola does not easily revert to the dispassionate stance of the intelligencer. Perhaps the
plan for the false pilgrimage is a sarcasm enabling the difficult shift from intimacy to the spy report by
positing a ground for an intermediate stage of sneering distance: he can call her a politician, a soft quilted
anvil, and so forth and return to his habitual malcontent mode. But even this self-manipulation (if that is what
it is) is not fully anesthetic, for when Bosola returns to his commoditized state (the obvious force of the
mediate pause of ‘‘What rests, but I reveal / All to my lord?’’) it is with self-loathing: ‘‘O, this base
quality / Of intelligencer!’’ A further deflection is needed, a universal projection of the commodity model:
‘‘why, every quality i'th' world / Prefers but gain or commendation: / Now, for this act I am certain to be
rais'd, / And men that paint weeds to the life are prais'd.’’ If the duchess's act was sordid, and his own no
lower than any other, Bosola may sedate the sympathy he had for her, at least long enough to file his report.
I will pass more briefly by the well-known torture and murder scene, pausing only to note how it combines the
predilections of Ferdinand and his agent. The motive force is of course the brother's, a fact often missed,
owing perhaps to his apparent absence. Michael Warren (of the Nuffield Theatre) has suggested that
Ferdinand's role in this scene might be made clear by ‘‘having Ferdinand on or above the stage, physically
directing the action’’; I would prefer to have the duke visible but inactive, frozen in his contemplative mode
of alien voyeur. For his part, Bosola steeps himself in procedure, but in the process he is touched by the
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 40
insistent coherence of his fellow galley slave. She does not reach for external legitimation as he has done but
rests in the fact that she is, like Middleton's Beatrice-Joanna, ‘‘the deed's creature,’’ needing no DeFlores to
tell her so. And as Bosola lives the parts he plays, his dismissal of earthly values besieges his increasingly
stunted goals, even as he pursues ever more grimly the aesthetic anesthesia of obsession with form. He is
finally silent throughout the strangling, returning to life (that is, jerking away from reflection to
instrumentality) with the uncharacteristically brutal ‘‘Some other strangle the children.’’ He seems barely
under control in the face of the tragedy he has caused, less and less confident of what has now come to seem
repayment from Ferdinand.
Instead, of course, Ferdinand rewrites the contract (repudiating debt as Jacobean nobles often did) by
pardoning Bosola's murders, ironically restoring to his agent the fully humanizing capacity of the moral sense.
(The ‘‘gift’’ inverts Lear's denial of Kent's loyal advice about Cordelia.)
Why didst thou not pity her? what an excellent
Honest man mightst thou have been
If thou hadst borne her to some sanctuary!
Or, bold in a good cause, oppos'd thyself
With thy advanced sword above thy head,
Between her innocence and my revenge!
Action beyond the employer's instruction is available only to the independent human, not to the tool that
cannot think for itself. When Ferdinand challenges Bosola's humanity, he speaks his own heart too, called out
of alienation too late, like Bosola's. But this castigation, meant to deflect his pain, only postpones it. In
‘‘pardoning’’ his henchman, he schizophrenically enacts revenge and forgiveness at once.
Though the reproach nourishes Bosola's developing rebellion against his reification, he cannot at first abandon
his own project. He feverishly opposes legal, moral, rational, and courtly sanctions to Ferdinand's dismissal,
demonstrating his service to be in all particulars deserving. This dismissal perverts justice, he says; you shall
quake for it; let me know wherefore; ‘‘though I loath'd the evil, yet I lov'd / You that did counsel it; and
rather sought / To appear a true servant, than an honest man.’’ The parallel with the duchess's defense in the
boudoir is striking; here as there the arguments are incomprehensible to Ferdinand, who again burrows into
the dark. And like the duchess, Bosola must face the ultimate failure of his project, for self-fashioning through
I stand like one
That long hath ta'en a sweet and golden dream:
I am angry with myself, now that I wake
off my painted honour:
While with vain hopes our faculties we tire,
We seem to sweat in ice and freeze in fire.
His dream of ultimate grounding at the hands of another stands revealed as a delusive Petrarchan hope for an
absolute beyond earthly grasp.
Faced with this failure, Bosola seeks his onto-logical grounding anew in a succession of chosen actions that he
sees as neither derived from another (as his service was) nor evasively contemplative: ‘‘somewhat I will
speedily enact / Worth my dejection.’’ Personal vengeance will at least make him his own deed's creature.
(This action obscurely coalesces the dual motives of compassion for the duchess and anger over his own
neglect: Ferdinand causes both sufferings.) When we next see Bosola he is accepting employment from the
cardinal with ironic alacrity: ‘‘Give it me in a breath, and let me fly to't: / They that think long, small
expedition win, / For musing much o'th'end, cannot begin.’’ Security, like virtue, rests in the doing, in the
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 41
subsuming process of unalienated action itself—in the search for a vengeance that he desperately wants to be
decisive, constitutive. As Bosola opens himself more and more to the sacramental powers of moral confidence
to be got from the act, he turns hopefully to a traditional self-sacrificial idiom: ‘‘O penitence, let me truly
taste thy cup, / That throws men down, only to raise them up.’’ Though he still feels neglect and seeks
advancement, he has shifted his ground to the seemingly more reliable realm of the transcendent moral order.
It can only be Webster's comment on this posture that Bosola's next action (reminiscent of Cordelia's death
after Albany's ‘‘The gods defend her!’’) is the unwitting murder of Antonio. His short-lived transcendental
stance is utterly disrupted by this monstrous error: ‘‘We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded
/ Which way please them.’’ The dream of self-substantiation through self-abnegation he now rejects as
pointless, swearing ‘‘I will not imitate things glorious, / No more than base: I'll be mine own example.’’ He
denies service to God and to Ferdinand alike as falsely coherent. In being his own example he returns to a
stance like the duchess's unitary ‘‘I am Duchess of Malfi still.’’ If he cannot realize himself in any cosmic
or social terms, he may yet seek identity par sibi, and so he grimly carries out a revenge now sheerly his own.
In the play's final action Bosola begins firmly enough, killing the cardinal's innocent servant to secure the
room. But mad Ferdinand comes in as to the wars, finally falling to action in deed, and wounds everyone to
the death. Bosola lasts longest, playing his own Horatio for the astounded witnesses:
Revenge, for the Duchess of Malfi, murdered
By th' Arragonian brethren; for Antonio,
Slain by this hand; for lustful Julia,
Poison'd by this man; and lastly, for myself,
That was an actor in the main of all
Much 'gainst mine own good nature, yet i'th'end
He casts himself finally and summarily as an agent, a vicarious actor on behalf of all the victims, not least for
himself, murderer and murdered at once, haunted throughout by an always pending better self, now
definitively neglected. The supposed restorative of revenge has littered the stage, but the body count, though
lavish, is sterile. Bosola ends by fixing our eyes on this lack, this gulf, in his final line, about ‘‘another
voyage.’’ For as Lear's undone button invokes nakedness and the heath, Bosola's departure is seaward, to the
galleys, to the pathless wilderness from which he entered the play, a castaway looking for solid ground to call
his own.
III. Conclusion
This is the burden felt by all: the shaping of the social self in the abrasive zone between emergent and residual
social formations. Webster's play is what Kenneth Burke calls a magical chart, a cognitive decree that names a
problematic situation and voices an attitude toward it. Webster's chart insists that the characters' urges and
defining gestures are transformations of one another; that they are fundamentally constituted by, ‘‘struck and
banded which way please,’’ a net of dimly understood and contradictory social forces; and that these forces
shape and limit the kind of actions we habitually regard as individually authentic and chosen (and that carry
the responsibilities we associate with tragedy and villainy). Webster provides a social world that constitutes
what are clearly not the transcendental subjects of traditional moral inquiry.
Fredric Jameson suggests a more political repossession:
The cultural monuments and masterworks that have survived tend necessarily to perpetuate
only a single voice … the voice of a hegemonic class … They cannot be properly assigned their
relational place in a dialogic system without the restoration or artificial reconstruction of the
voice to which they were initially opposed, a voice for the most part stifled and reduced to
Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi 42
silence, marginalized, its own utterances scattered to the wind, or reappropriated in their turn
by the hegemonic culture.
I believe that this play was written, at least in significant part, to dissect the actual workings of the normative
ideology set before us at its beginning. Far from providing criteria for the judgment of the heterodox
characters (as criticism, seduced by power as order, has often presumed), this ideological frame and those who
pose and endorse it are themselves to be judged by the ‘‘heterodox.’’ Critics' moral judgments directed
against the outcast duchess (as lustful, irresponsible, unwomanly, womanish) emanate from this ideological
center; they are at one with high-minded humanist sneering at sycophants whom the center in fact invents,
summons up for service and ideological approbation. I believe that Webster strives to recover such stifled
voices, to bare oppositional gestures usurpingly rewritten, both then and often even now, as womanish
eccentricity or base-mindedness. My analysis has sought also to reclaim Ferdinand for understanding (if not
sympathy) by reading his motives as the absolutized and finally self-destructive core of the nobility's project
for dominance. Ferdinand's savage gestures strip to the skin the soothing discourse of reciprocity. To its
incantations the play is addressed as a disruptive symbolic act, the reverse of Burkean Prayer—as an
Source: Frank Whigham, ‘‘Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in PMLA, Vol. 100, No.
2, March 1985, pp. 167-86.
The Duchess of Malfi: Suggested Essay Topics
Act 1, Scene 1
1. Describe how this initial scene depicts Ferdinand’s court. What are some of the court's attributes and
characteristics that can be discerned from this scene?
2. What do Bosola’s words in this scene reveal about his character? What impression does this scene give of
Act 1, Scene 2
1. Describe the ways in which this scene touches upon the proper ways to maneuver in Ferdinand’s court.
2. In the scene of Antonio and the Duchess’s marriage, there is much talk of accounts and the propriety of
their marriage. How does this talk call attention to the significance of the Duchess deciding to marry below
her station?
Act 2, Scenes 1-2
1. Describe the ways in which these scenes illustrate and expand on Bosola’s meditation on the deformities of
human nature.
2. Analyze the two conversations between the Old Lady and Bosola. How do they reveal Bosola’s views of
women and the place of women in the setting of the play?
Act 2, Scenes 3-5
1. Consider the conversation between the Cardinal and Ferdinand in response to the news of the Duchess’s
newborn child. Are the two brothers right to react with such outrage? What does their conversation foretell, if
anything, about the Duchess’s likely fate?
2. How are the themes of trust and deceit acted out in these scenes?
The Duchess of Malfi: Suggested Essay Topics 43
Act 3, Scenes 1-2
1. On what basis does the Duchess place her confidence in Bosola? Is there a convincing rationale for her
2. Describe the Duchess’s reaction to her circumstances and her attempt to avoid the detection of her
marriage. Are her words and actions praiseworthy or contemptible?
Act 3, Scenes 3-5
1. Discuss the treatment of religion in these three scenes, including both the Duchess’s fake pilgrimage and
the Cardinal’s investiture as a soldier. Is religion seen in a positive or negative light?
2. Analyze the relationship between Antonio and the Duchess in scene five. Do they give good advice to each
other? Are their attitudes toward their fates reasonable?
Act 4, Scene 1
1. Discuss the theme of manipulation and deceit as it appears in this scene. How do Ferdinand’s plans to
show the Duchess the figures of Antonio and their children indicate his state of mind at this point in the play?
2. Analyze Bosola’s relationship with the Duchess in this scene. Is he truly sympathetic to her plight, or
merely feigning sympathy for underhanded purposes?
Act 4, Scene 2
1. Compare Ferdinand’s madness, and his decision to send madmen to the Duchess’s lodging, with the
Duchess’s response to her confinement and execution. Is the differing behavior of these twins meant to
outline mirror aspects of human nature?
2. Discuss Bosola’s transformation from ruthlessly murdering the Duchess and her two children to expressing
remorse for those murders. Is his penance convincing and legitimate? If so, how can it be explained?
Act 5, Scene 1
1. How does Pescara’s justification for refusing to give Delio Antonio’s land amplify the play’s theme of
the connection between virtue and nobility?
2. What does Antonio’s intention to visit the Cardinal reveal about Antonio’s character?
Act 5, Scene 2
1. How is the relationship between Julia and Bosola in scene two emblematic of the basic themes of the play?
What does the depiction of their relationship tell us about their respective roles in the court and the differing
aspects of their character?
2. How does Bosola’s speech at the close of this scene epitomize the conflicts and contradictions of his
Act 5, Scenes 3-5
1. Interpret the philosophies articulated by Antonio and Bosola just after Bosola has given Antonio his fatal
wound. Does the play as a whole agree with or dispute these philosophies?
2. Does Delio’s speech at the close of the play represent the basic message and theme of the play, or is it
merely an illustration of his own character and nothing else?
The Duchess of Malfi: Suggested Essay Topics 44
The Duchess of Malfi: Sample Essay Outlines
Topic #1
One of the most basic themes of The Duchess of Malfi involves the exploration of status and nobility.
The play both examines the courtly assumption that being high-born makes an individual noble and
proposes the notion that nobility derives solely from truth and virtue. However, it also presents the
argument that nobility is not truly attainable because our basic nature is animal and corrupt. Examine
the two different ways the play suggests nobility might be attained, and present a case arguing either
that nobility is indeed attainable or that it is an illusory concept disguising our true human nature.
I. Thesis Statement: An analysis of the notions of both nobility from virtue and nobility from birth
leads to the conclusion that The Duchess of Malfi argues that nobility is attainable, but only through
possessing the qualities of truth and virtue.
II. Nobility from birth
A. Ferdinand and the Cardinal advise the Duchess to avoid marrying any low-born or dishonorable
B. Duchess places herself among those “born great.”
C. Cardinal and Ferdinand fear an unworthy commoner has fathered the Duchess’s child.
D. Ferdinand praises Reputation as the most precious virtue.
E. Ferdinand dismisses Antonio as a man who never “look’d like a gentleman.”
F. Bosola says Antonio’s fear comes from his low breeding.
G. Ferdinand praises value of the Duchess’s noble body before she betrayed him.
H. Duchess proclaims herself “Duchess of Malfi still” to Bosola before dying.
III. Nobility from virtue
A. Antonio praises Duchess for her shining virtue without mentioning her noble birth.
B. Duchess marries Antonio, who has “long serv’d virtue,” without any concern for his ancestry.
C. Bosola praises Antonio for his humility, faith, and honesty, without regard for his low ancestry.
D. Duchess defends Antonio’s low birth to Bosola in her parable of the salmon and dog-fish.
E. Bosola describes Duchess as enduring her imprisonment with noble fortitude.
F. Ferdinand regrets his hatred for “the meanness of her match” after Duchess is dead.
IV. Nobility not attainable, or attainable
A. Bosola says all people are ruled by the same base passions.
B. Bosola denounces man’s deformed nature.
C. Bosola calls the Duchess’s glories insubstantial, having “neither heat nor light.”
D. In speeches after Duchess’s death, Bosola rejects the brothers’ tyranny and praises Duchess’s
E. Pescara refuses to give Antonio’s land to Delio because it, being unjustly taken, should go to a
F. Bosola values “the sword of justice.”
G. Antonio rejects “our quest of greatness” as empty desire.
H. Bosola proclaims it good for “worthy minds … to suffer death or shame for what is just.”
I. Delio closes play by saying greatness and fame come only from “integrity of life.
V. Conclusion
The noble nature of the deaths of Antonio and the Duchess contrasts with repenting speeches of
Ferdinand and the Cardinal before they die. Antonio and the Duchess are treated sympathetically,
The Duchess of Malfi: Sample Essay Outlines 45
whereas the Cardinal and Ferdinand are ruthless villains. Nobility is attainable, but only through
pursuing truth and virtue.
Topic #2
The theme of deceit, intrigue, inconstancy, and illusion is present throughout The Duchess of Malfi.
Bosola, the Duchess, Antonio and others struggle to gain control, power, and security by either
properly discerning the truth or successfully propagating falsehoods. To what degree are characters
successful in these efforts rewarded by achieving their goals of control, power, and security?
I. Thesis Statement: Although all five key characters manage to either create manipulated falsehoods
or uncover hidden truths, none of them attain their goals by doing this. Their efforts produce no
material rewards; instead, all five end up being killed. All their attempts to maneuver through the
murky world of the court end in futility.
II. Antonio
A. Successfully reads the character of the Duchess and her two brothers and is skeptical of her
dismissal of the threat from her brothers, but marries her anyway.
B. His fears of the consequences of the Duchess bearing children and the threat presented by Bosola
are well-founded.
C. Although manages to seclude the Duchess for her childbirth, lets slip a paper confirming her birth.
D. Rightly regards Ferdinand with suspicion.
E. Interprets the Duchess’s dream accurately.
F. Realizing his danger, resolves to go to court and resolves his situation, but fails to heed the Echo’s
III. Duchess
A. Successfully hides her marriage from her brothers, but dismisses them as “only to be pitied, and
not fear’d.”
B. Fails to keep signs of her pregnancy from being detected by Bosola.
C. Believes Ferdinand’s assurance that she is “safe in your own innocency.”
D. Manages to cover up marriage to Antonio by accusing him of mishandling accounts, but unwisely
puts Bosola in her confidence.
E. Believes the false show of dead Antonio and her two children.
IV. Bosola
A. Realizes the danger of serving Ferdinand as intelligencer, but agrees to do it anyway.
B. Detects the Duchess’s pregnancy.
C. By sneaking into the Duchess’s quarters and reading note, confirms she has given birth.
D. Testifies to Antonio’s good character, winning the Duchess’s confidence, and uses occasion to
trap her and Antonio by suggesting feigned pilgrimage to Loretto.
E. Presents false spectacle of dead Antonio and two children to the Duchess.
F. Realizes the error of his three murders only too late, after the Duchess and two children are dead.
G. Employs Julia to find out cause of the Cardinal’s “wondrous melancholy.”
H. Erroneously kills Antonio, and fails to kill Ferdinand until Ferdinand has inflicted a fatal wound on
V. Cardinal
A. Along with Ferdinand, realizes possibility that the Duchess will remarry.
B. Cautions Ferdinand against ill-tempered and uncontrollable reaction to the Duchess’s birth.
C. Makes unwise decision to become soldier.
D. Disguises cause of Ferdinand’s madness and his own awareness of the Duchess’s murder.
The Duchess of Malfi: Sample Essay Outlines 46
E. Unaware of Bosola’s presence, tells Julia he helped order murder of the Duchess and two children.
F. In telling lords to not disturb Ferdinand, ensures he will be without aid when attacked by Bosola.
G. Lets Bosola hear his plans to kill Bosola, then is killed by him and the mad Ferdinand.
VI. Ferdinand
A. Suspects the Duchess will remarry and so employs Bosola, a capable intelligencer.
B. Fails to convince the Duchess of the spontaneity of his and the Cardinal’s speech.
C. Overreacts to news of the Duchess’s newborn child.
D. Convinces the Duchess she has his support against accusation.
E. By ordering display of images of a dead Antonio and two children to the Duchess, convinces her
they are dead.
F. Realizes mistake of killing the Duchess and two children only after they are dead, and fails to
assume responsibility for murders.
G. In succumbing to “lycanthropia,” loses control of his court and mistakenly wounds the Cardinal
and Bosola, then is killed by Bosola.
VII. Conclusion
The five main characters’ efforts to manipulate reality and discover the truth fail to give them
security or power, as all five are killed by the end of the play.
The Duchess of Malfi: Compare and Contrast
Early Seventeenth Century: King James I is ruler of England and Scotland. He has come to the
throne through inheritance and divine right and is the sole ruler of the country.
Today: Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of England. She inherited the throne from her father, but her
duties are primarily ceremonial. The country is ruled by a Parliamentary government.
Early Seventeenth Century: The mental illness called melancholia is thought to be caused by an
excess of black bile in the body. Some people deliberately take on the characteristics of melancholia
because it is thought to be a disease that affects great minds. Bosola may be one of these.
Today: Depression is a widespread disorder, thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance. In
technologically advanced countries, antidepressant medications are widely used.
Early Seventeenth Century: Most noble women do not marry for love. Like the Duchess, they may
be joined in arranged marriages with older men while they are very young. Even if widowed, they are
not free to remarry or to make choices about their property without male guidance.
Today: While social pressures may prevent members of the upper classes from marrying those of the
lower classes, there are no legal divisions between the classes. English women may marry whomever
they wish and control their own property.
Early Seventeenth Century: All that is required for a marriage to be legally binding in England is
that a man and woman declare themselves to be husband and wife. Witnesses and written documents
are not required.
Today: Marriages must be performed by an official certified by the state to do so.
The Duchess of Malfi: Topics for Further Study
Research another influential Renaissance text, Machiavelli's The Prince (1517), which describes the
qualities of the ideal ruler. To what extent is the Cardinal an embodiment of these qualities? What are
The Duchess of Malfi: Compare and Contrast 47
the strengths and weaknesses of such a ruler?
Some critics have said that in creating The Duchess of Malfi, Webster was praising Queen Elizabeth I
who had died in 1603, ten years before the play was written. In what ways were Elizabeth I and King
James I different? Why might Webster have preferred a ruler like Elizabeth I?
London's Globe Theatre, one of the theaters where The Duchess of Malfi was performed, has been
reconstructed with historical accuracy. Research the ways in which the type of theater, and the
conventions about casting a play, would have made a performance of the play seen in London in 1613
different from performances staged in important theaters today.
Compare the Duchess's situation at the beginning of the play with the social conventions observed by
British nobility today. How free, for example, are members of the Royal Family to marry whomever
they wish, regardless of class distinctions or other considerations? How much pressure might one's
family exert over one's choice of a spouse?
The Duchess of Malfi is set in sixteenth-century Italy but written for a seventeenth century English
audience. Given the broadest outline of the Duchess's story, what adaptations would a playwright
have to make to set the story in twenty-first-century United States? How might American cultural
values change the outcome of the story?
The Duchess of Malfi: Media Adaptations
The Duchess of Malfi was produced for television in 1972 by the BBC. The 123-minute VHS cassette,
featuring performances by Eileen Atkins, Michael Bryant, and Gary Bond, is distributed by Time-Life
The BBC produced an audio recording of the play in 1980, starring Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Paul
Scolfield. This production runs on three audiocassettes, and is distributed by Audio-Forum.
An older audio version originally issued on record albums, but since 1972 distributed on three
audiocassettes, is also available from Caedmon. It features Barbara Jefford as the Duchess, and
includes a booklet with biographical information and essays on the play.
In 1962, Caedmon issued a recording of excerpts from the play read by the British poet Dylan
Thomas, well known for his wonderful speaking voice. The recording is available from Caedmon on
one audiocassette.
The Duchess of Malfi: What Do I Read Next?
The White Devil, published in 1612, is Webster's other well-known play. Like The Duchess of Malfi,
it is based on a true story of Italian nobles. Using elements of the revenge tragedy, it depicts diabolical
brothers punishing and avenging their sisters.
William Shakespeare's great tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1601) is arguably his most
famous play. Although it ends, like The Duchess of Malfi, with dead bodies strewn across the stage,
its focus is on the philosophical and psychological development of the title character.
Titus Andronicus (c. 1590), another Shakespeare play, more closely resembles The Duchess of Malfi
in its horrific violence. Seldom performed, it has a cycle of vengeance that includes murder, rape, the
cutting off of a character's tongue and hands, and the baking of murdered children into a pie that is
served to their mother.
A good introduction to the period in which The Duchess of Malfi is set is J. H. Plumb's The Italian
Renaissance, published in a revised edition in 2001. The first half of the book is a historical overview
of the economic and social conditions that led to the Renaissance; the second half includes brief
biographies of important figures by different scholars.
The Duchess of Malfi: Topics for Further Study 48
The Duchess of Malfi: Bibliography and Further Reading
Archer, William. ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘‘The Duchess of
Malfi,’’ edited by Norman Rabkin. Prentice-Hall, 1968, p. 14; originally published in Nineteenth Century,
Vol. 87, 1920, pp. 126-32.
Calderwood, James L. ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi: Styles of Ceremony,’’ in Twentieth Century Interpretations
of ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi,’’ edited by Norman Rabkin. Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 79, 82; originally published
in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, 1962, pp. 133–47.
Craig, Sheryl. ‘‘‘She and I were twins’: Double Identity in The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in Publications of the
Missouri Philological Association, Vol. 19, 1994, p. 21.
Ekeblad, Inga-Stina. ‘‘The ‘Impure Art’ of John Webster,’’ in Twentieth Century Interpretations of
‘‘The Duchess of Malfi,’’ edited by Norman Rabkin. Prentice-Hall, 1968, p. 50; originally published in
Review of English Studies, Vol. 9, 1958, pp. 253-67.
Hallett, Charles A., and Elaine S. Hallett. The Revenger's Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs.
University of Nebraska Press, 1980, p. 286.
Moore, Don D. John Webster and His Critics 1617-1964. Louisiana State University Press, 1966, p. ix.
Turner, Kimberly A. ‘‘The Complexity of Webster's Duchess,’’ in the Ben Jonson Journal, Vol. 7, 2000, p.
Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabethan Dramatists, Modern Critical Views series. Chelsea House, 1986. This
collection of critical essays includes two essays about The Duchess of Malfi as well as essays about Webster's
most important contemporaries. In "Tragical Satire in The Duchess of Malfi,’’ Alvin B. Kernan describes
Bosola as the ideal, and one of the last, of the Elizabethan satirists. G. Wilson Knight contributes an essay
called simply ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi,’’ which examines image clusters in the play.
Boklund, Gunnar. ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi’’: Sources, Themes, Characters. Harvard University Press, 1962.
Boklund traces Webster's sources for the story of the Duchess, pointing out the places where Webster deviates
from these sources to make the story his own. The characterization of Antonio as humble but honest, for
example, is Webster's invention.
Knight, G. Wilson. ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in Elizabethan Dramatists, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern
Critical Views series. Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 85-107. Knight offers a close reading of the clusters of images
and symbols in the play and argues that the coherence of the play is not to be found in the logical structure of
the plot but in the non-rational resonance of the imagery.
Rabkin, Norman, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi.’’ Prentice-Hall, 1968.
This collection touches on the major critical questions about the play in ten critical essays, or
‘‘Interpretations,’’ and fourteen brief excerpts, or ‘‘View Points,’’ by scholars including T. S. Eliot and
Northrup Frye.
Thomson, Leslie. ‘‘Fortune and Virtue in The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in Comparative Drama, Vol. 33, No. 4,
1999-2000, pp. 474-94. Thomson compares the play with medieval and Renaissance iconography, illustrating
The Duchess of Malfi: Bibliography and Further Reading 49
the relationships between fortune, love, and death. She shows how the relationships between the Duchess
(fortune) and Antonio (love) are derived from earlier morality plays and emblem books.
Winston, Mathew. ‘‘Gendered Nostalgia in The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in The Renaissance Papers, 1998, pp.
103-13. Winston sees in the play the longing of Webster and his contemporaries for Queen Elizabeth I who
had been dead for a decade when The Duchess of Malfi was first performed. The Duchess's death in act 4 is
part of Webster's overall plan, which is to show in act 5 how the world decays when she is gone.

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