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THE DUCHESS OF MALFI previous version

John Webster (1580-1634)
John Webster is one of the major figures of Jacobean drama after Shakespeare but little is
known about his life. He was probably born close to 1578 in London, the son of a prominent coachmaker and member of the prestigious Company of Merchant Taylors. Webster most likely went to the
Merchant Taylors’ School.
His work in the theater began with the writing of collaborative plays in the early 1600s.
With Thomas Dekker, his main collaborator, he wrote Westward Ho (1604) and Northward
Ho (1605), both of which were published in 1607. He is also believed to have worked with William
Rowley, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, John Ford, and perhaps Philip Massinger.
Eight extant plays and some nondramatic verse and prose are wholly or partly his; the most standard
edition is The Complete Works of John Webster, ed. by F.L. Lucas,
Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14) are the two most frequently
staged Jacobean plays not written by Shakespeare. The White Devil, like Macbeth, is a tragedy of
action; and The Duchess of Malfi, like King Lear, is a tragedy of suffering. He is a follower of the
Senecan Revenge tradition. Webster turns from the mere horror of event to the deep and subtle
analysis of character. His plots are not well constructed and there is some crudeness of incident. He
deals with gloomy, supernatural themes, great crimes, turbulent emotions, and largeness of tragic
The Duchess of Malfi
The Cardinal
Antonio Bologna
Daniel de Bosola
Act 1
In the Duchess’s palace in Malfi, Antonio and Delio are discussing his return from France, and
how the French king runs his court, comparing it to an easily poisoned fountain. Bosola, has just
returned from his punishment. He has been in prison for having committed a murder for the Cardinal.
Bosola complains that he is like an injured soldier who can only depend on his crutches for support.
Antonio and Delio comment how he will surely come to no good if he is kept in neglect.
Antonio and Delio discuss that though the Cardinal and Duke appear good, they are in fact jealous,
conniving, and despicable. He adds that the Duchess is noble, temperate, beautiful, and intelligent.
Ferdinand asks his sister to make Bosola the manager of her horses. In reality, Bosola is to spy on
their sister.
The Duchess is young and beautiful but her brothers do not want her to remarry. Ferdinand
threatens her with death. They hope to preserve their honor by ensuring her purity, and to inherit her
fortune by forcing her to remain a widow. Once her brothers leave, she calls Antonio to dictate her
will. In this manner she proposes to Antonio and gives him her wedding ring. Cariola, the Duchess's
maid witnesses this, and the ceremony becomes legally binding. They become husband and wife.
Act 2
It is nine months later. In the Duchess’s Bosola muses on the mysterious way the Duchess is
acting of late. He believes she is pregnant, and aims to prove it by using apricots which would induce
labor. The Duchess accepts the fruit from Bosola, and quickly starts going into labor. She then retires
to her chamber claiming to be ill, with a worried Antonio following her.
Bosola, alone, realizes that the Duchess is indeed pregnant. He watches as Antonio and the
servants are in a commotion about a Swiss mercenary who had invaded the Duchess’s room, and the
loss of several jewels and gold utensils. Later Cariola, the lady’s maid, enters with good news once
Antonio is alone—he is the father of a son.
Bosola hears a cry and searches near the Duchess’ room. Antonio finds him and asks his
purpose in being there, since everyone had been instructed to be in their rooms. Antonio accuses him
of poisoning the Duchess and stealing valuables. Antonio accidentally drops a horoscope for his son’s
birth, which Bosola picks up. He plans to send it to the Duchess’s brothers with Castruccio.
In his room, the Cardinal and his mistress, Julia, are discussing their rendezvous when a
messenger calls the Cardinal away with an important message. Delio enters to find Julia alone. He
offers her money to be his mistress. Julia leaves to meet her husband, Castruccio. Delio fears that her
husband’s arrival means Antonio’s secret marriage is about to be revealed.
In Rome, an enraged Ferdinand, with the letter from Bosola, and his brother the Cardinal,
meet to discuss what they think is an awful treachery by their sister. Ferdinand is angry to the point of
shouting about his sister’s “whorish” behavior, and the Cardinal struggles to control his brother’s
temperamental outburst. Ferdinand resolves to discover the man his sister is seeing, threatening all.
Act 3
Two more years have passed. The Duchess has had two more children. The people think the
Duchess is a whore. Ferdinand hears of this and tells her that he has found a husband for her, the
Count Malateste. She refuses this. Ferdinand asks Bosola to discover the father of the three seemingly
illegitimate children. Ferdinand asks Bosola to acquire a duplicate key to the Duchess’s room.
Antonio comes up to the Duchess’s bedroom to spend the night, and they talk. When Antonio
leaves for a while, the Duchess keeps on talking. Ferdinand sneaks in and hears the Duchess talk
about her secret marriage. He is infuriated and gives her a knife, intending her to kill herself or her
husband. Antonio bursts in brandishing a pistol, but the Duchess dismisses him. to leave again when
Bosola knocks at the door.
In order to protect Antonio, she pretends that he has committed a theft; she banishes him from
Malfi, sending him to Ancona. Bosola defends him to the Duchess which moves her. She reveals to
Bosola that they are secretly married. Bosola pretends to support her and encourages her to join him.
He then informs the Cardinal who finds the Duchess, along with her family and has, them banished.
As they are leaving Ancona, Bosola delivers to the Duchess a letter from Ferdinand, which he
presents as one of forgiveness even though it is actually a threat to Antonio, which she suspects. The
Duchess urges Antonio to take the oldest child and go to Milan to find safety. Bosola and masked
guards then take the Duchess and her remaining children captive, on the orders of her brothers.
Act 4
The Duchess’s palace serves as a prison. Ferdinand is angered to find that the Duchess is
holding up well in imprisonment. In the darkness Ferdinand presents her with a dead man’s hand,
making her believe that it is Antonio’s, with her wedding ring on it. He then shows her wax corpses
of her family members to convince her they are dead. She believes them and resolves to die - her
despair is so deep it affects Bosola. He tries to stop Ferdinand from torturing the Duchess but fails.
Ferdinand lets loose several madmen to terrorise the duchess. Bosola sneaks in with them,
disguised as an old man, and tells the Duchess that he is there to make her tomb. She claims
superiority on him, “I am Duchess of Malfi still”. She remains calm. The executioners with cords and
a coffin come in. The Duchess makes a brave show, telling the executioners to “pull, and pull
strongly”, welcoming her strangulation. Cariola and the children are also strangled after struggling.
When Ferdinand confronts the Duchess’s body, he is suddenly overtaken with remorse saying
“Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle, She died young”. He betrays Bosola by refusing his promised
reward and shows signs of insanity. The Duchess shows a final sign of life, and before she truly dies,
Bosola tells her that Antonio is still alive. Bosola shows genuine sadness when she dies. Bosola,
remorseful at last, takes her body to the care of some good women for proper burial.
Act 5
Outside Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s palace in Milan, Antonio returns to see if he can
reconcile with Ferdinand and the Cardinal, but Delio is doubtful as to the wisdom of this. Delio asks
Pescara, a marquis, to give him possession of Antonio’s estate for safekeeping, but Pescara denies
him. Julia presents Pescara with a letter from the Cardinal, which states that she should receive
Antonio’s property, and which Pescara grants to her. When Delio confronts him about this, Pescara
says that he would not give an innocent man a property that was taken from someone by such vile
means (the Cardinal took the property for himself once Antonio was banished), for it will now
become an appropriate place for the Cardinal’s mistress. This statement impresses the hidden
Antonio. When Pescara leaves to visit an ill Ferdinand, Antonio decides to pay a night-time visit to
the Cardinal.
In the palace, Pescara, come to visit Ferdinand, is discussing his condition with the doctor,
who believes Ferdinand may have lycanthropia: a condition whereby he believes he is a wolf. The
doctor thinks there is a chance of a relapse, in which case Ferdinand's diseased behaviour would
return; namely, digging up dead bodies at night. Pescara and the doctor make way for the mad
Ferdinand, who attacks his own shadow. The Cardinal, who has entered with Ferdinand, manages to
catch Bosola, who has been watching Ferdinand's ravings. The Cardinal assigns Bosola to seek out
Antonio (by following Delio) and then slay him. After the Cardinal leaves, Bosola does not even
make it to the door before he is stopped by Julia, who is brandishing a pistol. She accuses him of
having given her a love potion, and threatens to kill him to end her love. Bosola manages to disarm
her and convince her to gather intelligence for him about the Cardinal. Bosola then hides while Julia
uses all of her persuasive powers to get the Cardinal to reveal his part in the death of his sister and her
children. The Cardinal then makes Julia swear to keep silent, forcing her to kiss the poisoned cover of
a bible, causing her to die almost instantly. Bosola comes out of hiding to confront the Cardinal,
although he declares that he still intends to kill Antonio. Giving him a master key, the Cardinal takes
his leave. However, once he is alone, Bosola swears to protect Antonio, and goes off to bury Julia's
In a courtyard outside the palace, Delio and Antonio are near the Duchess’s tomb; as they talk,
an echo from the tomb mirrors their conversation. Delio leaves to find Antonio’s eldest son, and
Antonio leaves to escape the distressing echo of his wife’s resting place.
In his apartments in Milan, the Cardinal enters, trying to dissuade Pescara, Malateste,
Roderigo and Grisolan from staying to keep watch over Ferdinand. He goes so far as to say that he
might feign mad fits to test their obedience; if they come to help, they will be in trouble. They
unwillingly exit, and Bosola enters to find the Cardinal planning to have him killed. Antonio,
unaware of Bosola, sneaks in while it is dark, planning to seek audience with the Cardinal. Not
realising who has entered, Bosola attacks Antonio; he is horrified to see his mistake. He manages to
relate the death of the Duchess and children to the dying Antonio, who is glad to be dying in sadness,
now that life is pointless for him. Bosola then leaves to bring down the Cardinal.
Near Julia’s lodging, the Cardinal, unaware of what has just happened, is reading a book when
Bosola enter with a servant, who is bearing Antonio’s body. He threatens the Cardinal, who calls for
help. Help is not forthcoming, for the gentlemen from the beginning of the previous scene, while they
can hear him calling, have no desire to go to his aid (because of his previous order to not at any cost
try to help Ferdinand). Bosola kills the servant of the Cardinal first, and then stabs the Cardinal.
Ferdinand bursts in, also attacking his brother; in the fight, he accidentally wounds Bosola. Bosola
kills Ferdinand, and is left with the dying Cardinal. The gentlemen who heard the cries now enter the
room to witness the deaths of the Cardinal and Bosola. Delio enters too late with Antonio’s eldest
son, and laments the unfortunate events that have passed.
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.
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 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
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.
Ferdinand, the Duke of Calbria, 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. 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."
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 Cardinal is the 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."
Daniel de Bosola
Bosola is the Duchess's Manager 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.
Politics and Corruption
Webster juxtaposes the ideal court of France with the political situation in Italy, whose
corruption is exemplified by Duke Ferdinand and his brother the Cardinal, who deal illicitly
throughout the play. Both men make efforts to appear temperate, courtly, and honorable, but inside,
they are both evil and corrupt. The deadly Cardinal, a man ready to employ lesser beings (such as
Bosola) to commit murders for him, then cast them aside as rotten fruit. He is no stranger to murder
himself, however, as he slays his own mistress by making her kiss a poisoned book. The Cardinal
gambles, keeps the wife of one of his courtiers as a mistress, and fights duels. Conspiracy and intrigue
are the air he breathes.
Duke Ferdinand is his brother's willing conspirator in villainy, and at times his rages shock
even the Cardinal's sense of decorum. The Duke's corruption in the end destroys his sanity: desire for
his own sister. Realizing she has married and borne children by Antonio, his rage drives him to do
everything in his power to bring his sister to despair, madness and death, but in the end he is driven
mad himself. These two perverse villains destroy or poison all that is within their reach, all semblance
of warmth or human affection.
The Duchess of Malfi makes an argument about the dangers (both physical and spiritual) of
corruption. Though there are momentary gains and successes achieved by the brothers’ plans,
ultimately the play ends with the slaughter of nearly everyone involved in their web of influence. This
ending suggests that corruption yields disastrous results; even beyond death, corruption can lead to
damnation. This point is made explicitly when Bosola tells Ferdinand that taking a higher position in
exchange for spying on the Duchess would make him a traitor and Ferdinand a corruptor, thereby
leading both of them to hell.
Finally, the death of all of the play’s major figures of political power leaves a vacuum at the
end of the play; there is no new leader to take over. To show this, the play’s final lines, often reserved
for the highest-ranking character, are spoken by a mere courier. Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s
positions aren’t filled, but are merely left vacant at the play’s end. Thus political corruption and
duplicitous behavior has the potential to lead to dire personal and religious consequences, and
possibly to the collapse of government itself.
The Duchess’s marriage to Antonio is not just remarkable because she was the pursuer and
because she married against her brothers’ will. It is also remarkable because she married someone of
a lower class. During their courtship, Antonio is careful not to appear to ambitious, which is
considered dangerous for someone in a lower class. Further, in the marriage scene, the Duchess
laments the misery of being high born, which forces her to woo because no one dares to woo her.
Such a marriage would have been progressive and scandalous at the time. The significance of this
marriage is not lost on Bosola, another one of the play’s lowerclassmen with upward mobility. When
Bosola finds out about the marriage, he is stunned. He asks if in such an ambitious time, is there
really a woman who would marry a man simply for his worth, without all of his wealth and honors.
And when she confirms the marriage, Bosola launches into a speech about how praiseworthy the
Duchess is for marrying Antonio, saying that she shows that some benefits in the world can still come
from merit.
The marriage and Bosola’s reaction to it, when paired with other details, suggest the play’s
treatment of class in general. First, we can note that Webster himself was not noble born; he was the
son of a tailor. Next, we can note that Delio, a minor character and friend of Antonio (with whom he
shares a social class), speaks the play’s opening and closing lines. While Shakespeare, for example,
often gave closing lines to the character of the highest status, Webster inverts this tradition, in part to
emphasize the fact that most upper class characters have died. Class is shown, on the one hand, to be
binding and restricting (as it is one of the reasons the marriage is so scandalous and ends so
tragically), but Webster’s play also suggests that class is fluid, that figures can rise and fall in status,
and that true worth and merit should be given a greater value than birth, wealth, and social status.
Status of Women
The ideal quality her brothers would foist on the Duchess is that of being submissive to (their)
male control, though ironically widowhood was often the first time women might be independent of
the control of husbands or male relatives. However, the Duchess went against her brothers' wishes
and remarried. Her assertion of her freedom of choice is best illustrated in her soliloquy following her
conversation with her brothers when they strictly advise her to not even think about remarrying.
Immediately after telling her brothers that she will never remarry, she says to herself: "If all my royal
kindred/ Lay in my way unto this marriage,/ I'd make them my low foot-steps." The central conflict of
the play involves the Duchess' desire to marry for love and her brothers' desire to prevent her from
remarrying (to inherit her estate and control her choices). Throughout, she refuses to submit to her
brothers' attempts at control and even asserts her identity and self-control at the moment of her death,
announcing "I am Duchess of Malfi still" (4.2). Both her choices and her brothers' choices lead to
their deaths and destruction, and the character of Bosola, who would protect the man he accidentally
kills (Antonio), demonstrates that even though men would like to consider themselves authors of their
own fates, at times, forces beyond their control intervene. Ultimately, and especially through Bosola's
speeches, the play offers the dark view on the impossibility of making moral choices in an unstable
world governed by the corruption represented by the Aragonian brethren.
The internal struggled the Duchess faced when fighting her brothers and hiding her marriage,
was all part of Webster’s intention to reflect and refer to the Roman paradigm's and Senecan
tragedy’s. This compelled through the Duchess's speech and actions.