John Webster

(revised 1617–1623?)

full synopsis available, click here


Antonio Bologna is steward of the Duchess' household. When the Duchess confesses her love, he secretly marries her. They have three children together, but when the Duchess' brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, come close to learning their secret, the Duchess conspires to make Antonio seem a thief. Under this guise, Antonio is able to escape to Milan with some of the Duchess' riches there to await her flight to him. When the plan fails and the Duchess is killed, Antonio returns to seek justice. He is ironically murdered when Bosola, who seeks to join him, mistakes him for Ferdinand.


One of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


Daniel de Bosola is a malcontent who has done good service for the noble family, especially for the Cardinal and Ferdinand, but he has received nothing in return. He is ultimately given the post of Gentleman of the Horse to the Duchess. The post is a guise, Bosola is sent by the Cardinal and Ferdinand to spy upon his mistress. When he later defends Antonio's reputation, the Duchess mistakes him for a friend and confides her secret marriage to him. He tells the Cardinal and Ferdinand that the Duchess is indeed married and so promulgates the tragedy. Bosola is next made to torture the Duchess in an insane asylum, showing her wax replicas of her family and pretending to her that they are dead. He pleads with the brothers to let the woman have a Bible but is at last made to strangle her unshriven. After the murder, Bosola turns hero revenger, seeking to murder the brothers. Instead, he accidentally kills Antonio, thinking him Ferdinand, when he was ironically trying to join forces with Antonio. At the end he kills both the Cardinal and Ferdinand but not before Ferdinand deals him a mortal blow. Bosola's name could come from the Italian Bussola, a compass. The compass at the time of Webster's play was reputed to have been invented in Amalfi by Gioia.


One of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


Brother to Ferdinand and the Duchess. He is a secret villain, conducting his evil through agents. He and his brother do not want their widowed sister to remarry and threaten her if she should. The Cardinal is a libertine and is conducting an affair with Julia, wife to old Castruccio. When he fears he cannot trust his mistress, he murders her by having her kiss a Bible that he has poisoned. He orders the deaths of Antonio and the children of Antonio and the Duchess. He also has his sister, the Duchess, imprisoned. Through Bosola, the Cardinal has the Duchess tortured with visions of her family's death and the screaming of madmen. Finally, he has her strangled to death. Bosola turns upon him and murders him.


Servant to the Duchess. She is the hidden witness to her lady's secret marriage to Antonio. While she remains faithful to her mistress, she is not as strong when she is placed in the asylum with her. She is badly shaken during the ordeal and must be psychologically propped up by the Duchess. At last she is removed from the asylum to be murdered. She cries to be shriven and in a last desperate act claims to be pregnant, but her plea goes unheeded. She is strangled and her body carried from the stage.


An old lord. Husband to Julia, who is Delio's erstwhile lover and the Cardinal's mistress. Bosola sends him to Rome with a letter to the Cardinal when it is discovered that the duchess has borne a child.


The three otherwise unnamed children of the Duchess and Antonio. The night that eldest is born, Antonio drops his horoscope and Bosola finds it thus revealing the Duchess' secret. The horoscope predicts the child will die young. Two more children are then born to the Duchess and Antonio. Later, Antonio escapes with the eldest to Milan. When the Duchess is being tortured in the asylum for the insane, she is shown a waxwork of Antonio and the elder son slain and made to believe that the waxwork is real. At play's end, Delio brings in the elder son to become Duke and restore order to Amalfi. See also Duke (of Malfi)'s son.


Antonio's friend. A sounding board and confidant to Antonio, Delio seems a respectable man. Nevertheless he plots an assignation with Julia, his erstwhile lover who has since become wife to old Castruccio. He has both the first and last lines of the play, calling in both instances for nobility and integrity. In the end he appears with the eldest son of Antonio and the Duchess and plans to ease the child's way to the throne. The irony in Delio's plan is that the boy's horoscope earlier revealed that the boy would die young.


Two doctors figure:
  1. The First Doctor tells the Marquis de Pescara that Ferdinand is a werewolf in V.ii. He believes Ferdinand fears him and that by that he will be able to treat the distracted man, but instead Ferdinand throws him down and beats him.
  2. The Second Doctor is one of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


The titular character. A strong woman, she calls Antonio, her steward, to her to dictate to him her will, both literally and figuratively. She confesses her love, and they secretly marry per verba de pręsenti much against the threats of her two brothers, the Cardinal and her younger twin, Ferdinand. She has three children by Antonio. When the brothers come near to discovering her secret, she sends Antonio away pretending he has absconded with her wealth. She plans to join him by feigning a pilgrimage to Ancona, but she confides her plans to Bosola, her brothers' spy, whom she has mistakenly thought her friend. She is captured and tortured in an insane asylum, but demonstrates a strength of character that cannot be broken. At last she is murdered at her brothers' commandment. Her death occurs in IV. Bosola strangles her while she kneels in a prayerful attitude. Her nobility in distress and death and her last word, "Mercy," prompt Bosola to cast off his evil and become her avenger in V.


The title of Ferdinand.


A "ghost character". The duchess' former husband. He is dead before the play begins.


A "ghost character". Mentioned only once and likely a mistake of Webster's. He is the child of the duchess and her late husband, but although he should probably take the dukedom at play's end, he is completely forgotten after his first mention.


A disembodied voice heard by Antonio and Delio. The text keeps the echo purposefully unidentified. It could be a simple echo that only seems to return poignant answers to Antonio's questions, but it could equally well be the voice of the Duchess' spirit speaking to her husband.


A "ghost character". Malateste delivers the news to the Cardinal that the Emperor has agreed to give the Cardinal a soldier's commission.


One of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


Duke of Calabria. He is the younger twin of the Duchess. Obsessed with his sister's sexuality and disguising an incestuous desire for her, Ferdinand ultimately goes mad, believing himself to be a wolf. He is the open villain, willing to do murder himself. In the end he stabs both Bosola and his own brother, the Cardinal, as Bosola stabs him to death. Ferdinand is the first appearance of a werewolf in English literature.


A non-speaking character.


One of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


A lord. He sees Silvio off for Milan. He learns from the servants that the Duchess is ill and that all lords are to be locked into their chambers. Grisolan, Malateste, Pescara, and Roderigo are the lords whom the Cardinal orders not to enter his chambers even if he should cry out. Their observance of his orders leads to the Cardinal's death.


Wife of old Castruccio. She is also Delio's one-time lover and now is mistress to the Cardinal. When she loses the confidence of the Cardinal, he murders her by having her kiss a poisoned cross on a Bible.


One of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


Madmen are sent to torture the Duchess in IV. They succeed only in proving to her that she, so unlike them, is not mad for all of her brothers' plotting. They comprise an Astrologer, Broker, Doctor, English Tailor, Farmer, Gentleman Usher, Lawyer, and Priest.


A Count. Ferdinand suggests that the Duchess should marry him, but she refers to him as "a stick of sugar candy." Later, Malateste delivers the news to the Cardinal that the Emperor has agreed to give the Cardinal a soldier's commission. We learn through Silvio and Delio that he is a soldier in show only and is in fact a coward. He later witnesses Ferdinand's lycanthropy. Malateste, Grisolan, Pescara, and Roderigo are the lords whom the Cardinal orders not to enter his chambers even if he should cry out. Their observance of his orders leads to the Cardinal's death.


A midwife. Early in II she becomes the butt of Bosola's misogynistic wit.


A soldier. In the military camp at Milan, Pescara confides to Delio and Silvio that he does not trust the political machinations of statesmen. He is especially wary of Ferdinand. In V Delio asks him to give him the citadel of St. Bennet that belonged to Antonio before Antonio's banishment. Pescara denies it to his friend and gives it immediately thereafter to the Cardinal. He then explains to Delio that the land was taken from Antonio wrongfully, and he would not stain his friend with that wrong by giving Delio the land. He is first to reveal that Ferdinand has succumbed to a frenzy. When he goes to Ferdinand, the Doctor tells Pescara that Ferdinand suffers from lycanthropy, believing himself to be a wolf. Pescara, Grisolan, Malateste, and Roderigo are the lords whom the Cardinal orders not to enter his chambers even if he should cry out. Their observance of his orders leads to the Cardinal's death. It is Pescara, however, who decides that the Cardinal's cries for help are in earnest and decides to break down the doors to effect a rescue.


They are at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto. They act as chorus to the dumb show and witness the investiture of the Cardinal as soldier and the banishment of Antonio and the Duchess in III.iv.


One of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


A lord. He sees Silvio off for Milan. He learns from the servants that the Duchess is ill and all lords are to be locked into their chambers and gallantly accepts this. Roderigo, Grisolan, Malateste, Pescara and are the lords whom the Cardinal orders not to enter his chambers even if he should cry out. Their observance of his orders leads to the Cardinal's death.


A lord. He is first seen praising Antonio's skill at the tilt. He soon leaves for the military camp at Milan. There he informs Ferdinand that Malateste is a foolish and cowardly soldier.


One of the Madmen who torments the Duchess.


Background: The Duchess has been widowed. Her two brothers, Ferdinand (her twin) and the Cardinal, are anxious lest she remarry. They are mainly concerned that their honor will be compromised (a virgin marrying was considered normal, but a widow remarrying was considered lustful and the object of fun and derision-compare Chaucer's Wife of Bath and Shakespeare's Gertrude from Hamlet for two aspects of this opinion). Because the Duchess rules a conquered land (she and her brothers are Spanish, from Aragon, and rule over the Southern Italian port city of Malfi), the brothers fear that both her honor and her power (hence, their own) will be compromised if the subjects lose respect for her.

I.i In the court is a handsome fellow named Antonio. He has a best friend, Delio, and the play begins with the return of Antonio to Malfi from a sojourn in France. France is held up as the model of a perfect court-a place where service is rewarded, where the ruler listens to the advice of his wise counselors, where flatterers are kept away. They see Bosola (pronounced BAH-zo-la) and comment upon him. Bosola is a malcontent, a disenchanted soldier who has not won advancement in the court despite his valiant deeds.

Bosola "haunts" the Cardinal in order to win preferment, but is rebuffed. Bosola tells Antonio his opinion of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, that they are both unworthy-even unstable-nobles; the Cardinal represents the corruption in the church, Ferdinand the corruption in the secular world. Antonio worries to himself that Bosola's "foul melancholy" will "poison all his goodness."

I.ii We learn of Antonio's skill in jousting, his valor, and that his position is that of "master of the Duchess's household."

Ferdinand displays his instability when he rebukes his sycophants for laughing out of turn-we begin to see that Ferdinand is a dangerous, possibly maniacal fellow.

I.iii The Cardinal and Ferdinand sternly advise the Duchess not to marry again. Their admonitions are full of dire consequences and thinly veiled threats. They are not convinced that their warnings have had the desired effect on the Duchess, and so they determine to place a spy in her household in order to communicate any wedding plans that might be in the offing. They consider Antonio, but decide he is too honest. They decide on Bosola, and Ferdinand tempts him with money to do the spying. Bosola is reluctant, but ultimately accepts the post.

Ferdinand is horrified by the thought of his sister's sexuality and cannot seem to get off the subject in his discourse. Every comment seems to remind him of the copulation of his sister with some secret lover, and the thought drives him into near fits of rage. He is on the edge of insanity. He proffers Bosola to the Duchess's court, and Bosola is accepted as master of the horse.

The Duchess asks her confidant and maid, Cariola (pronounced CARE-y-ola), to hide behind an arras. She then calls Antonio in and woos him. She is concerned lest she be considered too lustful in her suit (a plea that is prompted only by love). He in turn is concerned lest he be considered ambitious in accepting her suit (he actually loves her). In a touching, gentle scene, they come to a point of equality. The Duchess and Antonio marry one another in secret, employing a de praesenti form of marriage. Cariola, of course, has heard all and can act as witness, which was the Duchess's plan all along.

Act II opens, and at lest one year has passed. The Duchess is pregnant, though she tries to hide the fact under bulky clothing and an excuse of being ill. Antonio has recently confessed his secret marriage to Delio. Bosola suspects the truth and plays a dirty trick on the Duchess. Knowing that pregnant women crave strange foods, he brings her apricots, which she eats lustily. Only after she has eaten them does Bosola tell her that they were young apricots, ripened in horse dung, and should have been peeled first. The Duchess calls for a litter to be carried off, and Bosola comments that another noble lady had just such a litter when she was pregnant.

Antonio fears that the litter indicates that the Duchess has fallen into labor. He fears that Bosola will learn their secret. Delio suggests that Antonio accuse Bosola of poisoning the Duchess with the apricots in order to hide the Duchess's sudden illness. Antonio does this.

II.ii In order to disguise the birth, Antonio announces that four thousand ducats have been stolen from the Duchess's cabinet and that all persons in the court are to be locked in their rooms for the night in order to prevent the thief from escaping.

Antonio sends Delio to Rome.

Cariola enters with the child, a boy, and Antonio goes to draw up the child's horoscope.

II.iii Bosola is about in the court, having heard a woman scream. He's creeping about, listening at doors, when Antonio discovers him. Antonio covers his own reason for being out in the court at night by saying that he, too, heard a noise, which he suspected came from the Duchess's chamber. He dissuades Bosola from entering the chamber, but, as he leaves, Antonio drops the horoscope. Bosola finds it. The horoscope is proof that a child was born that night. It predicts that the child shall die young by violent means.

Bosola sends the letter to Rome and the Cardinal via old Castruchio.

II.iv Meanwhile, the Cardinal is dallying with Julia, who is Old Castruchio's young wife. We learn that the Cardinal is a lecher and a misogynist. In the midst of their love play they are interrupted by the arrival of Delio (who we learn is one of Julia's former suitors). Delio seems to be there to win Julia when and if her husband dies. But as he is proposing his suit (giving her gold-possibly for an assignation), news comes of Old Castruchio's arrival and a letter he has brought which has upset the Cardinal. Delio suspects that his friend, Antonio, has been discovered.

II.v The Cardinal and Ferdinand read the letter from Bosola. The Cardinal is a cool, plotting villain (as is Lorenzo in The Spanish Tragedy); Ferdinand is a mad villain (as is Balthazar in The Spanish Tragedy). Ferdinand has a tirade over the discovery of his sister's misconduct-not knowing nor caring that she is married. His insanity shocks even the Cardinal, his brother.

Act III begins with the surprise that, although at least two more years have passed (the Duchess having borne two more children, a boy and a girl: one year if they, like Ferdinand and the Duchess, are twins), the brothers have done nothing. The "common rabble" has learned of the Duchess's children and, also not knowing of her marriage, have labeled her a strumpet. Ferdinand breaks in and announces that he has a husband for the Duchess, but she rejects the idea (after all, it is a mere Count that Ferdinand suggests).

Bosola has been unable to learn who has fathered the children, and Ferdinand tells him to keep searching.

III.ii is the bedchamber scene, which is the only scene other than the wooing/wedding scene of Act I wherein we see the Duchess and Antonio alone and able to express their love. While the Duchess is prattling about her love, Antonio plays a trick on her by sneaking out of the room. He bids Cariola to do the same.

But the fun backfires when Ferdinand sneaks in and overhears the Duchess talking about her love. He surprises her and gives her their father's poniard with which to kill herself. She tells him that she is married, but the news fails to appease Ferdinand. He swears to be revenged on the husband/lover.

In order to protect Antonio, the Duchess invents a story that he has been embezzling from the household account. He is to be banished. The banishment is a ruse. He is to fly with her jewels and treasure to Ancona, set up a house, and there will she flee. There they can both be safe, with their children, from the intrigues of the court.

The plan goes off well, Antonio is convincingly banished, but when Bosola (also deceived by the plan) defends the honorable Antonio, the Duchess believes that she can trust him. She tells Bosola everything. Bosola suggests that she disguise her own flight by pretending to go on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Loretto, which is nearby Ancona. She agrees.

III.iii Bosola passes his information to the brothers. They are horrified that she would disguise her foul escape in the robes of a holy pilgrimage. III.iv In a dumb show the Cardinal is installed as a soldier, surrendering his cross and clerical robes. He then banishes Antonio and the Duchess from Ancona. III.v The Duchess, fearing that they will be apprehended, suggests that she and Antonio split up. She tells him to take the eldest boy. He agrees and leaves for Milan.

Bosola enters and takes the Duchess and the two youngest children.

Act IV begins several weeks/months (?) later. The Duchess has been imprisoned for some time. She endures stoically. Bosola tells her that Ferdinand wishes to repent himself of his cruel treatment of her; but since he has vowed never to look on her again, he must come to her in darkness. The Duchess agrees and has the candles removed. Ferdinand enters and offers that the Duchess should kiss his hand. But instead of offering her his real hand, he gives her a severed hand to kiss. He tells her that it is Antonio's hand and displays a tableau (we later learn they are artificial figures); the tableau appears to be the piled bodies of Antonio and the children. He tells her they are dead.

Ferdinand later tells Bosola of his trick-that the bodies were wax figures intended to bring the Duchess to despair. Bosola begs Ferdinand to send her "penitential garment" and to "furnish her with beads and prayerbooks." This Ferdinand rejects and sends Bosola to search for Antonio in Milan instead.

IV.ii Ferdinand has the prison surrounded by madmen in an attempt to torment the Duchess. She reacts not by going mad but instead by using the madmen as help in proving that she is still in her right wits. Bosola enters and strangles the Duchess, has the executioners strangle Cariola, and Ferdinand has the two younger children strangled. Ferdinand tells Bosola two interesting things in IV.ii. right after the executions:

1) that the Duchess was the elder twin by minutes, and
2) that he had hoped "to have gain'd an infinite mass of treasure by her death" had she remained a widow.
When Bosola demands reward for his service to Ferdinand, Ferdinand rewards him with a pardon for the murder rather than any preferment of riches. When Bosola reprimands Ferdinand's niggardliness, Ferdinand banishes Bosola and leaves. The Duchess, not quite dead, revives a little, and Bosola tells her that Antonio and the eldest son are not murdered, but that she saw a wax representation of them only. She then dies with "Mercy" on her lips.

Act V breaks from the structural and literal construction of the play by shifting focus from the Duchess to Bosola's tragedy. Antonio learns that Ferdinand is in Milan, sick with an apoplexy or frenzy. Antonio determines to go to the Cardinal's chamber at midnight-as once Ferdinand did to the Duchess's-and there seek his forgiveness. Delio swears to second him in this dangerous enterprise.

V.ii Ferdinand is quite mad by now-taken to leaping upon his shadow for following him. The doctors fear he has lycanthropia–that is, he believes himself a wolf, or werewolf.

Julia actively courts Bosola. Bosola uses Julia to get information about the Cardinal. While Bosola listens from behind the arras, the Cardinal confesses to Julia that he was responsible for ordering the deaths of the Duchess and her two children. He swears her to secrecy, but she says it is not in her power to keep this news secret (meaning Bosola has overheard it). The Cardinal misunderstands and believes she means she cannot keep such a secret to herself. He instructs her to kiss the Bible in order to swear that she will not betray the secret. She does so, but the Bible is poisoned, and she dies.

Bosola reveals himself, but the Cardinal promises honors for him if he agrees to kill Antonio. Bosola agrees. But Bosola secretly plans to join with Antonio and help Antonio avenge the murders.

V.iii is a clever bit of stagecraft. It takes place in a ruined church near the Duchess's grave. As Antonio and Delio talk, an echo like the voice of the Duchess responds in apropos commentary to their discussion. In it, they discuss the dangers in their plan and the possibility of its failure and the loss of their lives.

V.iv In a darkened courtyard Bosola overhears the Cardinal's plan to do away with him once he has killed Antonio. He hides in ambush to kill the Cardinal when he returns. He mistakes Antonio for the Cardinal and stabs him in the dark.

V.v Bosola takes Antonio's body to the Cardinal. Bosola tells the Cardinal that he has come to kill him. A servant has barred the doors to his escape. When the Cardinal calls for help, his minions enter above and believe the Cardinal is jesting about his peril. Pescara grows concerned that the Cardinal is in earnest and rushes off to break open the doors. Bosola kills the servant to keep him from unbarring the doors. He shows the Cardinal Antonio's body, then stabs the Cardinal as agent of Antonio's revenge. Ferdinand enters, crazed, and stabs both the dying Cardinal and Bosola. Bosola stabs Ferdinand. All die.

Delio brings on the eldest son of the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio, he is to rule the purged dukedom now.


The Duchess is another of the Jacobean impudent women. She is strong willed and in control of the situation she creates. She can be each: tender and womanly (to Antonio), tender and motherly (to the children), hard and steadfast (to brothers), clever (in plots to wed with Cariola as witness, to save Antonio with a trumped-up accusation and banishment, to flee under guise of pilgrimage), and valiant (in her ability to bear imprisonment, madmen, the supposed murder of her husband and children, and in the face of her own execution). She appears to be evil and lustful to the people of the play, but the audience sees her otherwise.

Bosola is an interesting malcontent. He has some control over the happenings. But he does not have the total control that Malevole has in The Malcontent. He is something of a Machiavel, too, in his willingness to use the tools of his adversaries in achieving his own ends (and, for this, he is tainted by those tools). His reluctance at being made a spy in the Duchess's household is interesting, as is his competence in that post. He is made fully rounded by Act IV when he prays for the prayerbooks, to effect the Duchess's penitence before her murder, and by his kind gesture toward the dying Duchess, telling her of the safety of Antonio and her child. In Act V he is the center of attention, and his tragedy finishes the play. He tries to absolve himself of his part in the crimes by joining with Antonio to avenge those crimes on the Cardinal and Ferdinand. His mistaken killing of Antonio brings to dramatic conclusion his own downfall. He simply is not able to repent his crimes. He may only exacerbate them. He is, however, the engine of the successful conclusion and the destruction of evil. He is the killer of the black brothers, but his rather unnecessary killing of the servant (an innocent bystander) to prevent the doors being opened mitigates even this. He is a paradox-a criminal/critic/ revenger who kills a number of people in an attempt to prove that he is good.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal represent the corruption in the state and church within the world of the play. They are sharply contrasted by the court of France. The theme of the opening act-the ideal court juxtaposed to this evil court-echoes throughout the play. They represent (falsely) a highly moral voice, seeming to disapprove of the Duchess's lust, when in fact they are concerned only for their own honor and power. This fact becomes patent in III.iii when they are horrified by the Duchess's feigned religious pilgrimage to disguise her flight. Their hypocrisy is blatant-they, a lecher in a Cardinal's robes and a madman in a duke's coronet, abhor the decent woman who flies them and their assured wrath only because she effects that flight in the habit of a pilgrim.

These characters seem to be Webster's main interest; the others play functionary roles-viz.Antonio, the bold and good husband; his main point of interest is in his ability to allow a woman to be his superior. It is of great interest that, given the time of its creation, this play can represent a man praising a woman by what was considered at the time male attributes (i.e.her speech, see I.ii.112-119). Still he can be accepted as both a virtuous and wise man and an appropriate lover. Note also the functionary roles of Cariola and Delio (the trusty confidantes), Julia (the lusty wench), and the children (the innocents who don't even have lines)-all seem to be relatively flat character types when compared to the other, fully developed characters.

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Notes of interest:

This play represents the first appearance of the image of a werewolf in English literature. Ferdinand's delusion is a good indication of how the malady was viewed in seventeenth-century England (as opposed to Hollywood treatments of the twentieth).

The title page indicates that this play was "presented privately at the Blackfriars and publicly at the Globe." But the play was probably conceived for the more intimate surrounding of Blackfriars. The King's Men had rented Blackfriars in 1609, so there is sufficient room to conjecture that Webster began writing The Duchess of Malfi with a Blackfriars' production in mind:

First, there is a need for darkness (II.iii; IV.i.30 ff.; V.iv.40 ff.), which could not be adequately met in the Globe (cf. the need for darkness in Macbeth, also suggesting a private theatre-or at least an indoor theatre production, perhaps at court).
Second, The Act divisions seem to cater to the well-established tradition of having entr'acte intermissions in the private theatres, which are not to be found in the public presentations (between Acts I & II a year passes, between Acts II & III two more years pass, between acts III & IV Bosola would have to turn right around after an exit and re-enter. Also some time seems to have passed between the arrest of the Duchess at the end of Act III and the discussion of her imprisonment at the beginning of Act IV. Additionally, between Acts IV & V there is a shift from Malfi to Milan and a dramatic shift from the Duchess's tragedy to Bosola's).
The play, Shakespearean in construction, is based on an actual historical event. The histories of the Italian reporters, however, are on the side of the brothers and paint a picture of a lewd and lecherous Duchess.

This play, unlike many Jacobean dramas, has an unambiguous moral vision. Even Bosola, who waivers between good and evil, has no trouble distinguishing right from wrong. Webster's moral vision of sex is patent in III.ii-the bedchamber scene-in which he seems to be saying that the opposite of lechery is not chastity or abstinence, but mutual love. This strikes one as a very modern view of sex not as something dirty, but something beautiful when shared between two persons in love and for the purpose of procreation.

The main tension in the play is between the public and private virtues. The Cardinal and Ferdinand appear to be the wronged parties publicly, but their private lives indicate their lechery and insanity. The Duchess, conversely, appears a whore publicly, but in private she is a warm, good, and virtuous woman.

The play delights in the supernatural. References to witches, devils, ghosts, superstitions, and the like abound. Characters seem to haunt scenes rather than appear in them. This is most obvious in Bosola, who, in his first line, tells the Cardinal that he haunts him still, and when later he is seen to creep about the Duchess's court at night as a specter, looking for clues. There are other obvious points, as when the brothers accuse the Duchess of witchcraft, devil worship, and when the Duchess likens the severed hand trick to some sort of witchcraft by Ferdinand. But there also seems to be a haunting presence over the entire play-the presence of the malevolent forces at work, unchecked, in the world. The forces set in motion by the brothers, and through their agent, Bosola, seem to permeate every scene of the play, haunting the action with the vague dread of something about to leap.

Webster's style is interesting to note. He manages to introduce most characters via another character's commentary. This economical style introduces to the audience a trustworthy picture of each character and develops accurate expectations for each. Webster (as did Marston before) also has a taste for overblown rhetoric, but (also like Marston) makes his excesses palatable to an audience by having onstage characters recognize and comment on one another's rhetorical extravagances (see, e.g. I.ii.127-28).

The play itself opens with two virtuous characters, Antonio and Delio, talking about the state of the world of the play. Their opening scene should be played above in order to facilitate the image of hell opening up on stage below them as they consider the differences between the ideal court of France with the court of Malfi with all of its shortcomings.

Controlling images arise throughout the play:

the image of the poisoned fountainhead contaminating the land it should be nourishing,
the image of merit combined with unrequited service, and
the image of corruption in both church and state (especially the poisoned Bible and the insanity and cruelty of Ferdinand.)
the image of bestial, animal love (The Cardinal's lechery, Julia's wantonness, and Ferdinand's preoccupation with his sister's sexual exploits) contrasted to pure and noble love (The Duchess and Antonio's secret marriage and its purpose to breed children rather than to engage in sexual luxury, the love of friends-Antonio and Delio, the Duchess and Cariola-and the love of parent to child-especially the Duchess's for her children) is an important theme.
the image of death is everywhere, even in the wooing scene, which begins with the Duchess calling in Antonio in order to dictate her last will and testament.
Another important image is that of all coming to nothing. In V.iii.-the echo scene-the action takes place at a fortification built on the ruins of an abbey; not even the church can stand forever. Also worthy of note under this image is the Cardinal's last line, V.v.88-89, "let me be laid by, and never thought of." And finally, Bosola, in his last speech, iterates the image of the echo scene when he says, "We are only like dead walls, or vaulted graves / That, ruin'd, yields no echo."
Of course, the "we" he refers to are the evil forces that he has not, despite his best efforts, been able to transcend. The virtuous elements in life-most notably the Duchess-do yield echoes after they are "ruin'd."

The torture scene-Act IV-is an early example of what came to be called Theatre of Cruelty. Ferdinand won't send prayerbooks to his sister because he wishes to damn her soul; his temporal revenge is not enough. The odd point is that this is a revenge play wherein the revengers work to undo a good character that has undone them.

The topsy-turvy nature of the play is manifest in this torture scene. Two of the most famous lines from Jacobean drama occur in this sequence to underscore the topsy-turvy state of things:

1) Bosola's "Look you, the stars shine still" (IV.i.98) after the Duchess threatens to curse the stars indicates that she has no power in this world. However, the world is wholly corrupted, so it is a good sign that she has no power; her goodness cannot be hold sway in an evil world;
2) the Duchess's "I am the Duchess of Malfi still" would in another situation be placed in the mouth of evil-doer (cf. Iago's perverse statement of individuality, "I am what I am"), but in a mad world-an evil world-the Duchess's innate goodness, her "self", is all she has to fortify herself against the darkness around her. So what would generally be the line of a wicked character in a good world is here the line of a good character in an evil world.
Also in IV.i Bosola enters "like an old man"-perhaps dressed as a priest/father confessor (as the lines seem to bear out). The Duchess's rejection of what he says is her salvation. Hence, in an upside-down world, one must reject the words of the priest in order to gain salvation. She does die saved. She is strangled while on her knees-not as an accommodation to her executioners-but rather in a prayerful attitude. She enters "heaven's gates" "upon her knees."

Antonio justifies the existence of an evil world under the care of a benevolent God. He says, at the point when he must part from the Duchess, that "heaven hath a hand in't" (their ill fortune), but that hand is like the disinterested watchmaker's, which works only to restore order, but does nothing to prevent disorder. He also suggests that goodness comes through suffering, a Classical/Christian/Hebraic notion.

The hopeful sign at the end of the play, the appearance of the Duchess and Antonio's surviving boy, is mitigated by the horoscope Antonio draws for him in I.iii. The horoscope indicates that he will meet a violent and early death. One wonders if Webster is nodding (as he does at III.iii.66-70 with the "Duke of Malfi" born of the Duchess's first marriage, which (while historically accurate) simply cannot be in the world of this play), or if he meant us to believe that the corruption in the world is not (and perhaps cannot be) purged by the end of the play.

Webster's sure hand allows him to comment on his own artificial medium. As noted earlier, he has characters chide the overblown rhetoric he uses. But also, at III.i.8-11, he comments on the jump of two years since the end of Act II. By saying that the action, which supposedly happened two years hence, seems to have occurred "within this half hour", which indeed it did (not more than fifteen minutes ago, before the intermission). Webster is able to reinforce the time change by appealing directly to the artificiality of the medium in which he works, creating a metadramatic joke along the way.

Webster may have known something about the city of Amalfi (a.k.a. Malfi) and the Italian language. Bosola's name may be a corruption of Bussola (Italian compass). The now-discredited legend that Flavio Gioia invented the compass in Amalfi flourished in Webster's time. It was given credence from about 1450 through the sixteenth century. A magnificent statue of Gioia still graces the main entry to the city today.

Richard Burbage created the role of Ferdinand.

Plays to be compared:

Webster's The White Devil (for the image of the guilty heroine able to create the appearance of nobility and virtue. This is just the opposite of the Duchess, a good woman who gives the appearance of evil);

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Marston's The Gentleman Usher (for only two examples to be found in Renaissance drama of the tradition of the sua sponte (de praesenti) marriage);

Shakespeare's Hamlet (for only one of the many plays using the idea of remarried widows being lecherous, and for the belief that one's self is tainted by the sexual misdeeds of one's kin-cf. Hamlet's preoccupation with Gertrude's sexuality and Ferdinand's of the Duchess's);

Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (for the use of a poisoned implement-a bouquet of flowers there, a Bible here).

Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Richard II (for the line echo at III.v.140 of The Duchess of Malfi "Men oft are valued high, when they are most wretched").

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