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Duchess of Malfi


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A: John Webster Pf:c. 1613, London Pb: 1623 G: Trag. in 5 acts; blank verse and some prose S: Malfi ( = Amalfi), Rome, Loretto, the countryside near Ancona, and Milan, 1504–13 C: 21m, 4f, extrasThe malevolent brothers of the Duchess of Malfi, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are anxious to prevent their widowed sister from remarrying. To this end they place the unscrupulous Bosola as a spy at her court. The Duchess has fallen in love with Antonio Bologna, her steward, and they marry secretly. Bosola later discovers that the Duchess is pregnant, and when her son is born, he informs the Duchess's brothers. Eventually she bears a further two children, and in order to avert suspicion from Antonio, she has him sent from the court ‘in disgrace’, in fact arranging for him and their son to settle in Ancona, where she will join them. Unfortunately, she reveals her plan to Bosola, who places her under arrest. Her brother Ferdinand, who had already confronted her over her shameful behaviour, now comes to her, bearing a dead hand supposedly cut from the corpse of Antonio. He torments her with a display of waxworks of Antonio and their children appearing as if they were dead, and prevents her sleeping by releasing dancing and singing madmen. Executioners then strangle the Duchess, her lady-in-waiting, and her two younger children. Ferdinand and Bosola immediately begin to repent their crime. Ferdinand is struck down with lycanthropia, which causes him to behave like a wolf, and Bosola resolves to save Antonio's life. Antonio, ignorant of his wife's death, travels to Milan to seek reconciliation with the Duchess's brothers, despite being warned by her voice from the grave. Bosola, fearing that he will be murdered by the Cardinal, kills Antonio by mistake. Finding the Cardinal, Bosola fights with him and Ferdinand, and all three are mortally wounded. Only the young son of Antonio and the Duchess survives to renew the dynasty.

A: John Webster Pf:c. 1613, London Pb: 1623 G: Trag. in 5 acts; blank verse and some prose S: Malfi ( = Amalfi), Rome, Loretto, the countryside near Ancona, and Milan, 1504–13 C: 21m, 4f, extras

Based on a true story, this is one of the best known and goriest of Jacobean tragedies, with its onstage killings of no less than nine individuals, its horrific moments of dead hands and macabre wax figures, and its disturbing scene of released lunatics. The violence and the pace of action, reinforced by sinewy language, may obscure Webster's strong characterization. Indeed, there is little internal psychological conflict in the play, and the sudden repentance of Ferdinand and Bosola is not analysed in depth. However, Bosola is a subtle villain, who inspires trust, and Antonio, in his stubborn pursuit of his own goals, is a less than perfect hero. At the centre of the action is the Duchess herself, instinctively choosing the right path, and displaying considerable courage at the extremes of suffering.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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