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The Duchess of Malfi

Have you ever read Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603) and been shocked by its violence and focus on revenge? You can find something very similar in John Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi (1623). It is an intense and violent play set in 1500s Italy that contains complicated characters and themes of corruption, revenge, and class struggles.

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The Duchess of Malfi

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Have you ever read Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603) and been shocked by its violence and focus on revenge? You can find something very similar in John Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi (1623). It is an intense and violent play set in 1500s Italy that contains complicated characters and themes of corruption, revenge, and class struggles.

The Duchess of Malfi: summary

Overview: The Duchess of Malfi

AuthorJohn Webster
GenreRevenge tragedy
Literary PeriodJacobean
First performance1614
Brief Summary of The Duchess of Malfi
  • A widowed duchess falls in love with her steward and secretly marries him, despite the objections of her two brothers. The brothers, who want to maintain their control over their sister and her wealth, hire a spy to discover the Duchess's secret and ultimately have her and her children killed.
List of main charactersThe Duchess, Antonio Bologna, Daniel de Bosola, The Cardinal, Ferdinand.
ThemesClass, love, power, betrayal, violence, and revenge
SettingMalfi, Italy between 1504 and 1510
AnalysisThe play offers a deep critique of the societal norms and power structures of its time, and raises questions about the nature of humanity, morality, and justice.

The play begins with the Duchess of Malfi, who has been recently widowed but retains the title of duchess that she received upon marrying her husband. She is in charge of the Italian town of Amalfi. However, the Duchess's brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal are jealous, sexist, and controlling. They do not wish her to get remarried as they want to inherit her riches and also wish to preserve the family's sexual purity through her. This was a common stereotype enforced upon women at the time.

The Duchess of Malfi, the seaside town of Amalfi on a cliff side, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The town of Amalfi today.

Ferdinand arranges for Bosola, a criminal and former employee of the Cardinal, to become part of the Duchess's estate and spy on her to ensure she does not marry and have children. Bosola is reluctant to carry this out but feels obliged to. The Duchess promises her brothers that she will not marry but admits secretly to her maid, Cariola, that she has full intentions to marry again. She falls in love with Antonio, a steward who works on her estate. Antonio is an honest and uncorrupted man. However, he is also of a much lower class than the Duchess. Unusually, the Duchess proposes to Antonio, and they agree to marry. They must keep their marriage secret due to the Duchess's brothers and due to the couple's vastly different classes.

After a time, the Duchess falls pregnant but struggles to hide it. When she goes into labour, she and Antonio concoct a story about her falling ill, but Bosola discovers that this is untrue. He informs Ferdinand and the Cardinal of the developments. They are both infuriated that the Duchess has disobeyed their orders but delay confronting her until they discover who the father is. This changes in the coming years. The Duchess has two more children, and Ferdinand decides he cannot put off their confrontation any longer.

Ferdinand sneaks into the Duchess's bedroom at night, frightening her. He is enraged at her actions. She admits she is married, which just serves to anger Ferdinand further. He vows never to see her again. The Duchess now fears for the safety of Antonio and their children. She and Antonio agree to pretend that he has stolen from her so he can flee Amalfi with one of their sons. However, around the same time, the Duchess admits to Bosola that it is Antonio who is her husband, believing him to be on her side. Bosola reports this to Ferdinand and then kidnaps the Duchess and her other two children on Ferdinand's orders.

The Duchess is imprisoned and psychologically tortured by Ferdinand. She is told that Antonio and her children are dead and that she will soon be killed. Ferdinand then organises for executioners to strangle the Duchess, her children, and Cariola. All soon appear dead. Ferdinand and Bosola feel immense guilt for killing the Duchess. After Ferdinand has left, the Duchess wakes up briefly, and Bosola tells her that Antonio is alive. She then passes away.

Due to his guilt, Bosola resolves to help Antonio and his remaining son. Ferdinand has been driven to madness by his guilt, and the Cardinal wishes for Bosola to kill Antonio to hide his involvement in the Duchess's death. Bosola agrees to this but secretly plans to betray the Cardinal. Meanwhile, not knowing of his wife and children's death, Antonio has returned to make amends with the Cardinal. He secretly enters the Cardinal's castle, where Bosola mistakes him for one of the brothers and kills him. Whilst he is dying, Bosola tells Antonio what has happened to his family. A further series of deaths then ensue. Bosola stabs the Cardinal. Ferdinand enters and, in a fit of madness, stabs both Bosola and the Cardinal. While he is dying, Bosola also stabs Ferdinand.

In the wake of all this death, Antonio and the Duchess's only living son and Antonio's friend, Delio, enter. Delio declares that he will help the young man gain the inheritance and political title of his mother.

The Duchess of Malfi: characters

The Duchess of Malfi is a complex play with a host of characters. Below is a table with a selection of key characters.

CharacterExplanationKey traits
The DuchessThe Duchess has been recently widowed and has the title of Duchess of Malfi due to her late husband's dukedom. She is a beautiful and charming woman. The Duchess falls for the lower-class Antonio, secretly marrying him and having three children together. She faces a tragic end at the hand of her cruel and controlling brothers.Intelligent, cunning, benevolent.
Antonio BolognaAntonio is a lower-class man working as a steward on the Duchess's estate. He marries the Duchess, who he holds a deep and genuine love for. Antonio is a morally good character and tries to do his best for other people. He even wishes to make amends with the Cardinal after all he has done to Antonio's family. Antonio loses his life due to a case of mistaken identity.Kind, observant, loving.
FerdinandFerdinand is the Duke of Calabria and the Duchess's twin brother. He is controlling and angry, often falling into outbursts of rage. Ferdinand seems to have cruel desires, enjoying the torture he inflicts on the Duchess and wishing to control her sexuality. After ordering the murder of the Duchess, her maid, and her children, Ferdinand develops guilt-induced madness. Bosola kills him at the end of the play.Controlling, abusive, jealous.
The CardinalThe Cardinal is the Duchess's other brother. He is a cardinal in the Catholic Church but is corrupt and immoral regardless. The Cardinal has an affair with a married woman named Julia, who he later murders when she finds out about his plotting with Ferdinand. The Cardinal is just as cruel as Ferdinand but is much calmer and controlled. He is fatally stabbed by both Bosola and Ferdinand.Selfish, corrupt, cunning.
Daneil de BosolaBosola was once a servant of the Cardinal and had been previously charged with murder. Ferdinand solicits him to spy on the Duchess and ensure she does not marry. Bosola does this, even aiding Ferdinand in the kidnap and torture of the Duchess. However, Ferdinand refuses to pay Bosola for his services, and he also discovers that the Cardinal intends to betray him. These issues, along with the guilt he feels for the Duchess's death, leads Bosola to try to help Antonio, although this proves unsuccessful. Bosola stabs both Antonio and the Cardinal. An unstable Ferdinand kills him.Complex, ruthless, morally dubious.

The Duchess of Malfi: setting

The setting of The Duchess of Malfi shifts as the play progresses, moving from Amalfi to Milan to Rome. However, all the play's action is located in Catholic Italy of the 1500s. For British audiences at the time, Italy of this period would have been associated with political turmoil and corruption. These concepts are extensively represented in The Duchess of Malfi.

The Duchess of Malfi is not a wholly fictional text. It is based on real events that occurred in 1500s Italy. The Duchess of Amalfi, named Giovanna, really did exist. She married at a young age and was then widowed. She subsequently fell in love with and married a man called Antonio against the wishes of her brothers. They were infuriated when the couple had children, ruining the brothers' chance at Giovanna's inheritance. The kidnap of the Duchess and her children was also factual, but the accidental murder of Antonio and Bosola's betrayal of the brothers was fictionalised by John Webster.

The Duchess of Malfi: analysis

Let's look at some analysis of the play. The Duchess of Malfi can be classified as a revenge tragedy.

A revenge tragedy is a dramatic genre. It consists of a play centring around the pursuit of revenge that culminates in a tragic ending, often involving murder. The Ancient Roman playwright, Seneca, is considered to have written some of the first-ever revenge tragedies. William Shakespeare is also associated with the genre because of his highly influential revenge tragedy, Hamlet.

Revenge tragedies were extremely popular with audiences when The Duchess of Malfi was first performed in the 1610s. Many critics now consider it to be an exemplar of the genre. Much of the plot in Webster's play is driven by the want for revenge.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal are infuriated by the Duchess's actions in marrying and having children with the lower-class Antonio. They feel they have been betrayed and cheated out of their inheritance by their sister. This drives their wish for revenge upon the Duchess. Ferdinand and the Cardinal arrange for the Duchess to be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered because of her actions.

The Duchess of Malfi, two hands pointing towards each other in an accusatory manner, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Much of the action in the play is driven by revenge.

Bosola, too, is driven by revenge due to a feeling of betrayal. He feels the Cardinal has betrayed his loyalty, and Ferdinand has driven him to commit cruel acts that he now feels deep guilt over. The ending of The Duchess of Malfi cements the tragic aspect of the play's genre. Bosola, now on Antonio's side, accidentally murders him because of mistaken identity. All the central characters, both moral and immoral, are dead by the end of Webster's play.

The Duchess of Malfi: themes

The Duchess of Malfi is an expansive play that explores interpersonal relations between characters who often care only for their own aims. The key themes in The Duchess of Malfi are corruption and class.

The Duchess of Malfi: corruption

Corruption is rife in The Duchess of Malfi. Webster particularly showcases this through the character of the Cardinal. He is known as such because he is a Cardinal in the Catholic Church, a position in which one is expected to be upstanding and moral.

However, the Cardinal has little regard for morals, behaving how he likes instead of how he should. For example, he engages in an affair with a married woman and then murders her when she discovers his and Ferdinand's plot against their sister. He kills his lover by making her kiss a secretly poisoned Bible.

The Bible represents moral goodness in the Cardinal's faith. Webster's use of it as a murder weapon emphasises how corrupt the Cardinal has become. He is acutely aware of his corruption, doing everything he can to hide it and protect his reputation. He even intends to betray Bosola, who has been consistently loyal to him throughout all their underhand dealings. The below quote, said by Bosola, exemplifies the Cardinal's personality.

Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil and make him worse. (Act 1)

The Duchess of Malfi: class

Class also plays a significant role in The Duchess of Malfi. Other than betraying her brothers' wishes, one of the key reasons why the Duchess's marriage to Antonio is so scandalous is because of their class difference. The Duchess is from the upper echelons of society, while Antonio is a lower-class man who is in the Duchess's employment.

This dynamic emphasises the different worlds they come from. Regardless, the two fall in love, marry and have children. Webster makes it clear that Antonio truly loves and respects the Duchess; he is not marrying her for her money or status. This contrasts sharply with how the Duchess's brothers see her. They care more for her inheritance than for her.

The Duchess of Malfi's position on class issues is evident from the way in which the Duchess and Antonio's situation is portrayed. They are shown to be the victims of the cruelty of others and come to a tragic end. Their surviving son enters at the end of the play with hopes to one day take his mother's position.

Because of his lower-class father, many in Webster's society would have judged this boy unfit to inherit his mother's political power and wealth. Instead, Webster purposefully ends the play with this boy, presenting him as a potential saviour in a tragic world.

The Duchess of Malfi - Key takeaways

  • The Duchess of Malfi (1623) is a play by playwright John Webster.
  • It follows the Duchess of Amalfi as she is spied on, tortured, and eventually murdered by her brothers for disobeying them.
  • The play is inspired by real events that occurred in Italy in the early 1500s.
  • The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy.
  • Two key themes in the play are corruption and class.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Duchess of Malfi

The main theme in the play is corruption.

Justice is important in the play because of how much it is lacking. Both good and bad characters in the play come to tragic ends.

The play is five acts long.

The Duchess shows a great deal of courage in going after what she wants and trying to protect her family.

The Duchess is never given a formal name in the play.

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