John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

c.1612 - 1613

Webster, The Duchess of Malfi


  • Intro

    ‘Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’ (T.S. Eliot)


    Little is known about the dramatist John Webster, but his play The Duchess of Malfi has become one of the most famous tragedies of the Jacobean era. It was first performed in the spring of 1614 and is set in a world of intrigue, revenge and horror. The play tells the story of a young, widowed Duchess who falls in love with her steward, Antonio, and has three children with him. As a result, her brothers – the corrupt Cardinal and the unstable Ferdinand – plot to kill her, fearing for their inheritance and the future of their family name. The Duchess is imprisoned on her brothers’ orders, and is strangled by a group of executioners, along with her maid and her two youngest children.


    The play follows the principles of Senecan tragedy – it turns on violence, cruelty and spectacle – and has been criticised for its startling plot twists. However, the calm steadfastness of the Duchess, who urges her executioners to ‘pull, and pull strongly’ as they prepare to kill her, makes her a highly memorable character.

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