The Duchess of Malfi: plot and character overview
Early in The Duchess of Malfi, Antonio Bologna, the Duchess’s steward, and later, husband, praises her as one who ‘stains the time past, lights the time to come’. The Duchess is the central, tragic figure in this bleak and disturbing play, illuminating its dark world of murder, intrigue, and horror-film props: severed hands, waxwork corpses and poisoned Bibles. Counterpointing the Duchess is the complex and misanthropic Bosola, fatally divided between admiration for the Duchess, and serving the evil intentions of his masters.
John Webster’s play casts the Duchess as the young widow of the deceased Duke of Malfi, resistant to the control that her two brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal of Aragon, want to exert over her life. Both brothers oppose her remarrying: the unstable Ferdinand is unhealthily and possibly incestuously obsessed with his sister, while the ruthless Cardinal strives to maintain family honour at all costs. The Duchess nonetheless marries Antonio in secret. Their union is doubly problematic because Antonio, though honest and virtuous, is of low birth. The couple have three children together secretly, before Bosola, employed by the brothers to spy on the Duchess and her household, finds out. The family attempt to flee, but they are separated, and the Duchess and her youngest children are captured and imprisoned by Ferdinand in Milan. After a variety of tortures, Ferdinand sends Bosola to strangle the Duchess and her children. She dies calmly, instructing Bosola to tell her brothers that:
I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift they can give, or I can take. (4.2.216-17)
The last act of the play presents a series of deaths: the Cardinal kills his mistress, Ferdinand develops lycanthropy and Bosola, struck too late with remorse, vows to avenge the Duchess. Intending to protect Antonio, he accidentally kills him. Finally, Bosola stabs the Cardinal and Ferdinand, but is wounded and also dies. Of the whole family, only the eldest son of the Duchess and Antonio remains alive.
When was The Duchess of Malfi first staged and published?
Malfi was first performed by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars Theatre in 1614, and first printed in 1623. The play was a success, but what later spectators perceived as its lurid melodrama made it unpopular and seldom staged until the 19th century. Since 1945, performances of Malfi, and its reputation, have significantly increased: after the atrocities of the Second World War, its darknesses are no longer so alien.