DISCLAIMER: This is not meant as a study aid for people reading Duchess. It is just a reference to what is, in my opinion, one of the better Elizabethan/Jacobean plays.


Along with The White Devil, one of John Webster's more famous plays. Our heroine, the Duchess, has already married and is now a widow. Her vile brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, urge her not to remarry, but she defies their wishes and marries Antonio, a lowly clerk. Bosola, a malcontent spy for Ferdinand, discovers the Duchess' pregnancy through a mistake of Antonio's and reports this back, sending Ferdinand into an insane rage.

Ferdinand travels to Malfi to investigate and overhears the Duchess and Antonio talking. As Antonio leaves, he confronts her. She attempts to flee into exile, but she is captured while Antonio is able to escape with their eldest child.

The Duchess is taken back to her palace at Malfi where Ferdinand's hideous psychological tortures await her. He locks her in a dark room, shows her what she thinks is Antonio's and her childrens' corpses (but is actually a wax replica), and surrounds her with the insane. However, the Duchess keeps her head and dies nobly- which is more than can be said for her servant Cariola.

Antonio, not knowing any of this is happening, attempts a reconciliation with Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Meanwhile, Bosola, moved by the Duchess' death (and Ferdinand's refusal to pay him) seeks to kill the brothers. Spying on the Cardinal, he manages to obtain the keys to their house and sneaks in. Unfortunately, he mistakes Antonio for the Cardinal and kills him instead. The Cardinal and Ferdinand arrive, and the three manage to kill one another, just in time for Antonio's eldest child to arrive and take control of the country which is rightfully his.

About the Play

Webster took a lot of the source for this play from Painter's "Palace of Pleasure", although the message has been heavily changed. Painter presented the Duchess as a lusty widow, and although this can be seen at some points in Webster's text, she is more able to justify her actions- and, more importantly, to act nobly when the situation demands it.

As with a lot of Webster's work, the body count is high and the tone is dark. The former is typical of the "revenge tragedy" genre. The Duchess, Cariola and her children are strangled. Julia, the Cardinal's mistress, is killed by kissing a poisoned Bible. Antonio is killed by accident, and Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal kill each other.

The events are very melodramatic and extreme, and about as far detached from reality as a play could be. Ferdinand is furious and threatening- almost a pantomime villain, so unable to control his temper that he becomes stricken with madness and suffers an attack of lycanthropia.

Finally, it is worth mentioning Webster's ever-shifting viewpoint. During the play he never allows the audience to make up their mind about an issue, whether it is Antonio's marriage above his station or Bosola's morality. Each character justifies his actions, although some, of course, are more easily justified than others.
Introduction to The Duchess Of Malfi as a Jacobean Tragedy

The Duchess Of Malfi was written by John Webster (c.1578 - c.1632) and published in 1623. Webster wrote many plays between about 1602 and 1625, but, along with The White Devil, The Duchess Of Malfi is by far the most famous of his dramas. Webster was the son of a prosperous London coach maker and combined his career with his desire to be a playwright. There is very little evidence about him, excepting that from the plays he published. Many of his works were collaborations with other authors, but his best plays were solo efforts.

The Duchess Of Malfi is a typical Jacobean Tragedy in that it is characterised by a melodramatic sense of impending doom, fatalistic spiritual despair and instability. In most tragedies, the protagonist - always an outstanding figure - begins with an act of defiance against established laws and conventions. The protagonists are usually to blame for their actions through some fatal flaw and, after coming to a state of greater understanding through mass-suffering, the plays usually ended with their death. More specifically, The Duchess Of Malfi is a revenge tragedy in which the villain's wrongdoing is eventually avenged. The dramas' recurrent pattern is a moral ending in which evil is its own undoing and, after defeating itself, is purged.

The malcontent is a frequent figure in Jacobean Tragedy - a disaffected servant who feels wronged and who is usually an instrument of treachery. There is often a Machiavellian villain and the plays often reflect on court life. The main qualities of Jacobean Tragedy are a powerfully oppressive sense of the passage of time and the transitory nature of things, high profile imagery of death and decay and reflections upon mortality, the overturning of traditional relationships, melancholy and the settling of love affairs by the sword. Among The Duchess Of Malfi's themes are darkness, deception and corruption and the wheel of fortune. Central characters include the Duchess, an intelligent but tragic heroine; the philosophising feral villain Bosola; the Duchess' wicked two brothers, Ferdinand and the immoral Cardinal; as well as Antonio, a well-meaning commoner who falls short of being a hero and hence, commands our sympathy.

In the play, the incestuous Ferdinand forbids his widowed sister to marry again but, when he discovers that she is not only married, but has children, he is driven insane with fury. An overwhelming desire for revenge takes over and the Duchess' secret love unleashes violence which, due to the dreadfully powerful characters and dark deeds, ends with the stage covered in blood.

Credit is due to the Longman Literature edition The Duchess Of Malfi, ISBN 0-582-28731-6 which was a useful reference source.

A study of the opening two acts:

What are the standards and values by which the court of Malfi lives?

The values that govern character's decisions in The Duchess of Malfi are diametrically opposed to the modern day ethos by which we are accustomed to live. The play is set in a time and society where today's basic sociability, fairness and freedom from oppression were completely unheard of and unprecedented. Those in power saw no point to their authority if they did not take full advantage of their influence, nobody would lookout for anyone else and people's livelihoods depended on kings' fickle whims. Corruption was rife, fuelled by the ruthless backstabbing and do-or-die attitude. In fact, the play starts by amalgamating and spotlighting the flaws with the court system by referring to Antonio's recent excursion and comparing Malfi with the vastly different French court.

Antonio is clearly a newly-converted Francophile and describes his experiences in glowing terms, emphasising its superiority with a pithy, italicised aphorism to show that the French head-of-state fully understands how his decisions affect the people - should someone "poison't near the head, Death and diseases through the whole land spread" (I, i, l. 14-5). Coining a superb simile in describing the court as "like a common fountain" (I, i, l. 12), the French communal spirit and sharing lifestyle is drawn to the audience's attention. Unlike the Duke of Calabria, the King does not punish freedom of speech and feels duty-bound to deracinate the inveterate "corruption of the times" (I, i, l. 18).

Antonio is one of the most admirable characters and one of the few in the play's opening who displays an attractive side to their personality. He clearly has positive values, as shown by his adulation of the progressive French régime, and heaps encomia on aspects he respects while rightly deploring contemptible behaviour. He has perceptive vision and cogently describes people he sees in precisely terse thumbnail sketches. Perhaps most admirable, is the way he is able to condemn] characters without a hint of self-promotion, arrogance or snatching at the moral high ground. Indeed, Antonio is a man of much humility and wisdom - his summing up is precise and he sees through to hidden aspects of people's agendas. After Bosola leaves at the end of the first scene, Antonio sapiently notes that "this foul melancholy will poison all his goodness" (I, i, l.77-8), and the reader has a sneaking suspicion his prophecy may just turn out to be realised. Antonio is usually honest and says what he thinks, unlike the other more conniving and duplicitous courtiers.

The only other characters that attract a semblance of esteem are Delio, for his kindly politeness, and non-judgmental lack of presumption; the Duchess; and Bosola, for his mastery of language. Delio listens carefully to his friend's descriptions then comes to his own conclusions of the people he sees. The "right noble Duchess" (I, ii, l. 112) is a breath of fresh air - astute, witty, unintimidated and she speaks with such wisdom one would think she has lived to twice her years. Antonio is so keen in his praise of her that Delio warns him that he has almost become like a "wire-drawer" (I, ii, l. 131). Bosola is an insightful realist with a good understanding of the use of analogies and allusions as well as astute judgement - saying of the Cardinal "this fellow were able to possess the greatest devil, and make him worse" (I, i, l. 47-8), he exhibits a rare acumen.

The Cardinal is one of the story's most despicable characters. He is morally repugnant and highly hypocritical. Holding a high position in the church, he should be expected to be a positive example of piousness and religious reverence. Conversely, the Cardinal is dishonest and corrupt. He is a churchman involved in the vile slave trade, with a seemingly secular materialist trader's mind and no conscience. He speaks of his "galleys" (I, ii, l. 73) laden with emaciated ill-treated prisoners in an entirely offhand and nonchalant manner and is acceptingly aware of his brother's incestuous abuse of his sister, the Duchess. He displays flagrant amorality, and lives a frivolous life complete with betting, "dance, court ladies, and ... combats" (I, ii, l. 80). His celibacy and vows instantly forgotten, the Cardinal goes further to defile the Church's beliefs when his deception and bribery is made clear. Bosola has been cheated out of his salary for a certain anticlerical "service" and other aspects of his life are not those usually expected from a clergyman - Antonio shrewdly likens him to seemingly transparent and clear pond water that has a proliferation of unsightly toads hidden just beneath the surface. The Cardinal is a man prone to jealousy, and is wickedly scheming as he takes full advantage of his elevated position. His latent insecurity means he "strews in his way flatterers" (I, ii, l. 86-7), and it has been said that "they do flatter him most" (I, ii, l. 109). The Cardinal has the most cold, slyly cunning, ruthless and hypocritical rôle in the play. He tries to restrict the Duchesses' freedoms, restraining her with overly pious warnings, and there seems to be no end to his hypocrisy and simultaneous high-mindedness when he says that only the "most luxurious, will wed twice" (I, ii, l. 221-2).

Mistreated by the Cardinal is Bosola. He is a very bitter man obsessed with eloquent death imagery who feels hard done by and left bootless: "only the reward of doing well, is the doing of it!" (I, i, l. 33) This quotation also speaks to the audience to show that he is a cold-hearted and sadistic person gaining pleasure from the more questionable deeds and jobs he has carried out. He resents the Cardinal's attitude to him and the debt owed, as well as being vengeful and highly unforgiving. Bosola's ruthlessness and determination leads him to desperately "thrive some way" (I, i, l. 38). We get the impression that Bosola is a man who will do whatever it takes to get what he thinks he deserves and to advance in life. He is hardy and somewhat spiteful in his opinions of Ferdinand and the Duke, who are rich and powerful, but only manage to attract "crows, 'pies and caterpillars" (I, i, l. 52-3). He is cunning, and always aware of the emotions around him. However, whenever he is approached for work, Bosola instinctively assumes he is wanted as a hitman - "Whose throat must I cut?" (I, ii, l. 173) he asks Ferdinand. Perhaps because he is always doing other people's dirty deeds (a fact he is only too aware of), he sees himself as almost subhuman, accepting the employment offer with the words "I am your creature" (I, ii, l. 210). However, Bosola is not only a talented wordsmith with a firm grasp of metaphor, as he often exhibits high intelligence (he was a highly regarded student of philosophy) and makes his exit with the gnomic apothegm, "Sometimes the devil doth preach" (I, ii, l. 215).

Ferdinand is quite a disgusting man. Lascivious, lecherous and equally as fond of ithyphallic innuendo as of his own sister, he makes very suggestive and dirty remarks, prostituting the very language he speaks. From a psychological point of view, Ferdinand clearly harbours strong insecurities. He surrounds himself with adoring and eager-to-please sycophants who attend to his every caprice and are constantly trying to gain favour by impressing him. They crack opaquely moronic jokes to make him laugh, and uproariously guffaw at the slightest hint from Ferdinand of poor paronomasia. Ferdinand needs constant reassurance from his courtiers but is dishonest and cruel. Ferdinand tells them, "laugh when I laugh," (I, ii, l. 46) and, as well as his assault of the Duchess, is described as an "ill man" (I, ii, l. 199) and "the devil" (I, ii, l. 199) by Bosola - himself not the most righteous character.

From just the first couple of scenes, the casual reader can easily discern which personal qualities are most important and how certain characters are successful. Money is clearly a central aspect of life in the Italian courts and Bosola is "lur'd" (I, ii, l. 155) to Ferdinand by his promise that "there's gold" (I, ii, l. 170). Money is also equally important to the aristocracy, as the Cardinal goes to extreme measures to avoid Bosola and the debt he owes. The overwhelming feeling is that, to be successful, one must be ruthless and as corrupt as possible. As a result, power and status are also very important things to have on your side and Ferdinand assumes Bosola wants this too - he temptingly hints, "thou mayst arrive at a higher place by't" (I, ii, l. 186-7). We also find that it is beneficial to be a pragmatic realist and adhere to the harsh, devious Machiavellian model of maintaining political power by underhand means with deceit and without morality. People believed that, in ruling, the end justified whatever means were necessary and knowledge meant power; hence people talked behind each other's backs and gleaned as much useful information out of each other as possible. Phoney civility could get courtiers a long way if they pleased the higher classes sufficiently, and several characters such as Rodgerigo and Castruchio seem to favour following this method. The Cardinal looks as though he has reached his elevated position only by extirpating himself from his conscience and things such as respect and position are clearly very important in court society. A moral character that would stick to ethical beliefs would not last long in this world of corruption and mercilessness. Right and wrong (only in respect to what is owed to you) is a vital issue and it is very important to learn to mix with the right people in order to rise to the highest echelons of the court. Overall, the emphasis in the Italian court of Malfi seems to rest on material worldly goodness such as money, appearance and status rather than aspects some would consider more important - spiritual well-being, conscience and morals.

All quotations of the text are courtesy of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (Longman, 1996). This work has been confirmed to be in the public domain free from copyright, and is availible on Project Gutenberg at http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext00/malfi10.txt

CST Approved.

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