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The Duchess of Malfi (originally published as The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy) is a macabre, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster in 1612–13. It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatre, then before a more general audience at The Globe, in 1613–14.
Published in 1623, the play is loosely based on events that occurred between about 1508 and 1513. The Duchess was Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi (d. 1511), whose father, Enrico d'Aragona, Marquis of Gerace, was an illegitimate son of Ferdinand I of Naples. As in the play, she secretly married Antonio Beccadelli di Bologna after the death of her first husband Alfonso I Piccolomini, Duke of Amalfi.
The play begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class, and ends as a nightmarish tragedy as her two brothers exact their revenge, destroying themselves in the process. Jacobean drama continued the trend of stage violence and horror set by Elizabethan tragedy, under the influence of Seneca. The complexity of some of its characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, plus Webster's poetic language, ensure the play is often considered among the greatest tragedies of English renaissance drama.
- 1 Characters
- 2 Sources
- 3 Main themes
- 4 Theatrical Devices
- 5 Plot synopsis
- 6 Plot: Scene-by-scene breakdown
- 7 Historical staging
- 8 The 1623 quarto
- 9 Reception and performance history
- 10 Media adaptations
- 11 In popular culture
- 12 Notes
- 13 References
- 14 External links
- Antonio Bologna. Antonio has recently returned from France, full of scorn for the Italian courtiers whom he sees as more corrupt than the French. Antonio is the steward of the Duchess of Malfi's palace. His honesty and good judgment of character are characteristics well known to the other characters. He accepts the Duchess' proposal of marriage because of her disposition rather than her beauty. Her marrying beneath her status is a problem, however, and their marriage has to remain a secret, and Antonio shares neither her title nor her money. Bosola accidentally kills him.
- Delio. A courtier, who tries to woo Julia. Based on Matteo Bandello's self-depiction under this name, his purpose is to be the sounding board for his friend Antonio. Because he asks so many pertinent questions, he serves as a source of important information to the audience, and is privy to the secrets of Antonio's marriage and children.
- Daniel de Bosola. A former servant of the Cardinal, now returned from a sentence in the galleys for murder. Publicly rejected by his previous employer the Cardinal, he is sent by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess as her Provisor of Horse. [Note 1] (Ferdinand hopes to keep her away from marriage.) Bosola is involved in the murder of the Duchess, her children, Cariola, Antonio, the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and a servant. Witnessing the nobility of the Duchess and Antonio facing their deaths, he finally feels guilty, and seeks to avenge them. This change of heart makes him the play's most complex character. A malcontent and cynic, he makes numerous critical comments on the nature of Renaissance society. (He is based on the historical Daniele de Bozolo, about whom little is known.)
- The Cardinal. The brother to the Duchess and Ferdinand. A corrupt, icy official in the Roman Catholic Church who keeps a mistress — not uncharacteristic of churchmen at the time. He has arranged a spy (Bosola) to spy upon his sister – all this on the quiet, however, leaving others ignorant of his plotting. Of remorse, love, loyalty, or even greed, he knows nothing, and his reasons for hating his sister are a mystery. (Historically, his name was Luigi or Lodovico.)
- Ferdinand. The Duke of Calabria and twin brother of the Duchess. Unlike his rational brother the Cardinal, Ferdinand is given to fits of rage and violent outbursts disproportionate to the perceived offence. He gradually loses his sanity—he believes he is a wolf and digs up graves— (lycanthropia), as a result of his regret for hiring Bosola to kill her. (In reality, his name was Carlo, Marquis of Gerace.)
- Castruchio. An old lord. His name plays on the word "castrated", suggesting impotence. He's the conventional elderly man with a young, unfaithful wife (Julia). He is genial and easygoing, attempting to stay on good terms with all.
- Roderigo. A courtier.
- Grisolan. A courtier.
- Silvio. A courtier.
- Pescara. A marquis, possibly Fernando d'Avalos.
- The Duchess. The protagonist, sister to Ferdinand and the Cardinal. At the beginning, she is a widow in the prime of her life. Though her brothers take every precaution to keep her from marriage, she secretly marries Antonio. Her brothers arrange to have her strangled. She is described as having a sweet countenance and noble virtue. Witty and clever, she can keep up with her brothers’ banter. She also has a tenderness and warmth that they lack. She has three children, two sons and a daughter by Antonio. (There is an inconsistency surrounding earlier children by her deceased husband, put down to a careless mistake by Webster.)
- Cariola. Duchess's waiting-woman and privy to her secrets. She witnesses the Duchess's wedding and delivers her children. She dies tragically by strangling following the murder of the Duchess and the youngest children. Her name plays on the Italian carriolo, meaning "trundle-bed", where personal servants would have slept.
- Julia. Castruchio's wife and the Cardinal's mistress. She dies at the Cardinal's hands from a poisoned Bible.
- Malateste. A hanger-on at the Cardinal's court. The name means 'headache'. Referred to as a "mere stick of sugar candy" by the Duchess, he is yet another interchangeable courtier conveying the sycophantic court.
- Doctor. Sent for to diagnose Ferdinand's madness and his supposed "lycanthropia".
- There is also a variety of minor roles including couriers, servants, officers, a mistress, the children, executioners, etc. They further the plot or perform small tasks that cannot be accomplished by the principals.
Webster's principal source was in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1567), which was a translation of François de Belleforest's French adaptation of Matteo Bandello's Novelle (1554). Bandello had known Antonio Beccadelli di Bologna in Milan before his assassination. He recounted the story of Antonio's secret marriage to Giovanna after death of her first husband, stating that it brought down the wrath of her two brothers, one of whom, Luigi d'Aragona, was a powerful cardinal under Pope Julius II. Bandello says that the brothers arranged the kidnapping of the Duchess, her maid, and two of her three children by Antonio, all of whom were then murdered. Antonio, unaware of their fate, escaped to Milan with his oldest son, where he was later assassinated by a gang led by one Daniele Bozzolo.
Webster's play follows this story fairly faithfully, but departs from the source material by depicting Bozzolo as a conflicted figure who repents, kills Antonio by mistake, then turns on the brothers killing them both. In fact the brothers were never accused of the crime in their lifetimes and died of natural causes.
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The main themes of the play are: corruption, misuse of power, revenge, deception, the status of women and the consequences of their assertion of authority, the argument of blood v. merit, the upshot of unequal marriage, cruelty, incest, and class.
A vein of corruption runs throughout the play. Perhaps the most apt representative of corruption is the deadly Cardinal, a man ready to employ lesser beings (such as Bosola) to commit murders for him, then cast them aside as rotten fruit. He is no stranger to murder himself, however, as he slays his own mistress by making her kiss on a poisoned book. The acute Antonio describes him thus:
The spring in his face is nothing but the engend'ring of toads; where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plot for them than ever was impos'd on Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters. He should have been Pope; but instead of coming to it by the primitive decency of the church, he did bestow bribes so largely and so impudently as if he would have carried it away without heaven's knowledge. Some good he hath done.
He gambles, keeps the wife of one of his courtiers as a mistress, fights duels. Conspiracy and intrigue are the air he breathes. Duke Ferdinand is his brother's willing conspirator in villainy. At times, though, his rages shock even the cardinal's sense of decorum. The duke has a corruption that in the end destroys his sanity: incestuous desire for his own sister. Realizing she has married and borne children by Antonio, his rage drives him to do all in his power to bring his sister to despair, madness and death, but in the end he is driven mad himself.
Between them, these two perverse villains destroy or poison all that is within their reach, all semblance of warmth or human affection.
Misuse of power
The misuse of power can be seen in the Cardinal's and Ferdinand's actions. They make use of their power for their own greed and interest. Cardinal abuses his ecclesiastical powers by getting Antonio's property confiscated and by getting the Duchess and her family banished from the state of Ancona. Ferdinand misuses his political power by ordering the death of the Duchess without any proper judgement passed by the court of law. (Ferdinand later blames Bosola for the murder of the Duchess by saying that he had no authority to get her killed privately since it was unlawful and Bosola could — and should — have helped her to escape). These are examples of corruption.
Status of Women and Responsibility for the Tragedy
The ideal quality her brothers would foist on the Duchess is that of being submissive to (their) male control, though ironically widowhood was often the first time women might be independent of the control of husbands or male relatives. However, the Duchess went against her brothers' wishes and remarried. Her assertion of her freedom of choice is best illustrated in her soliloquy following her conversation with her brothers when they strictly advise her to not even think about remarrying. Immediately after telling her brothers that she will never remarry, she says to herself: "If all my royal kindred/ Lay in my way unto this marriage,/ I'd make them my low foot-steps." The central conflict of the play involves the Duchess' desire to marry for love and her brothers' desire to prevent her from remarrying (either to inherit her estate and control her choices, or perhaps out of Ferdinand's potentially incestuous love for his sister). Throughout, she refuses to submit to her brothers' attempts at control and even asserts her identity and self-control at the moment of her death, announcing "I am Duchess of Malfi still" (4.2). Both her choices and her brothers' choices lead to their deaths and destruction, and the character of Bosola, who would protect the man he accidentally kills (Antonio), demonstrates that even though men would like to consider themselves authors of their own fates, at times, forces beyond their control intervene. Ultimately, and especially through Bosola's speeches, the play offers the dark view on the impossibility of making moral choices in an unstable world governed by the corruption represented by the Aragonian brethren.
The cruelty of Cardinal and Ferdinand towards the Duchess is evident in their threats. The poniard is an important symbol to show the threats. Cruelty is also shown in Ferdinand's wish to make the Duchess mad. He makes use of wax figurines to trick the Duchess into thinking Antonio is dead. Following this, he sends various madmen to the Duchess's room. This is to devastate the Duchess, in the hope of making her mad. The cruelty of their actions includes hiring Bosola as a spy, which deprives the Duchess of her privacy.
The Cardinal and Ferdinand are against the marriage of the Duchess and Antonio not only because they will have to share their wealth with him, but also because he is of a lower social status. Bosola, also of a lower class, expresses support for their marriage, at first, and even admires the Duchess for her ability to see past class; "Do I not dream? Can this ambitious age/ Have so much goodness in't as to prefer/ A man merely for worth, without these shadows/ Of wealth and painted honours? Possible?" (3.2.279–282). By the end of the play, his true feelings are revealed and he agrees with The Cardinal and Ferdinand that a steward is not a good match for the Duchess. The Duchess argues that high class is not an indicator of a good man.
The play makes use of various theatrical devices, some of them derived from Senecan Tragedy which includes violence and bloodshed on the stage. Act III, Scene iv is a mime scene in which a song is sung in honour of the Cardinal who gives up his robes and invests himself with the attire of a soldier and then does the act of banishing the Duchess. The whole scene is commented upon by two pilgrims who condemn the harsh behaviour of the Cardinal toward the Duchess. That the scene is set against the backdrop of the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, a religious place, adds to its sharp distinction between good and evil, and justice and injustice. Act V, Scene iii, features an important theatrical device, echo which seems to emanate from the grave of the Duchess and is also in her voice. Combined together it reads: "Deadly accent. A thing of sorrow. That suits it best. Ay, wife's voice. Be mindful of thy safety. O fly your fate. Thou art a dead thing. Never see her more." The echo repeats the last words of what Antonio and Delio speak but is selective. It adds to the feeling of inevitability of Antonio's death while highlighting the role of fate.
The play is set in the court of Malfi (Amalfi), Italy, 1504 to 1510. The recently widowed Duchess falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, but her brothers, not wishing her to share their inheritance, and desperate to evade a degrading association with their social inferiors, forbid her from remarrying. She marries Antonio in secret and bears him three children before they are found out.
The Duchess's lunatic and incestuously obsessed brother, Ferdinand, threatens and disowns her. In an attempt to escape, she and Antonio concoct a story that he has swindled her out of her fortune and has to flee into exile. She takes Bosola into her confidence, not knowing that he is Ferdinand's spy, and arranges that he will deliver her jewellery to Antonio at his hiding-place in Ancona. She will join them later, whilst pretending to make a pilgrimage to a town nearby. The Cardinal hears of the plan, instructs Bosola to banish the two lovers, and sends soldiers to capture them. Antonio escapes with their eldest son, but the Duchess, her maid, and her two younger children are returned to Malfi and, under instructions from Ferdinand, die at the hands of Bosola's executioners. This experience, combined with a long-standing sense of injustice and his own feeling of a lack of identity, turns Bosola against the Cardinal and his brother, deciding to take up the cause of "Revenge for the Duchess of Malfi" (V.2).
The Cardinal confesses to his mistress, Julia, his part in the killing of the Duchess and then murders her to silence her, using a poisoned Bible. Next, Bosola overhears the Cardinal plotting to kill him (though he accepts what he sees as punishment for his actions), and so visits the darkened chapel to kill the Cardinal at his prayers. Instead, he mistakenly kills Antonio, who has just returned to Malfi to attempt a reconciliation with the Cardinal. Bosola then stabs the Cardinal, who dies. In the brawl that follows, Ferdinand and Bosola stab each other to death.
Antonio's elder son by the Duchess appears in the final scene and takes his place as the heir to the Malfi fortune, despite his father's explicit wish that he "fly the court of princes," a corrupt and increasingly deadly environment.
Plot: Scene-by-scene breakdown
- Act 1
Scene 1—The Duchess’s palace in Malfi: Antonio and Delio are discussing the former's return from France, and discussing how the French king runs his court, comparing it to an easily poisoned fountain. They are interrupted by the entry of Bosola and the Cardinal. Antonio and Delio hold their conversation, stepping to the background to watch as Bosola angrily tries to gain the Cardinal’s pardon, speaking of the time he has spent in the galleys in penal servitude, and in the service of the Cardinal. Bosola declares that he is surely done with service, but the Cardinal is not interested in Bosola’s new merit, and takes his leave. Bosola compares himself to Tantalus, never able to acquire the thing he most desires, like an injured soldier who can only depend on his crutches for support of any kind. When he leaves, Antonio and Delio comment on his past offence, and how he will surely come to no good if he is kept in neglect. Ferdinand comes into the palace, talking to his courtiers about a tournament that Antonio has just won. When the Cardinal, Duchess, and Cariola enter to speak with Ferdinand, Antonio and Delio have a moment to themselves to discuss the Cardinal’s character; he is found to be a very dishonest, disagreeable person, as is his brother, Ferdinand. Only their sister, the Duchess, earns the approval of everyone, a very pleasant and gracious woman. After the two gentlemen leave, Ferdinand petitions his sister to make Bosola the manager of her horses; when everyone else leaves, Ferdinand and the Cardinal reveal that it is because Bosola is to spy on their sister. When Bosola is brought in and made aware of this plan, he at first refuses, but ultimately is given no choice. The Cardinal and Ferdinand then turn their attention to their sister, urging her not to marry again, now that she is a widow, going so far as to threaten her with death, in Ferdinand’s case. She refuses to be bullied, and once her brothers are out of sight, she proposes to Antonio by giving him her wedding ring. Having Cariola, the Duchess's maid, as their witness, this private ceremony is legally binding and the Duchess and Antonio become husband and wife.
- Act 2
Scene 1—The Duchess’s palace in Malfi, nine months later: Bosola and Castruchio enter, Bosola criticising his companion’s appearance, and telling him that he would make a ridiculous judge. When an old woman intrudes on their conversation, Bosola’s insults turn on her, calling her hideous to the point that no amount of make-up would help. He also accuses her of being too like a witch; the old lady and Castruchio leave Bosola alone to muse on the mysterious way the Duchess is acting of late. He believes she is pregnant (no one but Delio and Cariola know that the Duchess and Antonio are married), and aims to prove it by using apricots both to spark her pregnant appetite and to induce labour, as apricots were believed to do. The Duchess, when she enters, accepts the fruit from Bosola, and quickly starts going into labour. She then retires to her chamber claiming to be ill, with a worried Antonio following in her wake.
Scene 2—Same place and time as the previous scene: Bosola, alone, realises that the Duchess is indeed pregnant. After accosting the hapless old lady again, he watches as Antonio and the servants in a commotion about a Swiss mercenary who had invaded the Duchess’s room, and the loss of several jewels and gold utensils. Even with all the uproar, Antonio is not distracted from his wife’s “illness”; she is actually in labour. Cariola, the lady’s maid, enters with good news once Antonio is alone—he is the father of a son.
Scene 3—Same place and time as the previous scene: Bosola re-enters the now empty room, having heard a woman (the Duchess) shriek. Antonio discovers him, and questions his purpose in being there, since everyone had been commanded to keep to their rooms. Antonio tells him to stay away from the Duchess, since he doesn’t trust Bosola. In Antonio’s agitation, he accidentally drops a horoscope for his son’s birth, which Bosola retrieves. He realises what it means, and resolves to send it to the Duchess’s brothers with Castruchio.
Scene 4—The Cardinal’s rooms: The Cardinal and his mistress, Julia, are discussing their rendezvous, when a messenger calls the Cardinal away with an important message. Delio enters to find Julia alone. He was once a suitor of hers, and offers her money. Julia leaves to meet her husband, Castruchio, and Delio fears that her husband’s arrival means Antonio’s secret marriage is about to be revealed.
Scene 5—Rome, in Ferdinand’s private apartments: An enraged Ferdinand, with the letter from Bosola, and his brother the Cardinal, meet to discuss what they think is an awful treachery by their sister. Ferdinand is angry to the point of shouting about his sister’s “whorish” behaviour (he knows of the child, but not of the marriage), and the Cardinal struggles to control his brother’s temperamental outburst. Ferdinand resolves to discover the man his sister is seeing, threatening all and sundry.
- Act 3
Scene 1—The Duchess’s palace in Malfi, after some time has passed: Antonio greets the returning Delio, who has come from Rome with Ferdinand. Antonio reveals that the Duchess has had two more children in the time Delio was gone. Antonio fears the wrath of the recently arrived Ferdinand, and Delio tells him the ordinary people think the Duchess is a whore. While they talk, the Duchess and Ferdinand enter. He tells her that he has found a husband for her, the Count Malateste. She disregards this, as she is already married (still secretly of course) to Antonio. When left alone, Ferdinand consults with Bosola to discover the father of the three seemingly illegitimate children; Bosola has acquired a skeleton key to the Duchess’s room, which Ferdinand takes, telling him to guess what will happen next.
Scene 2—The Duchess’s bedchamber: Antonio comes up to the Duchess’s bedroom to spend the night, and they banter back and forth about the point of lovers just sleeping together. Antonio and Cariola leave to allow the Duchess to complete her night-time preparations, but she is not alone; Ferdinand sneaks in and startles her. He gives her a knife, intending her to kill herself, and his fury increases when she tells him she is married without his knowledge. Ferdinand leaves, declaring he will never see her again. He exits just in time, for Antonio bursts in brandishing a pistol, but the Duchess forces him to leave again when Bosola knocks at the door. Bosola informs the Duchess that Ferdinand has left for Rome again, and she tells him that Ferdinand’s bills of exchange (he has so far dealt with her accounts) will no longer work, since Antonio has been false with her accounts. This is, of course, a trick to get Antonio out of Malfi; she calls Antonio back in (once Bosola exits) to tell him to flee to Ancona, where she will send him all her treasure and valuables. The couple puts on a show argument for the benefit of the returning Bosola and officers, where she criticises his faulty record keeping and banishes him. Bosola does not believe the Duchess was justified in banishing Antonio, and tells her that Antonio is a good, honest man. This speech prompts the Duchess to confide the secret marriage to Bosola. He is then left on stage to lament his role as a spy, for now he must reveal all to Ferdinand.
Scene 3—A room in a palace at Rome: The Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste, Pescara, Silvio and Delio are discussing the new fortifications that are being made in Naples. Ferdinand and his men, leaving the Cardinal and Malateste to speak privately, are very harsh in their critique of Malateste, considering him too cowardly to fight in an upcoming battle. Bosola, meanwhile, interrupts the Cardinal's private conference with news of his sister. The Cardinal leaves to petition for her and her family’s exile from Ancona, while Bosola goes to tell the Duchess’s first child (from her first husband) what has happened with his mother. Ferdinand goes to find Antonio.
Scene 4—The shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, Italy, in the Ancona province: Two pilgrims are visiting the shrine in Ancona, and witness the Cardinal being symbolically prepared for war. The Cardinal then proceeds to take the Duchess’s wedding ring, banish her, Antonio, and their children, while the pilgrims muse over the reason for what they have just seen.
Scene 5—Near Loreto: The newly banished family, and the maid Coriola, enter Loreto. Shortly after their arrival, Bosola comes and presents the Duchess with a letter from Ferdinand, which indirectly states that Ferdinand wants Antonio dead. Antonio tells Bosola that he will not go to Ferdinand, and the Duchess urges him to take the oldest child and go to Milan to find safety, which he promptly does. Bosola and masked guards then take the Duchess and her remaining children captive, on the orders of her brothers.
- Act 4
Scene 1—A prison (or the Duchess’s lodgings serving as a prison) near Loreto: Ferdinand comes in with Bosola, who is describing to him how the Duchess is dealing with her imprisonment. It seems she is not affected to Ferdinand’s satisfaction, and he leaves angrily. Bosola greets the Duchess, telling her that her brother wishes to speak with her, but will not do so where he can see her. She agrees to meet with her brother in the darkness. Once the lights are out, Ferdinand returns. He presents her with a dead man’s hand, leading her to believe that it is Antonio’s, with her wedding ring on it. He then exits, leaving Bosola to show the Duchess lifelike figures of her husband and children, made to appear as though her family was dead. The Duchess believes them to be the genuine articles, and resolves to die—her despair is so deep it affects Bosola. When she leaves, Ferdinand re-enters; Bosola pleads with him to send his sister to a convent, refusing to be a part of the plot any more. Ferdinand is beyond reason at this point, and tells Bosola to go to Milan to find the real Antonio.
Scene 2—Same place and time as the previous scene: The Duchess and her maid, Cariola, come back, distracted by the noises being made by a group of madmen (Ferdinand brought them in to terrorise her). A servant tells her that they were brought for sport, and lets in several of the madmen. Bosola, too, sneaks in with them, disguised as an old man, and tells the Duchess that he is there to make her tomb. When she tries to pull rank on him, executioners with cords and a coffin come in. Cariola is removed from the room, leaving Bosola and the executioners with the Duchess. The Duchess makes a brave show, telling the executioners to “pull, and pull strongly”, welcoming her strangulation. Cariola is brought back, and after struggling fiercely, she too is strangled. Ferdinand comes to view the scene, and is also shown the bodies of his sister’s children, who were murdered as well. Ferdinand reveals that he and the Duchess were twins, and that he had hoped, if she had remained a widow, to inherit all her wealth. Bosola, sensing that Ferdinand is ready to turn on him next, demands payment for his atrocities. Ferdinand, distracted, leaves him alone with the bodies. Astonishingly, the Duchess is not dead. A shocked Bosola has no time to call for medicine; he manages to tell the Duchess that Antonio is not really dead; that the figures she saw were fake, before she finally dies. Bosola, remorseful at last, takes her body to the care of some good women, planning to leave immediately thereafter for Milan.
- Act 5
Scene 1—Outside Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s palace in Milan: Antonio returns to see if he can reconcile with Ferdinand and the Cardinal, but Delio is dubious as to the wisdom of this. Delio asks Pescara, a marquis, to give him possession of Antonio’s estate for safekeeping, but Pescara denies him. Julia presents Pescara with a letter from the Cardinal, which states that she should receive Antonio’s property, and which Pescara grants to her. When Delio confronts him about this, Pescara says that he would not give an innocent man a property that was taken from someone by such vile means (the Cardinal took the property for himself once Antonio was banished), for it will now become an appropriate place for the Cardinal’s mistress. This statement impresses the hidden Antonio. When Pescara leaves to visit an ill Ferdinand, Antonio decides to pay a night-time visit to the Cardinal.
Scene 2—Inside the same palace: Pescara, come to visit Ferdinand, is discussing his condition with the doctor, who believes Ferdinand may have lycanthropia: a condition whereby he believes he is a wolf. The doctor thinks there is a chance of a relapse, in which case Ferdinand's diseased behaviour would return; namely, digging up dead bodies at night. Pescara and the doctor make way for the mad Ferdinand, who attacks his own shadow. The Cardinal, who has entered with Ferdinand, manages to catch Bosola, who has been watching Ferdinand's ravings. The Cardinal assigns Bosola to seek out Antonio (by following Delio) and then slay him. After the Cardinal leaves, Bosola does not even make it to the door before he is stopped by Julia, who is brandishing a pistol. She accuses him of having given her a love potion, and threatens to kill him to end her love. Bosola manages to disarm her and convince her to gather intelligence for him about the Cardinal. Bosola then hides while Julia uses all of her persuasive powers to get the Cardinal to reveal his part in the death of his sister and her children. The Cardinal then makes Julia swear to keep silent, forcing her to kiss the poisoned cover of a bible, causing her to die almost instantly. Bosola comes out of hiding to confront the Cardinal, although he declares that he still intends to kill Antonio. Giving him a master key, the Cardinal takes his leave. However, once he is alone, Bosola swears to protect Antonio, and goes off to bury Julia's body.
Scene 3—A courtyard outside the same palace: Delio and Antonio are near the Duchess’s tomb; as they talk, an echo from the tomb mirrors their conversation. Delio leaves to find Antonio’s eldest son, and Antonio leaves to escape the distressing echo of his wife’s resting place.
Scene 4—The Cardinal’s apartments in Milan: The Cardinal enters, trying to dissuade Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo and Grisolan from staying to keep watch over Ferdinand. He goes so far as to say that he might feign mad fits to test their obedience; if they come to help, they will be in trouble. They unwillingly exit, and Bosola enters to find the Cardinal planning to have him killed. Antonio, unaware of Bosola, sneaks in while it is dark, planning to seek audience with the Cardinal. Not realising who has entered, Bosola attacks Antonio; he is horrified to see his mistake. He manages to relate the death of the Duchess and children to the dying Antonio, who is glad to be dying in sadness, now that life is pointless for him. Bosola then leaves to bring down the Cardinal.
Scene 5—The same apartments, near Julia’s lodging: The Cardinal, unaware of what has just happened, is reading a book when Bosola enter with a servant, who is bearing Antonio’s body. He threatens the Cardinal, who calls for help. Help is not forthcoming, for the gentlemen from the beginning of the previous scene, while they can hear him calling, have no desire to go to his aid (because of his previous order to not at any cost try to help Ferdinand). Bosola kills the servant of the Cardinal first, and then stabs the Cardinal. Ferdinand bursts in, also attacking his brother; in the fight, he accidentally wounds Bosola. Bosola kills Ferdinand, and is left with the dying Cardinal. The gentlemen who heard the cries now enter the room to witness the deaths of the Cardinal and Bosola. Delio enters too late with Antonio’s eldest son, and laments the unfortunate events that have passed.
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Set and Props: As this play would have first been produced in the Globe, the set would probably been a bare stage with movable set pieces such as tables, stools, beds, hangings, and altars, all of which would have been stock pieces used in every show. Props would also have been minimal, with essentials like swords, pistols, and candles, and dummies. Interestingly, the traveller and future translator of Castiglione's Cortegiano, Thomas Hoby, together with his friend Peter Whitehorne, translator of Machiavelli's Art of War, were lavishly entertained by a subsequent Duchess of Malfi and her son, Innico, in the Castello di Amalfi in 1550. Hoby was clearly very impressed by the decor, by implication superior to what he was used to in England, describing the chamber in which they were accommodated as: 'hanged with clothe of gold and vellett, wherein were two beddes, th'one of silver worke and the other of vellett, with pillowes bolsters and the shetes curiouslie wrowght with needle worke.'
Lighting: Lighting for a theatre like the Globe is completely dependent upon the sun. Performances would occur in the afternoon so as to see the performers since no other sources of lighting were accessible.
Costumes: This was the Jacobean era, and Renaissance clothing, often hand-me-downs from noble patrons, would have been appropriate during this time. Especially since this play takes place among wealthy, prestigious characters who belong to The Royal Court, there would have been long dresses with elaborate sleeves and headpieces for most female characters, and form fitting tunics for most of the men as a general rule. Men would wear hose and codpieces, very royal members of The Court might wear jackets with stuffed (bombast) sleeves, and both men and women would be able to wear clothing with some type of color to it. Due to the sumptuary laws, deep purple was restricted to the nobility of the times. During this period, and until the Restoration (1660) women were not generally accepted on stage. Because of this, the roles of women were played by apprentice boys or the younger men. Padding would be built into their costumes, their heads would be adorned with wigs, and extra make-up would be applied to their faces.
Music: Music would be played in the musicians' gallery located in the balcony of the theatre, where actors would also perform, depending upon space. An orchestra consisted of six instruments, including trumpets, recorders, and drums. This would be played for entrances, introductions, and battle scenes.
The 1623 quarto
The first printed edition contains a combined cast list for two productions of The Duchess of Malfi by the King's Men, c. 1614 and c. 1621, providing valuable information about the structure and evolution of the key dramatic company of the era. The printer was a Nicholas Okes, and the publisher John Waterson. Webster dedicated the play to George Harding, 8th Baron Berkeley, a noted patron of literature in his era. The phrasing of Webster's dedication indicates that the dramatist was soliciting the Baron's patronage, rather than acknowledging support already given; it is unknown to what degree that solicitation was successful.
Reception and performance history
The play was written for and performed by the King's Men in 1613 or 1614. The double cast lists included in the 1623 quarto suggest a revival around 1619. Contemporary reference also indicated that the play was performed in 1618, for in that year Orazio Busino, the chaplain to the Venetian ambassador to England, complained of the play's treatment of Catholics in the character of the Cardinal.
The quarto's cast list allows more precision about casting than is usually available. Richard Burbage and Joseph Taylor successively played Ferdinand to Henry Condell's Cardinal. John Lowin played Bosola; William Ostler was Antonio. Boy player Richard Sharpe originated the title role. Nicholas Tooley played Forobosco, and Robert Pallant doubled numerous minor roles, including Cariola.
The quarto title page announces that the play was performed at both the Globe Theatre and at Blackfriars; however, in tone and in some details of staging (particularly the use of special lighting effects) the play is clearly meant primarily for the indoor stage. Robert Johnson, a regular composer for Blackfriars, wrote incidental music for the play and composed a setting for the "madmen's song" in Act 4.
By the early eighteenth century, Webster's violence and sexual frankness had gone out of taste. In 1733, Lewis Theobald wrote and directed an adaptation, The Fatal Secret; the play imposed neoclassical unities on the play, for instance by eliminating the Duchess's child and preserving the Duchess at the end. By mid-century, the play had fallen with Webster out of the repertory, where it stayed until the Romantic revival of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt. This version of the play was most recently presented at Shakespeare's Globe as part of their Read Not Dead series, directed by actor David Oakes.
In 1850, after a generation of critical interest and theatrical neglect, the play was staged by Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells, with Isabella Glyn in the title role. The text was adapted by Richard Henry Horne. The production was favourably reviewed by The Athenaeum; George Henry Lewes, however, registered disapproval of the play's violence and what he termed its shoddy construction: "Instead of ‘holding the mirror up to nature,’ this drama holds the mirror up to Madame Tussauds." These would become the cornerstones of criticisms of Webster for the next century. Still, the play was popular enough for Glyn to revive her performance periodically for the next two decades.
Shortly after, Duchess came to the United States. Working with Horne's text, director James Stark staged a production in San Francisco; this version is noteworthy for a sentimental apotheosis Stark added, in which the Duchess and Ferdinand are reunited in heaven. The most popular American productions, however, were produced by Wilmarth Waller and his wife Emma.
William Poel staged the play at the Opera Comique in 1892, with Mary Rorke as the Duchess and Murray Carson as Bosola. Poel's playscript followed Webster's text closely apart from scene rearrangements; however, reaction had set in, and the production received generally scathing reviews. William Archer, England's chief proponent of Ibsen's new drama, took advantage of the occasion to lambast what he saw as the overestimation of Elizabethan theatre in general.
In 1919, the Phoenix Society revived the play in London for the first time in two decades. The production featured Cathleen Nesbitt as the Duchess; Robert Farquharson played Ferdinand. The production was widely disparaged. For many of the newspaper critics, the failure indicated that Webster had become a "curio"; T. S. Eliot, conversely, argued that the production had failed to uncover the elements that made Webster a great dramatist—specifically his poetry. A 1935 production at the Embassy Theatre received similarly negative reviews; Ivor Brown noted that the audience left "rather with superior smiles than with emotional surrender." In 1938, a production was broadcast on BBC television; it was no better received than the previous two stage productions.
In the aftermath of World War II, George Rylands directed a production at the Haymarket Theatre that at last caught the public mood. John Gielgud, as Ferdinand, accentuated the element of incestuous passion in that character's treatment of the Duchess (played by Peggy Ashcroft). Cecil Trouncer was Bosola. Edmund Wilson was perhaps the first to note that the play struck an audience differently in the wake of the revelation of the Holocaust; this note is, from 1945 on, continually struck in discussions of the appropriateness of Webster for the modern age. A 1946 production on Broadway did not fare as well; Rylands attempted to duplicate his London staging with John Carradine as Ferdinand and Elisabeth Bergner as the Duchess. W. H. Auden adapted Webster's text for the modern audience. However, the production's most notable innovation was in the character of Bosola, which was played by Canada Lee in whiteface. The production received savage reviews from the popular press, and it fared little better in the literary reviews.
The first successful postwar performance in America was staged at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre in 1957. Directed by Jack Landau, who had earlier staged a brief but well-reviewed White Devil, the production emphasised (and succeeded as) Grand Guignol. As Walter Kerr put it, "Blood runs right over the footlights, spreads slowly up the aisle and spills well out into Second Avenue."
Ashcroft returned as the Duchess in a 1960 production at the Aldwych Theatre. The play was directed by Donald McWhinnie; Eric Porter played Ferdinand and Max Adrian the Cardinal. Patrick Wymark played Bosola. The production received generally favourable but lukewarm reviews. In 1971, Clifford Williams directed the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Judi Dench took the title role, with Geoffrey Hutchings as Bosola and Emrys James as the Cardinal. Dench's husband Michael Williams played Ferdinand, casting which highlighted the sexual element of the play's siblings.
In 1980, Adrian Noble directed the play at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. This production received excellent notices; it was transferred to London, where it won the London Drama Critic's Award for best play. Helen Mirren played the title role; Mike Gwilym played Ferdinand, and Bob Hoskins played Bosola. Pete Postlethwaite was Antonio. Mirren's performance received special acclaim.
The actor-centered troupe led by Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge chose Webster's play as one of their first productions. The production opened in January 1986 in the Lyttelton Theatre of the Royal National Theatre and was directed and designed by Philip Prowse. The staging was highly stylised, the scenic backdrop segmented, and the actors' movements tightly controlled. The result, as Jarka Burian noted, was "a unified, consistent mise-en-scene...without enough inner turbulence to create a completely satisfying theatre experience." Eleanor Bron played the Duchess; McKellen played Bosola, Jonathan Hyde Ferdinand, and Petherbridge the Cardinal.
In 2010, the production was staged for Stage on Screen at the Greenwich Theatre, London. It was directed by Elizabeth Freestone and starred Aislin McGuckin in a production that set the play in the first half of the twentieth century. In The Guardian, the reviewer noted that 'Much of the pleasure of this revival lies in re-encountering Webster's language...full of savage poetry.' The production is now available on DVD.
In July 2010, English National Opera and Punchdrunk collaborated to stage the production, which had been commissioned by the ENO from composer Torsten Rasch. The production was staged in a promenade style and performed at a mysterious vacant site at Great Eastern Quay in London's Royal Albert Basin.
From March to June 2012, London's Old Vic Theatre staged a production, directed by Jamie Lloyd and starring, amongst others, Eve Best. In January 2014, Shakespeare's Globe staged a production  directed by Dominic Dromgoole and starring Gemma Arterton as the Duchess, James Garnon as the Cardinal, David Dawson as Ferdinand, Alex Waldmann as Antonio, and Sean Gilder as Bosola. It was the first production performed in the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The production was filmed and broadcast on BBC4 on 25 May 2014. This production coincided with a representation of the aforementioned Theobald text of 1736 as part of the Globe's Read Not Dead series – directed by David Oakes.
- Opera – Stephen Oliver's The Duchess of Malfi, staged at Oxford in 1971.
- Television – In 1972, produced by the BBC
- Television – A Question of Happiness #1: A Question About Hell, an adaptation by Kingsley Amis in which the names of all the characters are changed
- Audio – In 1980, produced by the BBC.
- Radio – on BBC Third Programme, 16 May 1954, with Peggy Ashcroft as the Duchess and Paul Scofield as Ferdinand.
- Radio – In 1988 on Australia's ABC, with Fay Kelton as the Duchess.
- Radio – on BBC Radio 3, 8/11/1992, with Fiona Shaw in the title role, Roger Allam and John Shrapnel.
- Radio – on BBC Radio 3, 12/10/2008, with Sophie Okonedo as the Duchess.
- Recording – (excerpts only) In 1952, read by Dylan Thomas by Caedmon
- Recording – (full dramatisation) In 1969 by Caedmon starring Barbara Jefford as the Duchess, Alec McCowen as Ferdinand, Robert Stephens as Bosola and Jeremy Brett as Antonio.
- DVD – 2010, Stage on Screen, with Aislin McGuckin (Duchess), Tim Treloar (Bosola), Tim Steed (Ferdinand) and Mike Hadfield (Cardinal).
In popular culture
- Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (Williams, Collins Sons & Co Ltd. 1976) uses the lines Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young as the novel's central refrain.
- A fragment of Scene 2, Act 4 of the play, with Struan Rodger as Ferdinand and Donald Burton as Bosola, is shown in the 1987 BBC TV film version of Agatha Christie's detective novel Sleeping Murder.
- Cover Her Face by P. D. James (initial copyright 1962) uses the first part of the quote as the title and as a comment made by the first witness on the scene of a young murdered woman.
- The Skull Beneath the Skin by P. D. James centres around an aging actress who plans to perform The Duchess of Malfi in a Victorian castle theatre. The novel takes its title from T. S. Eliot's famous characterisation of Webster's work in his poem 'Whispers of Immortality'.
- In the culmination of John le Carré's Call for the Dead, Smiley is reported to have been quoting from The Duchess of Malfi in his delirium – "I bade thee when I was distracted of my wits go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done it", according to Peter Guillam.
- Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice uses the lines Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young, as a quote from Lestat to his vampire child, Claudia.
- Stephen Fry's novel The Stars' Tennis Balls takes its title from Bosola's line in the play.
- Hotel by Mike Figgis involves a film crew trying to make a Dogme film of The Duchess of Malfi. The actors playing the Duchess, Antonio and Bosola are played by Saffron Burrows, Max Beesley and Heathcote Williams. The play is abbreviated and made into a 'McMalfi' script by Heathcote Williams.
- In the novel Too Many Clients by Rex Stout a character that does not want to tell his name quotes Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out. The quote allows Nero Wolfe to find him.
- In the Oxford University Film Foundation's 1982 film Privileged, the students produce and rehearse lines from the play.
- Echo & the Bunnymen mentioned this play along with John Webster and The White Devil in their song "My White Devil" on their Porcupine album.
- Volume 2 of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time includes a visit to a performance of the play, where the minor character Moreland is in love with the actress playing Julia.
- On the program I Kiss Your Shadow, the final episode of the 1961 television series Bus Stop (of which author Stephen King named this specific episode as "...the single most frightening story ever done on TV"), one of the main characters gives a rare copy of The Duchess of Malfi (that he purchased at auction) to his sister as a wedding gift.
- In the Season 5 Episode Reckoner of CBS'S Criminal Minds, the unsub is called Bosola
- The Echo and the Bunnymen track My White Devil on Porcupine (album) refers to the Duchess of Malfi.
- Equestrian steward; one who had the care of providing for her stables.
- Drabble, Margaret, ed. (2000). "Duchess of Malfi, The". The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
- Clark, Sandra (2007). Renaissance Drama. Cambridge, England: Polity. p. 12. ISBN 0-7456-3311-0.
- Jack, Ian. "The Case of John Webster." Scrutiny XVI (1949): 43.
- Matteo Bandello, «Il signor Antonio Bologna sposa la duchessa di Malfi e tutti dui sono ammazzati», Novelle, Novella XXVI. In: La prima parte de le novelle del Bandello. Tomo secondo, Londra: presso Riccardo Bancker (i.e. Livorno: Tommaso Masi), 1791, pp. 212 ff.
- Charles R. Forker, Skull beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL., 1986, p.115ff.
- Edward Chaney, The Evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations since the Renaissance, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2000, pp. 65–7, 139n.
- Brown, John Russell (1997). The Duchess of Malfi. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. p. 25. ISBN 0-7190-4357-3.
- "Globe Read Not Dead 2014". Retrieved 19 January 2014.
- "Theatre Download | Theatre Play Download Or DVD". Stage on Screen. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
- "the duchess of malfi – The Old Vic". Oldvictheatre.com. 1 June 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
- "the duchess of malfi – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse". shakespearesglobe.com. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
- "The Duchess of Malfi: BBC Arts at the Globe". BBC Programmes.
- "radio plays drama,bbc,The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster, DIVERSITY website". Suttonelms.org.uk. 16 May 1954. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
- "BBC Radio 3 – Drama on 3, The Duchess of Malfi". Bbc.co.uk. 12 October 2008. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
- Christopher White and Huw Collingbourne. "Dylan Thomas Unabridged: The Caedmon Collection [audio]". Greenmanreview.com. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
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