The Duchess of Malfia By John Webster

About John Webster

John Webster is mostly known for his plays The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Writing at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, Webster wrote a few plays of his own but also collaborated with other writers. Little is known about Webster – he was born about 1580 and died about 1634. He had at least one child, also called John, whose marriage to Sara Peniall had been arranged by special permission in Lent – his child arriving two months after the marriage.

Webster’s plays explore the darkness of humanity, looking at love, lust, sexual immorality, injustice, the class system, politics and religion. A dark voice in the seventeenth century, his plays have varied in popularity over the centuries, with the Victorians turning the end of the Duchess of Malfi into a happy one! However, his themes remain relevant and real, and his characters believable in today’s society, making him a playwright who will never become obsolete.


The Duchess of Malfi is widowed young. She is forbidden to remarry by her brothers the Duke Ferdinand, and the Cardinal. However, she secretly marries her steward Antonio and becomes pregnant. Bosola has been sent to spy on the Duchess and suspects she may be pregnant so feeds her apricots to induce labour. The Duchess gives birth to a son, and Bosola passes this news onto her brothers.

Antonio and the Duchess have two more children together. Bosola tells her brothers of the secret marriage and the couple are banished.

Fearing for their safety the Duchess tells Antonio to escape with their eldest son to Milan. However, the Duchess, her servant and the other two children are brought back to Malfi and murdered at Ferdinand’s instruction with Bosola witnessing the murder. The Duchess is made to believe that Antonio and her children are dead but in her final breaths, Bosola has a change of heart and tells her that they are still alive. Bosola changes sides and decides to protect Antonio despite still working for the brothers.

Ferdinand almost goes mad and thinks he’s a wolf that includes digging the bodies. Bosola hears that the Cardinal is planning his death, and so he is trying to assassinate the Cardinal, killing Antonio by mistake. He kills the Cardinal and Ferdinand, and Ferdinand kills Bosols. The Cardinal and Bosola were the last to die on stage. Delio (a courtier and friend of Antonio’s) enters the Duchess and the eldest son of Antonio who has not died and who is now the heir to the Malfi estate.


A true story, the real Duchess of Amalfi, Giovanna D’Aragona, secretly married the master of her household, Antonio Bologna, and had three children. Both she and her two youngest children were murdered in 1513 although her brothers Lodovico d’Aragona (Cardinal of Santa Maria in Cosmedin) and Carlo d’Aragona (Marquis of Gerace) have never been connected to the murder. However, like Ferdinand and the Cardinal in the play, they did not approve of her secret marriage to Antonio and there is evidence that the Duchess feared they might take their revenge. Antonio, just like the play, was murdered in Milan. Amalfi is approx. 75 km south of Naples


Revenge tragedies concentrate on one or more characters in the play who are motivated by revenge, such as Hamlet finding revenge for his father’s death. They explore tensions between public and private revenge, question the social justice system, often involve a supernatural scene, usually include scenes of madness and an end to the carnage.

Revenge tragedies are influenced by the Roman statesman, philosopher and playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca who worked for Emperor Nero. The Spanish tragedy of Thomas Kyd was the first well-known vengeance tragedy in the Elizabethan/Jacobean era, with Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare), The Revenger’s Tragedy (Middleton) and Antonio’s Revenge (Marston) being the others. In The Duchess of Malfi, both brothers of the Duchess seek revenge after the Duchess has gone behind their backs and remarried secretly. While some critics argue that the Duchess of Malfi does not follow all the conventions of the traditional vengeance tragedy (especially with the Duchess dying in Act four), the obsessive behaviour and need for revenge by Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal, the scenes of extreme violence and torture, and the madness of Ferdinand fit the pattern.


As Elizabeth’s reign came to an end and King James I took the throne the theatre had become a popular pastime. However, the demands of the audience was changing and theatre-goers were looking for theatre that had stronger themes and dealt with the darker side of humankind. As the reign of King James continued, morality both within and outside the court began to lapse and with it, the morality within plays. Thus Shakespeare’s plays became darker (for example Othello and King Lear) and other popular playwrights of the time also explored the darker themes of jealousy, corruption, revenge and other forces of evil. The intelligent, educated middle-class audience who attended the more expensive Blackfriars Theatre enjoyed the darkness of this new genre of theatre. Whilst Jonson wrote more satire and comedy, John Webster, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, William Rowley explored the darker

Jacobean Themes.

Theatregoing was very popular right up to the Puritans closing the theatres in the 1640s. Theatre companies came and went, the two main rivals continuing to be The King’s men (originally The Lord Chamberlain’s Men) and The Admiral’s men who became known as The Prince’s Men from 1603 after their new patron Prince Henry and then The Palatine’s Men after Frederik V their patron when Henry died. Other companies included the Worcester’s men (who changed to The Queen Anne’s men after James’s wife, Anne of Denmark, who was a great supporter of the arts in the Jacobean era) and The Lady Elizabeth’s men

Detailed Summary Of The Play (Act-Wise)

The Duchess, a woman of true blue blood and a widow to boot, falls in love with a man far below her station. This is resented by her brothers who fear they will lose her patrimony if she marries. They find an agent in a hardened criminal whom they put in her service. Eventually, she and her children are eliminated.

This play was written in 1613 or 1614 and is generally considered to be Webster’s masterpiece. The story is based on actual events that took place in Italy in the early sixteenth century. Webster freely borrowed elements of his story from several sources. The play is sometimes ridiculed by modern critics for the excessive violence and horror in its later scenes. Nevertheless, the complexity of some of its characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, and Webster’s poetic language give it a continuing interest, and it is still performed in the 21st century.

Act 1, Scene 1 Summary

The play opens in Malfi, in the presence-chamber (the room where royalty would receive visitors) in the Duchess’s palace. Antonio and Delio enter. Antonio Bologna is the steward of the Duchess’s household; Delio is his friend. Antonio has been away in France visiting the French court, and Delio asks him what he thinks of it. Antonio tells him he admires the French king very much, because the king has dismissed all the yes-men and immoral hangers-on, and has rewarded men who tell him the truth about court corruption. Antonio believes it is a noble duty to advise royal persons about morally sensitive matters.

Daniel de Bosola enters, along with the Cardinal, who is one of the Duchess’s brothers. Bosola
is pestering the Cardinal about not being justly rewarded for service he has fulfilled for the Cardinalin fact, Bosola says, he was in the galleys (that is, serving as an oarsman in a warship) for two years in the Cardinal’s service. The Cardinal puts him off, telling him he wishes Bosola could be honest. As the Cardinal leaves, Bosola responds sarcastically that the Cardinal, being a man of divinity, should teach him how; after the Cardinal exits, Bosola declares that the Cardinal is worse than any devil. Antonio asks him what he is talking about. Bosola says that the Cardinal and his brother (Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria-the Duchess’s other brother) are rich and corrupt and that they do not reward faithful service. Bosola departs after a few more bitter comments. Delio tells Antonio that Bosola had been in the galleys for seven years, serving time for a murder reputedly ordered by the Cardinal. Then Delio reminds Antonio that he had promised to tell Delio about all the noblemen and courtiers.

Ferdinand enters with Castruchio, Silvio, Roderigo, Grisolan, and attendants. The group has been at a sporting contest where Antonio has triumphed most often. Ferdinand asks when they will give up the games and get to real action, and Castruchio tells him he should not wish to go to war, but rather he should send deputies to war in his place. Ferdinand changes the subject to a witticism that Julia, Castruchio’s wife, made about a wounded soldier. Then he changes the subject again, asking what his companions think of his horse. The men banter about the horse, but Ferdinand chides Roderigo and Grisolan for laughing when he is not laughing. Ferdinand tells Silvio he will visit him in Milan soon. Ferdinand tells Antonio he is a good horseman and asks him what he thinks of good horsemanship.

Antonio says good horsemanship elevates the mind to noble action; Ferdinand agrees.

The Cardinal reenters, along with the Duchess, Cariola, and Julia. In an aside, Delio reminds Antonio of his promise and asks him about the Cardinal. Antonio tells Delio the Cardinal is a scheming church politician who uses informers and bribes to get what he wants, and that what Delio has heard about the Cardinal being a brave and sporting fellow who courts women is true only outwardly, “for form.” Delio asks about Ferdinand, the Cardinal’s brother. Antonio says much the same thing about him – that his mirth is outward only, and that he uses informers and hearsay to doom men to death. Antonio tells Delio that the two brothers are corrupt and scheming, but that their sister the Duchess is good and noble as well as beautiful. Cariola interrupts Antonio’s rapturous comments to tell him he must attend the Duchess in the gallery in half an hour. Antonio and Delio exit.

Ferdinand asks the Duchess to appoint Bosola as her horseman (stable keeper). The Duchess says Ferdinand’s recommendation is evidence of Bosola’s worthiness.

Silvio says his goodbyes to Ferdinand and the Duchess. Ferdinand asks Silvio to commend them to “all our noble friends at the leaguer” (military camp). The Duchess offers to transport Silvio in her coaches. Everyone exits except Ferdinand and the Cardinal.

The Cardinal tells Ferdinand to make use of Bosola now that he’s going to be part of the Duchess’s household. Ferdinand says Antonio would have been a better choice, but the Cardinal tells Ferdinand that Antonio is too honest for the role Ferdinand has in mind. The Cardinal exits; Bosola reenters, telling Ferdinand he was summoned there. The men have an exchange about how the Cardinal has treated Bosola. Ferdinand gives Bosola gold; Bosola assumes he must kill someone to earn it. Ferdinand says he might in the future, but for now, he must live in the palace and spy on the Duchess. The Duchess is a young widow, and Ferdinand wants to know who her suitors are because he does not want her to remarry. Bosola reluctantly accepts the task of being Ferdinand’s spy, believing he is indebted to Ferdinand because Ferdinand procured the provisorship of the horse for him.

Act 1, Scene 1 Analysis

This scene introduces most of the characters in the play. The setting is the Duchess’s presence-chamber or royal receiving room, but the Duchess herself is an “absent presence” for the first scene. The Duchess’ absence here presages her powerlessness that will follow for the rest of the play. However, the fact that it is her palace and her presence-chamber (and “her” play since it is named after her) also underscore her centrality to the action.

Antonio’s importance is immediately indicated by the fact that he appears on the first page and has the most to say. Delio, his honest and loyal friend, serves to explain how Antonio stands apart from the other courtiers (he has been in France, acquiring grand ideas about how noblemen should behave) and to elicit Antonio’s opinion of the other main characters. An expository device like this is less artificial than a formal narration by an otherwise uninvolved character would be, and it also gives the audience/ reader a chance to like Antonio for his honesty and goodness. The relationship between Antonio and Delio is reminiscent of that between Hamlet and his faithful friend Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. One large difference is that Antonio does not struggle with conscience and reluctance to act as Hamlet does (of course, Antonio doesn’t have his father’s ghost urging him to take revenge by committing murder!).

With Antonio’s introduction in mind, the audience is immediately ready to distrust and dislike Bosola upon his entrance. It soon becomes clear that the Cardinal has instigated whatever crimes Bosola has committed, and that he has reneged on whatever promise of reward he has made Bosola. The old saying, “There is no honour among thieves,” springs to mind as the initial exchange between the long-suffering Bosola and the long-exploiting Cardinal plays out. Antonio again presages the action when he tells Delio that Bosola is actually a good man, but that being denied recompense for the shady favours he has done the Cardinal will poison his remaining goodness and breed further unhappiness in his heart.

Ferdinand’s entrance shows him to be a man interested in sport and action, and also someone who leaps from subject to subject as it suits him. Ferdinand banters jocularly with all the men at court, but he controls the conversation and immediately chides his underlings if their behaviour does not match his expectations. The man is impressed by Antonio’s response to his question about horsemanship, as he knows it shows that Antonio is an honourable and noble man despite his lowborn status. Ferdinand thinks Antonio would have made a better choice than Bosola as a spy in the Duchess’s household, but the Cardinal correctly surmises that Antonio is too honest and would not have accepted the offer (indeed, if Ferdinand had made such an offer to Antonio rather than Bosola, this would be a very different play). The Duchess reveals her complete ignorance of her brothers’ true natures when she grants Bosola the provisorship of the horse upon nothing but Ferdinand’s recommendation.

Antonio continues his function as an unwitting forecaster of plot twists to come when he goes on at length to Delio about how wonderful the Duchess is. Bosola also participates in the foreshadowing when he accepts Ferdinand’s offer and says it seems the duke is making him one of his “familiars”; later (in Act 5, Scene 4) when Bosola suddenly kills Antonio, it seems he has indeed acted entirely apart from his own will. Here, in the beginning, it seems Bosola is simply out to improve his lot in life.

Act 1, Scene 2 Summary

Ferdinand, the Duchess, the Cardinal, and Cariola enter a gallery in the palace.The brothers tell the Duchess they are leaving and that she must use her own discretion about suitors. The men tell her she should not marry again and she assures them she will not. The brothers warn her against marrying secretly. The Cardinal exits. The Duchess tells Ferdinand she believes their warnings were rehearsed. Ferdinand shows her a dagger and issues a veiled threat. Then he makes a final admonition that the Duchess understands as a lewd warning against giving in to sexual desire, but he says he is merely talking about the lure of smooth-talking men.

After Ferdinand exits, the Duchess declares that her brothers’ threats will not prevent her from the marriage she has planned. Cariola pledges her secrecy and devotion. The Duchess asks Cariola to hide behind the curtain when Antonio comes in.

When Antonio enters, the Duchess tells him to get a pen and ink, as she is going to dictate her will to him. It soon becomes clear she is proposing to Antonio. The Duchess says it is a misery of the highborn that they must woo because no one will woo them. The woman then declares her love for Antonio, and though he declares himself unworthy of her, he pledges his devotion to her. Cariola comes out from behind the arras and serves as a witness to their declared marriage. Antonio asks the Duchess what her brothers will do; she assures him that in time the storm will blow over. The Duchess and Antonio exit; Cariola declares that the Duchess is a great woman but that she pities her.

Act 1, Scene 2 Analysis

The brothers’ rehearsed lecture to their sister about not marrying or being carried away by silver-tongued suitors indicates that they do not trust her. There is no indication how long she has been a widow, but perhaps she has recently put off her mourning attire and seemed too happy for her brothers’ comfort. The sexual innuendo of the duke’s admonition about the “part which, like the lamprey, / Hath never a bone in ‘t,” shows what low esteem he holds his sister in, as no decent man of 1504 would talk to his noble sister so suggestively. The fact that she takes it as sexual innuendo, rather than as the “sweet-talking” comment Ferdinand says he meant, reveals a hint of her secret intention to marry.

Antonio’s astonishment at the Duchess’s declaration of love and proposal of marriage is genuine; he has lived a virtuous life and never expected such a great reward. When he asks what her brothers will think, the Duchess assures him, essentially, that time heals all wounds, and if they should discover the marriage, they will get over it. Antonio accepts this, saying he should have been the one to offer bravery in the face of their opposition. The happiness of the loving couple is overshadowed by Cariola’s comment about pitying the Duchess for what is either great spirit or great folly; in this instance, Cariola serves as the forecaster of impending doom.

Act 2, Scene 1 Summary

This scene takes place in a room in the Duchess’s palace. Bosola and Castruchio enter, bantering about Castruchio’s ambition to be a great courtier. Bosola is exercising his usual melancholic/ choleric manner, talking nonsensically, and Castruchio is playing along. An old lady enters, and Bosola engages her in an insulting banter about her appearance. After a long speech about the diseased and transitory nature of life, Bosola tells Castruchio his wife has gone to Rome and tells Castruchio and the old lady to go to the wells at Lucca; he has work to do. Castruchio and the old lady exit. Bosola says he suspects the Duchess is pregnant and he hatches a plot to disclose her pregnancy with the first apricots of the spring.

Antonio and Delio enter, talking together aside. Antonio discloses his secret marriage with the Duchess to Delio, who is amazed. Antonio swears him to secrecy.

Antonio tells Bosola to stop pretending to be melancholy; he deduces that Bosola is acting melancholy so as not to appear big-headed about his position in the palace. Bosola declares he wants simply to be honest. The man says the same evil passions motivate all people, highborn as well as poor.

The Duchess and her ladies enter. The Duchess takes Antonio’s arm, saying she is growing fat and is short of breath. The Duchess tells Bosola to provide her with a litter, such as the one the Duchess of Florence rode in. Bosola says the Duchess of Florence rode in it when she was pregnant; the Duchess agrees, then bursts out impatiently that she is troubled “with the mother” (footnote indicates this means “hysteria”). Bosola plays on the phrase in an aside. The Duchess changes the subject, beginning a conversation with Antonio about how the French wear hats in court. Bosola gives the Duchess the apricots and she eats them with great relish; in asides, Bosola declares that his trick has worked-he has proven she is pregnant. Suddenly the Duchess feels unwell and must hasten to her chamber. As she and her ladies exit, she tells Antonio she fears she is undone. Bosola exits on the other side of the stage.

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Antonio tells Delio he is afraid the Duchess has gone into labour before the time he has arranged to spirit her away somewhere. Delio advises him to use the apricots as an excuse for the Duchess’s indisposed condition; he tells Antonio to make it known that the apricots were poisoned.

Act 2, Scene 1 Analysis

Presumably, about nine months have passed since the secret marriage. Bosola is ensconced in his provisorship of the horse and continues his antagonistic ways, as illustrated by his exchange with the old lady and Castruchio. Antonio’s interpretation of Bosola’s ill-humour is, unfortunately for Antonio and the Duchess in scenes to come, short of the mark; he believes Bosola’s bluster is all an elaborate cover so that people will not think he is feeling superior about his position in the Duchess’s household. Antonio does not know about (or yet guess at) Bosola’s appointment as a household spy by Ferdinand, and so he misses the truth in Bosola’s comments about common passions motivating high and low alike.

Bosola’s “trick” with the apricots is far-fetched if we are to believe eating them actually causes the Duchess to go into labour (after all, she is already short of breath, and therefore, we assume, very close to the end of her pregnancy). A more sensible reading is that she happens to go into labour after eating the fruit, and everyone accepts the superstitious conclusion about the cause. It is the early 1500s, after all, and much about pregnancy and childbirth is not understood (even in the early 1600s, when the play was written, such things were still largely mysterious). Indeed, even when the quick-thinking Delio helps Antonio devise a plausible cover-up for the Duchess’s withdrawal to her chamber to give birth, Antonio can only respond that he is “lost in amazement.”

Act 2, Scene 2 Summary

In a hall in the palace, Bosola enters, gloating about his confirmed knowledge of the Duchess’s pregnancy. An old lady enters and tells him she is in a hurry. Bosola engages her in more of his caustic banter, making it clear that he knows about the pregnancy. The old lady exits.

Antonio, Delio, Roderigo, and Grisolan enter. Antonio orders all the court gates shut and all officers of the court called. Grisolan goes to do these things, returning quickly with servants. In an aside, Bosola worries that the apricots were poisoned without his knowledge. Two servants joke together about a “French plot” and make crude jokes about a Swiss man being caught in the Duchess’s chamber. Antonio tells the officers that jewels worth four thousand ducats have been stolen from the Duchess’s cabinet; all officers are to be locked in their rooms until sunrise. Bosola challenges one of the servants who had been talking about the “Switzer,” and the servant declares that the story had been believably reported by one of the blackguards (lowly servants). Everyone exits except Antonio and Delio. Antonio sends Delio ahead to Rome, entrusting him with his life and secrets. Delio pledges his loyalty and wishes Antonio joyous fatherhood. Delio exits. Cariola enters and tells Antonio he has a son.

Act 2, Scene 2 Analysis

Paranoia is running high, with the servants hearing rumours from servants about a Swiss man caught red-handed in the Duchess’s quarters. The reference to a “French plot” hints that Antonio’s secret marriage to the Duchess may be known-but Bosola dismisses the rumour as soon as Antonio orders the lockdown, so it is apparent the rumour is not very strong if it has not reached the ears of a diligent household spy, and apparently the “French connection” with Antonio (who had spent lots of time at the French court before the play began) does not occur to Bosola. After all but Delio and Antonio exit, Delio sensibly assures Antonio that his fears are nothing but superstition, and not anything to truly worry about. Cariola’s announcement of Antonio’s new son seems to echo Delio’s reassurances.

Act 2, Scene 3 Summary

In the courtyard of the Duchess’s palace, Bosola enters, declaring that he was sure he heard a shriek from the Duchess’s rooms. Bosola suspects that everyone has been confined to their lodgings to keep them from discovering the Duchess is giving birth.

Antonio enters with a candle and a drawn sword. Bosola declares himself Antonio’s friend; Antonio, in an aside, calls Bosola a mole. Bosola says it is cold but Antonio is sweating and looking wild. Antonio says he has been working out which jewels were taken. Bosola asks what he has discovered, and Antonio says a better question is why Bosola is out and about when all have been ordered to stay in their quarters. Bosola claims he has come to the courtyard to pray. Antonio tells Bosola to pray that the apricots he gave the Duchess were not poisoned; Bosola takes great offense. Antonio tells Bosola he is the chief suspect in the jewel theft. Bosola says if he is ruined he may take Antonio down with him. Antonio suddenly has a nosebleed; in an aside, he says that a superstitious person would take it as an omen and he tells Bosola he may not pass the door to the Duchess’s lodgings. On his way out, he drops something.

Bosola finds the paper Antonio dropped; it is the baby’s nativity (including a sort of fortunetelling narrative foretelling a short life and violent death). Bosola says he understands now that Antonio is the Duchess’s bawd, and that the Duchess’s confinement will be blamed on Bosola’s allegedly poisoned apricots. Wishing he knew who the father of the baby was, he determines to send a letter to the Duchess’s brothers via Castruchio.

Act 2, Scene 3 Analysis

This scene establishes Antonio’s mistrust of Bosola. Antonio’s nosebleed recalls Delio’s assurances about taking such occurrences as omens; indeed, Antonio must talk himself out of believing it means anything. However, in a clever bit of foreshadowing, the blood from the nosebleed makes illegible “Two letters, that are wrought here for my name,” presumably on the document Antonio carries that describes his son’s birth and astrological forecast. When Bosola finds this paper which Antonio carelessly drops (a difficult plot contrivance to believe, given Antonio’s now clear suspicion of Bosola), he interprets it to mean that Antonio is the Duchess’s bawd-that is, the facilitator of her illicit relationship with the baby’s father. It does not occur to Bosola that Antonio’s agitation strongly suggests much more than merely faithful service to the Duchess and her unknown paramour. Bosola is still blinded by his own determination to make something of himself by spying for Ferdinand, and the news of the Duchess’s newborn and apparently bastard son is enough of plum for him to report.

Act 2, Scene 4 Summary

The Cardinal and Julia are in a room in the Cardinal’s palace in Rome. Julia has come to Rome without her husband, telling him she was visiting to make religious devotion. Julia and the Cardinal are discussing their ongoing affair. A servant comes to tell Julia there is a messenger from Malfi to see her. The Cardinal exits; Delio enters. Delio tells Julia (who in an aside identifies Delio as one of her old suitors) that her husband Castruchio has hurried to Rome and he offers Julia money to become his mistress. Meanwhile, the servant reenters to announce that Castruchio has delivered a letter to Ferdinand that has made him angry. Julia exits. Delio declares that he fears Antonio has been betrayed.

Act 2, Scene 4 Analysis

The conversation between the Cardinal and Julia reveals that they are lovers, but she wants assurances of his love and he insists that the pleasure and escape from her dreary husband that he has provided should be enough. The Cardinal seems to enjoy toying with her emotions.

Delio’s offer to Julia of gold to become his mistress seems quite out of character for someone who otherwise proves to be true and noble-minded. The inclusion of this brief interlude can be read as an attempt to make Delio more believable, as no one is perfect. Presumably, Julia is attractive, or the power- and status-hungry Cardinal would not have wanted her; conceivably, Delio is also drawn to her simply because she is attractive. The scene may also be read simply as a means to get Delio in the room, where he can overhear the servant’s announcement about the letter that has upset Ferdinand so much.

Act 2, Scene 5 Summary

In another room in the Cardinal’s palace, the Cardinal and Ferdinand enter, discussing the letter Ferdinand has received. Ferdinand is furious; he declares he will kill the Duchess and her lover and their child. Ferdinand rages and rants while the Cardinal attempts to calm him down. Finally, Ferdinand declares that he will do nothing until he knows who the father of the Duchess’s child is.

Act 2, Scene 5 Analysis

Here we see the first hints of Ferdinand’s coming madness. Ferdinand lets his anger get away from him and grow into a rage, while the Cardinal continually counsels him to get control of himself. The contrast between the brothers is well illustrated here: Ferdinand is ready to fly into a murderous frenzy as he wildly imagines the Duchess having relations with some of the lowliest servants; the Cardinal is all chilling self-control, biding his time and storing up his anger for future action after careful consideration. Finally, Ferdinand agrees to do nothing until he knows who the Duchess’s lover is-but he is still fixed on bloody revenge.

Having so adamantly warned their sister against remarrying, either openly or in secret, it should
come as no surprise to them that she would (apparently) take a lover. In refusing to allow her the possibility of marrying, they have left her no choice but to act illicitly. This does not occur to them; all they see is that she has disobeyed and shamed them-a terrible crime for a woman in this era.

Act 3, Scene 1 Summary

In a room in the Duchess’s palace, Antonio greets Delio after Delio has been away for several years. Antonio tells Delio that since he last saw the Duchess, she has had a daughter and another son. Delio asks what the Duchess’s brothers think of her having more children. Antonio tells him that Ferdinand seems to be storing up his anger as if in hibernation. Meanwhile, the common people are saying the Duchess is a strumpet, while the nobility are noticing that Antonio is gaining wealth. Antonio says they would never dream of the real reason that he is married to and loves the Duchess-and assume that he is somehow cheating the Duchess out of her holdings.

Ferdinand enters on his way to bed and he tells the Duchess she is to marry Count Malateste; she tells Ferdinand that when she chooses a husband, she will choose a man more worthy of Ferdinand’s honour than the Count. The Duchess tells Ferdinand she needs to talk with him privately about a rumour being spread about her. Ferdinand tells her not to believe it, and that he will not believe it: “Go, be safe in your own innocency.” The Duchess is relieved, thinking the air has been cleared. The Duchess, Antonio, and Delio exit. Bosola reports to Ferdinand what he has learned through spying – that the Duchess is reputed to have had three children, but no one knows who the father is. Bosola gives Ferdinand the key he has stolen to the Duchess’s room. Ferdinand vows to force a confession from the Duchess that night.

Act 3, Scene 1 Analysis

Delio has apparently been serving Ferdinand in Ferdinand’s palace and has returned to the Duchess’s court now that Ferdinand has returned. However, his ignorance of Ferdinand’s behaviour and apparent opinion of the Duchess seems to indicate that he has not worked closely with Ferdinand. (This is quite possible; a duke such as Ferdinand would have had dozens, if not hundreds, of courtiers, most of whom he would not have known nor had much contact with.) Antonio, serving the Duchess closely even before he became her secret husband, would have more direct contact with the royals and would therefore have more insight into their behaviour, so he is able to provide Delio with a report.

Ferdinand’s behaviour is, again, rather bizarre. After drifting into the room in a sleepy daze, he seems to give the Duchess a sort of moral blanket immunity, telling her to rest secure in her innocence (this can be read as sarcasm, of course). As soon as she is out of the room, he comments on her guilt and demands a spy report from Bosola. Bosola’s opinion that the Duchess has been bewitched strikes Ferdinand as ridiculous; he angrily insists that free will alone accounts for the Duchess’s immoral behaviour. Ferdinand’s hibernating anger is clearly waking up, as he thanks Bosola for both his obnoxiousness and his service, and hints that he is going to do something drastic with the key Bosola has procured for him.

Act 3, Scene 2 Summary

The Duchess, Antonio, and Cariola enter the Duchess’s bedchamber. The group banters about love and marriage, and the Duchess tells Antonio he cannot spend the night with her tonight. Antonio teases Cariola about wanting never to marry. The Duchess’s mood shifts and Antonio and Cariola leave the room. The Duchess talks to herself about her fear stemming from Ferdinand’s presence at court, which Antonio scoffs at. While she is talking, Ferdinand sneaks into the room, leaps out at her, and gives her a dagger. Ferdinand tells her she is hideous and shameful; she pleads with him that she is married and asks whether he would like to meet her husband. Ferdinand tells her he had intended to discover the man’s identity, but he has changed his mind. Then he addresses the Duchess’s husband, saying that he assumes the man is listening and tells him he must never reveal his identity. Ferdinand tells the Duchess she must conceal her husband; lock him in a cell, if she wishes to keep him alive. The Duchess protests that Ferdinand is overreacting because her reputation is safe. However, he tells her she has abandoned reputation, and declares that he will never see her again and he leaves.

Antonio and Cariola reenter, Antonio with a pistol. Antonio accuses Cariola of betraying them, but Cariola protests her innocence. Antonio wishes Ferdinand would return so that he could declare his love for the Duchess. The Duchess shows him the dagger Ferdinand left for her, and they both surmise that he intended her to kill herself with it. Suddenly Bosola knocks on the door, and as Antonio exits, the Duchess tells Antonio she has already arranged for his getaway. Bosola enters and tells the Duchess that Ferdinand has suddenly left for Rome, telling Bosola as he left that the Duchess was “undone.” The Duchess tells Bosola that Antonio has dealt falsely with the household accounts; she orders Bosola to call up the officers.

Bosola exits to get the officers. Antonio reenters and the Duchess quickly tells him of her plan to accuse him of a crime to cover up his escape. Bosola reenters with the officers. The Duchess and Antonio enact their accuser/accused “scene” for the officers and Antonio exits after the Duchess declares that she is confiscating all he has to satisfy the household accounts he has allegedly neglected to the point of great loss. The Duchess then asks the officers what they think of Antonio, and they respond with various insulting comments. The Duchess dismisses the officers and asks Bosola what he thinks of the officers’ characterization of Antonio. Bosola responds that they have been entirely unjust and that Antonio is a great and virtuous man, despite being lowborn. The Duchess is delighted to hear Bosola’s high praise of Antonio and confides to Bosola that Antonio is her husband and the father of her three children. Bosola swears confidentiality and loyalty to her and Antonio, and she entrusts him with her money and tells him to follow Antonio to the secret rendezvous in Ancona, where she will soon reunite with Antonio. Bosola agrees but suggests the Duchess pretend to leave on a pilgrimage to a shrine near Ancona, to lend more believability to her departure. The Duchess agrees, dismissing Cariola’s protestation about using religion falsely as mere superstition. The Duchess and Cariola leave. Bosola remains, declaring that he must reveal everything to Ferdinand and that his service as a spy will surely elevate his station in life.

Act 3, Scene 2 Analysis

The confrontation between the Duchess and Ferdinand is all about semantics. The Duchess believes she has not soiled her reputation because she and Antonio are married; Ferdinand believes her reputation is ruined because no one knows she is married. To the Duchess, the truth (however hidden) is what matters; to Ferdinand, perception (no matter how far off the mark) is all that counts. For this time period, Ferdinand’s interpretation is actually the more accurate; and indeed, the Duchess is staking her reputation on a marriage undertaken secretly, without the blessing of the very powerful Church, legal only by virtue of the presence of one witness (Cariola-whose station in life lessens her worth as a witness, even though she is one of the most truthful and reliable people in the play). The Duchess is staking her reputation on technicalities, while Ferdinand is insisting on both propriety and the blatant appearance of propriety. In giving her the dagger, he is telling her to do the right thing-to kill herself out of remorse (or at least the appearance of remorse) for her sins and thus salvage her reputation. Of course, what Ferdinand is really interested in is salvaging his own reputation; it is disgraceful for him and his brother the Cardinal to have a “strumpet” for a sister.

This scene is a turning point in the play. The Duchess again chooses deception rather than honest defence of her choices. The Duchess believes it is unfair that she “must” engage in lies and deceptions, but she does not even consider any other course of action. The woman is indeed the Duchess of Malfi-the name conjures “malfeasance” as well as the Latin mala fides, “bad faith”-though she is sympathetic to our modern sensibilities.

The layers of paranoia and mistrust continue to build. In addition to the Duchess’s inability to see any alternative but dissembling, Bosola immediately suspects the Duchess’s claim that Antonio has dealt falsely with the accounts, and Antonio momentarily suspects Cariola of betraying him and the Duchess. Bosola is smart enough to fool the Duchess into believing he supports Antonio, thus using her own deception against her and gaining her confession that Antonio is her husband and the father of her children. Bosola also suggests yet another layer of deception-that of pretending a pilgrimage to Lorettowhich the Duchess immediately agrees to. Cariola’s warning against using religion as a ruse quietly sounds the bell of foreshadowing again; and with Bosola’s parting soliloquy, we know no good will come of the Duchess’s numerous bad choices.

Act 3, Scene 3 Summary

The Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste, Pescara, Silvio, and Delio are in a room in the Cardinal’s palace at Rome. The Cardinal and Malateste are discussing a minor military plot. Meanwhile, Delio and Silvio are telling Ferdinand that Malateste is not a genuine soldier, but merely a foppish lord playing at being a soldier. As they are making jests about Malateste, Bosola enters and speaks to Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Silvio, Delio, and Pescara comment on the anger and violence that are apparent in Ferdinand’s and the Cardinal’s faces as Bosola speaks to them. Ferdinand declares that the Duchess’s false pilgrimage damns her. The Cardinal says he will ask Ancona to banish the Duchess, Antonio, and their children. Ferdinand tells Bosola to write to the Duchess’s son from her first marriage, the young Duke of Malfi, and to gather 150 horsemen.

Act 3, Scene 3 Analysis

It is interesting that in this scene, Delio is clearly working quite close to Ferdinand. Delio and Silvio together pick apart Malateste’s character for Ferdinand’s benefit (and possibly amusement). Delio also provides a short character summary on Bosola for Silvio and Pescara-though his assessment is limited to the sort of dismissive opinion Antonio held about Bosola early on. Silvio, Delio, and Pescara share unflattering thoughts about the Duchess’s two brothers-but with an air of respectful remove that shows they know their places in the hierarchy. However, just because they serve Ferdinand does not mean they must admire and emulate him.

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Bosola, in appearing and sharing the whole of his newly-gained intelligence with the Cardinal and Ferdinand, has made his first irreversible and fateful choice for evil. Like the Duchess, he does not consider any alternative actions, but immediately shares the damning information with the evil and powerful brothers he continues to hope will reward him for his dark and faithful service. For their parts, the Cardinal and Ferdinand continue to differ in their approach to the embarrassing problem of their sister. The Cardinal says he will work to have the Duchess, Antonio, and their children banished; Ferdinand essentially declares war on them, ordering Bosola to gather an army.

Act 3, Scene 4 Summary

At the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, two pilgrims are talking about the upcoming ceremony in which the Cardinal will resign his position to become a soldier. Without dialogue, the Cardinal’s ceremony is enacted, followed by an enactment of the banishment, by the Cardinal and the state of Ancona, of Antonio, the Duchess, and their children. During these unspoken enactments, churchmen sing a solemn song. After all but the two pilgrims exit, the pilgrims discuss the ceremony and the banishment. The pilgrims’ voice surprise that the Duchess would have married such a lowly man, but declare that the Cardinal’s cruelty was out of proportion. The men also report that the Cardinal has convinced the Pope to confiscate all of the Duchess’s property and they lament Antonio’s great misfortune.

Act 3, Scene 4 Analysis

Here the two pilgrims and various churchmen serve as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting as impartial outsiders on the mounting action of the play. The men do not comment on the Cardinal’s abandonment of his powerful church post in favour of a soldier’s position (which is very strange, as he would have enormous power as a cardinal), except to sing solemn wishes of victory and protection. The pilgrims observe the strangeness of the Duchess’s choice of Antonio for a husband-and indeed, it would have been widely known as scandalous for the Duchess to marry so far “beneath” her position but counter that with an observation of the Cardinal’s severe overreaction in having the Duchess and her family banished from Ancona. The final word from the pilgrims intones Antonio’s impending doom.

Act 3, Scene 5 Summary

Near Loretto, we see the Duchess, Antonio, their children, Cariola, and some servants. The Duchess and Antonio talk about how few servants they have left-most have fled now that the Duchess and Antonio and their children have been banished from Ancona and stripped of property. The Duchess tells Antonio about a dream she had in which the diamonds on her crown were suddenly changed to pearls; he interprets this to mean she will soon weep.

Bosola enters with a letter from Ferdinand, declaring that Ferdinand sends his love. The Duchess reads parts of the letter aloud, showing that Ferdinand has couched threats against Antonio while supposedly innocently summoning him to court. The Duchess declares her complete mistrust of Ferdinand; Antonio says he will not obey the summons. Bosola declares that Antonio’s refusal to go to Ferdinand out of fear for his life reflects his low breeding. Bosola leaves. The Duchess tells Antonio to flee with their oldest son, fearing an ambush is planned against them all. Antonio and the Duchess exchange a wrenching farewell as he departs with the oldest boy. Cariola sees a troop of soldiers coming toward them.

Bosola reenters wearing a mask and accompanied by a guard. Bosola tells the Duchess that her brothers offer pity and safety, which she does not believe. Bosola tells the Duchess to forget lowborn Antonio, and she defends Antonio’s virtue. The Duchess asserts her bravery in the face of oppression, and all exit for her palace, where her brothers summon her.

Act 3, Scene 5 Analysis

Bosola walks a fine line in this scene. Antonio has previously mistrusted him, yet the Duchess has entrusted Bosola with her secrets and apparently still believes he is protecting them. Bosola has brought a letter from Ferdinand, but it has somehow escaped the Duchess’s notice that Bosola is the likeliest suspect for the betrayal of her confidences. After she sends Antonio and the oldest boy away to Milan, Bosola returns with a guard to force the Duchess to return to her palace, which will serve as a prison. Bosola reveals his true allegiance at this time, turning his previous arguments in favour of Antonio’s birth-defying merit into more conventional statements of Antonio’s worthlessness because of his low birth. Finally, the Duchess sees Bosola’s true colours, vowing that she would beat the two-faced Bosola if she were a man. Now that all her deceptions have failed, the Duchess has no choice but to bear up as bravely as possible as she is compelled to submit to her brothers’ control.

Act 4, Scene 1 Summary

Ferdinand and Bosola enter a room in the Duchess’s palace at Malfi. Ferdinand is receiving Bosola’s report on how nobly the Duchess is bearing her imprisonment. Ferdinand dismisses Bosola and then exits. The Duchess enters, and Bosola tells her Ferdinand must speak to her in the dark so as not to break his vow never to see her again. Ferdinand reenters in the dark and professes an offering of peace. Ferdinand gives her a dead man’s hand, which the Duchess understands to be his own; she comments on how cold his hand is. Then she demands lights and discovers he has given her a severed hand. Ferdinand exits. A curtain is drawn to reveal the waxen figures of Antonio and the children as if they are dead. Bosola counsels her to stop grieving now that they are dead and irrecoverable. The Duchess declares that she wishes she were dead. Bosola tells her she must live, and she tells him that would be the greatest torture. The Duchess declares that she will go curse rather than pray and she exits with a servant. Ferdinand returns and gloats about the emotional torture he is putting the Duchess through. Bosola asks him to stop and to take pity on his sister. Ferdinand vows to bring all the madmen from the local hospital to torture the Duchess with their raving outside her room. Bosola demands that Ferdinand not send him to the Duchess again unless on a mission of true comfort. Ferdinand tells Bosola he will soon send him to Milan, where Antonio is.

Act 4, Scene 1 Analysis

Some time seems to have passed since the Duchess was forced to return to Malfi, where she is essentially being held prisoner by Ferdinand. Bosola has begun his slow transformation to a man with a conscience, telling Ferdinand that the Duchess is being brave and strong and noble. Ferdinand still has a loose grip on sanity, but the dead hand incident-along with the wax figures showing the supposedly dead Antonio and children-illustrates his extreme cruelty. The Duchess, believing all her beloved ones dead, wishes she herself were dead, and she curses her brothers for their long, drawn-out cruelty in place of quick and decisive murder.

Bosola’s transformation continues when he pleads with Ferdinand to stop torturing the Duchess. Bosola refuses to go to the Duchess again as himself, knowing that he has lost all her trust and respectthings he now values as he never did before. Ferdinand dismisses Bosola’s newfound pity for the Duchess and moves right along to his nefarious plans for Antonio, in which he will entangle Bosola. The audience begins to see that this entanglement will be at least partly against Bosola’s will.

Act 4, Scene 2 Summary

The Duchess and Cariola are discussing the noise of the madmen sent by Ferdinand. The Duchess tells Cariola that the madmen are actually helping to keep her sane. A servant enters and tells the Duchess that Ferdinand intends the madmen to cure her melancholy. The Duchess tells the servant to bring in the madmen and they come in and sing a song about dying for love. Then several madmen have a crazy conversation amongst themselves. After that, eight madmen do a dance. Then Bosola, disguised as an old man, enters. The servant and the madmen exit. Bosola tells the Duchess he has come to make her tomb. The two of them banter about death and tombs, and then executioners enter with a coffin, cords, and a bell. Bosola tells the Duchess the coffin is a present from her brothers. Cariola is dismayed, but the Duchess is calm and she asks Cariola to take care of her children. The executioners force Cariola to leave. The Duchess tells Bosola to tell her brothers that death is the best gift they can give her now and the executioners strangle her. Bosola orders them to find Cariola and to strangle the children. Some of the executioners leave and then return with Cariola, who fights with Bosola and the executioners before being strangled. The executioners carry away Cariola’s body, leaving Bosola with the strangled Duchess.

Ferdinand comes in and Bosola shows him the strangled Duchess and children (the latter, as stage directions, indicate, probably behind a curtain that Bosola draws open). Ferdinand reveals that he and the Duchess were twins. Ferdinand asks Bosola why Bosola did not pity her and whisk her away to sanctuary. Bosola protests that he was following Ferdinand’s orders in killing the Duchess and her children. Ferdinand tells him he should have disobeyed such a crazy order, and confesses that his main motive was gaining the Duchess’s property for himself. Ferdinand tells Bosola he hates him for doing so much evil so well. Bosola reminds Ferdinand of his promised reward to Bosola, but Ferdinand refuses to acknowledge his own culpability in the murder and insists he will destroy Bosola. Bosola says he is angry with himself, now that he fully understands what awful things he has done in striving to be a true servant rather than an honest man. Ferdinand leaves suddenly, leaving Bosola with the Duchess. Suddenly she stirs, and Bosola pleads with her to live and so retrieve him from the hell he has made for himself. The Duchess regains consciousness long enough for him to tell her Antonio and the children are alive, and that Antonio is reconciled with her brothers through the Pope’s action, but she dies. Bosola repents and declares that he will fulfil the Duchess’s last wish of having her body entrusted to some good women for burial.

Act 4, Scene 2 Analysis

Although we saw Bosola make tentative steps toward behaving as if he had a conscience in the last scene, here he again has thrown his fate into the brothers’ powers-a risky wager, given their cruelty and an obvious penchant for betraying or using anyone and everyone if it suits their purposes.

The madmen serve as a distraction from the heavy action of the play-rather like Hamlet in the gravediggers’ scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Duchess takes the opportunity to muse on her situation and enjoy some rather prescient gallows humor. Ironically, the madmen lift her spirits somewhat, reassuring her that she is not yet mad herself and giving her a bit of extra gumption with which to face Bosola when he returns, now disguised as an old man. The madmen have also served to put the Duchess off her guard somewhat so that when the “old man” appears, she assumes he is another intended annoyance from Ferdinand. Their conversation about her impending death and burial is almost light at times, full of witty banter. When the executioners enter, the Duchess realizes the disguised Bosola is in earnest, but she has already embraced her own coming death and shows no fear-only concern for her children (a bit inconsistent, since she clearly believed them dead when Ferdinand showed her the wax figures). While the Duchess has given up the possibility of fighting for her life, Cariola still rebels with spirit, refusing to submit peaceably to being murdered.

Ferdinand comes on the scene again with his twisted logic. Although he is mad in the sense that his actions are beyond the pale for cruelty, he is clearly still capable of self-preserving scheming as he refuses to acknowledge Bosola’s faithful service as his instrument of murder and torture, leaving Bosola with the sudden understanding that he has been left to twist in the wind. Bosola’s conscience finally fully wakes up as he realizes that being a faithful servant to evil brings only more evil as its reward. In the Duchess’s last moment of life, Bosola gives her the gift of knowing her loved ones are alive. Bosola also tells her Antonio and her brothers are reconciled through the Pope’s action, but we will see in the next scene that this is not really true; if Bosola knows the reconciliation is false, his statement may be merely an attempt to give a wronged woman some comfort as she dies. Bosola’s promise to give her body into the care of some good women is further evidence that he is finally figuring out how to be honourable rather than merely seek the appearance of honorability.

Act 5, Scene 1 Summary

Antonio and Delio are in a public place in Milan, discussing whether Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s preferred reconciliation with Antonio is genuine. Delio doubts it since Pescara has reportedly been seizing some of Antonio’s lands. As Pescara approaches, Delio tells Antonio he will determine whether this is true by asking Pescara for some of Antonio’s former property. Antonio hides while Delio talks with Pescara, but before he can determine whether Antonio is safe, they are interrupted by Julia. Julia gives Pescara a letter from the Cardinal that requests that Pescara give her the same piece of land Delio has just asked for. Pescara grants the request, and Julia leaves. Delio protests to Pescara, who explains that because the land was essentially stolen from Antonio by the Cardinal, it would have been wrong to give it to Delio, who is his friend; but the Cardinal’s mistress is welcome to such tainted property. Pescara then exits, saying he must visit Ferdinand, who is sick. Antonio vows to sneak into the Cardinal’s room that night and try to frighten him into reconciling-or die in the attempt. Delio again vows loyalty to Antonio.

Act 5, Scene 1 Analysis

It is rather remarkable that Delio is still serving as Antonio’s loyal friend and protector-actually, as his spy, as he counsels Antonio based on intelligence against the powerful brothers he works for but someone truly honest must remain after all the bloodshed to resurrect the fallen royal house. Julia reprises her role as the Cardinal’s strumpet, reminding us of the double standard the brothers imposed on their sister. The Cardinal, a man of the Church, has a mistress, but the Duchess is not even allowed to marry. Antonio’s decision to sneak into the Cardinal’s room and try to frighten him into reconciliation seals his doom; for we know, as he does not, that the Duchess and the two youngest children are dead. Act 5, Scene 2 Summary

In the Cardinal’s palace, Pescara and a doctor are discussing Ferdinand, who the doctor says is suffering from the belief that he is a werewolf; Ferdinand has been found roaming the streets with dead body parts he has dug up out of graves. The doctor says Ferdinand is doing better after his treatment, but that he may relapse.

Ferdinand, the Cardinal, Malateste, and Bosola enter. Ferdinand demands to be left alone, then attacks his own shadow and talks nonsense. The doctor attempts to scare Ferdinand out of his crazy behaviour, but Ferdinand rants and runs off. Pescara asks the Cardinal whether he knows why his brother has gone insane. The Cardinal admits in an aside that he must lie; he tells them a tale about
Ferdinand seeing a ghost that reputedly appears only when someone in their family dies, and that the apparition has scared him out of his wits. Bosola tells the Cardinal he must speak with him. All the others exit, with Pescara voicing their get-well wishes for Ferdinand as they go.

In an aside, the Cardinal says he must not let on to Bosola that he was behind the order to kill the Duchess, wanting all the blame to appear to be Ferdinand’s. The Cardinal asks Bosola how the Duchess is doing. The Cardinal outwardly takes Bosola’s wild-eyed response to be a result of Ferdinand’s madness, as Ferdinand has been Bosola’s master. The Cardinal promises to reward Bosola if he does one thing for him. Bosola promises to do whatever it is.

The men are interrupted by Julia, who enters and asks the Cardinal to come into supper. In an aside, she admires Bosola. The Cardinal dismisses her. Immediately he tells Bosola to kill Antonio, who is somewhere in Milan. The Cardinal says while Antonio lives, his sister cannot marry, and he has found a match for her. Bosola promises to do the deed. The Cardinal leaves. Bosola remarks that the Cardinal’s apparent ignorance of the Duchess’s murder is evidence of his scheming, but determines that he must follow the Cardinal’s example.

Julia reenters, carrying a pistol and she demands that Bosola tell her how he managed to poison her with a love potion and declares her love for him that has brought her so much pain, with the only solution being death. Julia is determined to woo Bosola, and Bosola decides to use her to his advantage. Bosola asks her to determine the cause of the Cardinal’s recent melancholy. Julia immediately agrees and sends him out so she can begin working. The Cardinal returns, looking for servants, who enter immediately. The Cardinal tells them not to talk with Ferdinand unless he, the Cardinal, knows about it; in an aside, he reveals that he is afraid Ferdinand will reveal the truth about the Duchess’s murder. The servants exit.

The Cardinal notices Julia and declares out of her hearing that he is tired of her. Julia demands to know what is bothering him, and he refuses to tell her. Julia pesters him until he finally tells her that the Duchess and two of her children were killed by his order four days before. The woman says she cannot keep this secret, but he makes her promise to keep it and she swears by kissing the book he tells her to kiss. Then he tells her she will keep the secret because the book was poisoned. Bosola reenters, revealing that he has heard the Cardinal’s confession and Julia dies. Bosola extracts a promise of reward from the Cardinal and promises to kill Antonio for further reward. The Cardinal gives him a master key for his lodgings and tells him to hide Julia’s body in her room, saying he will make it known she died of the plague. The Cardinal exits. Bosola swears he will do anything but kill Antonio, that indeed he will find him and protect him from the Cardinal’s evil plots. Bosola imagines the Duchess haunts him and prays to achieve true penitence.

Act 5, Scene 2 Analysis

All the scheming and plots are coming to a head in this scene. The witless Julia, who apparently believes herself impervious to harm because she is the Cardinal’s lover, nevertheless schemes against him; she has set her sights on Bosola-bizarrely so since he is so far beneath the Cardinal and even Julia herself (who is married to the courtier Castruchio, about whom we hear very little). The Cardinal has apparently foreseen the possibility of needing to kill someone by having that person kiss a poisoned book cover, as he has one on hand to dispatch Julia with.

Bosola’s attempt to become a man of conscience continues. Now he schemes against the schemers, hoping to foil them at their own game. The cautions to himself to step carefully foreshadow the general doom we know is coming. Bosola’s prayer of penitence seems, finally, genuine.

Julia proves herself a true strumpet (providing quite a contrast to the Duchess, who was only perceived as such) by throwing herself at Bosola and agreeing to extract the information Bosola needs from the Cardinal.

Act 5, Scene 3 Summary

In a fortification in Milan, Antonio and Delio are talking about Antonio’s plan to frighten the Cardinal in his room that night. As they talk, an Echo begins repeating Antonio’s words, even seeming to counsel him with his own words. Delio tells Antonio he should not go on his dangerous errand, but Antonio insists he will risk all rather than continuing to live “by halves,” in hiding. Delio promises to fetch Antonio’s son and come soon to support him.

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Act 5, Scene 3 Analysis

The Echo in this scene can be read as a contrived device to reinforce Delio’s wise counsel to Antonio not to go to the Cardinal’s chamber that night. Alternatively, it can be read as Bosola’s anonymous attempt to protect Antonio, especially since in the immediately preceding scene, Bosola has vowed to help Antonio avenge the deaths of the Duchess and their children.

Unfortunately, Antonio has determined to stare down his fate-although he seems to know this will go badly-rather than continue living in hiding and fear. Although he has advised Antonio not to act rashly, he nevertheless immediately promises his loyalty and support once Antonio has made his decision. Delio even holds out some hope that the Cardinal may still have some human compassion in his soul, saying that the sight of his young nephew might persuade him to peaceful reconciliation. This may simply be an attempt to buoy up Antonio, however, as the Cardinal has shown plenty of evidence to this point that he is evil to the core.

Act 5, Scene 4 Summary

In the Cardinal’s palace, the Cardinal tells Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan not to watch over the sick Ferdinand that night because he has recovered quite well. The Cardinal tells them Ferdinand himself has asked that they not come to him, even if they hear noises. The Cardinal makes them promise, and tells them he may test their promise by making terrible noises himself. Everyone agrees not to come, no matter what the disturbance. The group all exit, leaving the Cardinal alone. The Cardinal confesses that he extracted their promise so that he would have the freedom to dispose of Julia’s body and he says that after Bosola brings Julia’s body, he is going to kill Bosola.
The Cardinal exits.

Bosola enters, saying that he has overheard the Cardinal’s promise to kill him. Ferdinand enters, talking about strangling in general; he exits, apparently not having seen Bosola.

Antonio and a servant enter. The servant goes to get a dark lantern, and Bosola stabs Antonio. The servant returns with the lantern, and Antonio and Bosola each realize who the other is. Bosola realizes he has stabbed the man he wanted to save. Bosola tells Antonio that the Duchess and the two younger children are dead. Antonio says he is glad to be dying as he hears this news. Antonio wishes his remaining son will stay away from princes’ courts. Antonio dies. Bosola tells the servant to take Antonio’s body to the Cardinal’s lodgings.

Act 5, Scene 4 Analysis

The Cardinal finally schemes himself into a corner in this scene. The man cannot risk being seen as he disposes of Julia’s body (or rather, has Bosola dispose of it), but he unwittingly seals his own fate by ensuring that no one will come to his rescue if he yells for help. The Cardinal has not counted on Bosola’s counter scheming against him.

Unfortunately, Bosola’s apparent growth of conscience has not been equalled by any growth of good judgment on the spur of the moment. There is no textual explanation for the terrible mistake
Bosola makes in killing Antonio, except for Bosola’s “O direful misprision [i.e., mistake]!”

Act 5, Scene 5 Summary

In another room in the palace, the Cardinal is reading a book and struggling with his conscience. Bosola and the servant carrying Antonio’s body enter. Bosola declares he has come to kill the Cardinal. The Cardinal cries out for help, then offers money to Bosola. Bosola says he will allow the Cardinal to retreat no further than Julia’s chamber. The Cardinal keeps yelling for help. Pescara and the rest enter above and listen to the Cardinal yelling, but they do not go to help because they believe he is feigning madness as he said he might. Pescara alone goes to help, while Roderigo and the rest believe he will be ridiculed for breaking his promise.

Bosola kills the servant so that he cannot open the door to rescuers. The Cardinal asks Bosola why he is attacking him; Bosola points to the dead Antonio and declares that he killed him by mistake, and tells the Cardinal that his subornation of the Duchess’s death was a crime against Justice herself. Bosola stabs the Cardinal twice as the Cardinal cries out for help. Ferdinand enters, calling for a fresh horse and guards. The Cardinal says, “Help me; I am your brother,” but Ferdinand wounds him as well as Bosola. Bosola stabs Ferdinand. As Ferdinand dies, he declares that his sister was the cause of their fall. Ferdinand dies.

Pescara and the rest enter as Bosola and the Cardinal lie dying. Bosola reveals to them that the Cardinal and Ferdinand were behind the Duchess’s murder, that he himself killed Antonio; that the Cardinal killed Julia; and that he himself has been an actor in all these treacheries. The Cardinal dies after asking to be forgotten. Pescara asks Bosola how Antonio came to die. Bosola tells him it was a simple mistake. Bosola declares that worthy people should not fear dying noble deaths, but that his end is quite different. Bosola dies.

Delio enters with Antonio’s only remaining son. Malateste tells him he is too late. Delio invites those present to join forces in establishing the boy in his mother’s rightful place. The evils that have transpired, he says, will melt away as snow in the sunshine; what will last is integrity of life.

Act 5, Scene 5 Analysis

The Cardinal’s struggle with his conscience is too little, too late, especially since he peevishly takes issue with the book’s author’s ideas about hell, rather than genuinely confronting his own culpability for so many crimes. It has not occurred to the Cardinal that the people he has used might turn around and betray him, but Bosola does exactly that. The Cardinal’s last-ditch effort to bribe Bosola is pathetic. Besides, Bosola is too angry-and knows he himself is much too far past redemption-to consider doing anything but killing the Cardinal. Ferdinand enters at the Cardinal’s cries, apparently as a rescuer, but it immediately becomes apparent that he has lost almost the last of his wits. In the final moment, before he dies, he proclaims that the Duchess is the cause of everything that has happened. That is debatable; it would be more accurate to say that the brothers’ overreaction to their sister’s poor choices has wrought all the death and destruction.

The downfall and death of all the wicked characters hearken back to Antonio’s opening lines about the corruption of yes-men and schemers at court. Delio enters with the hope of resurrection in Antonio’s son, rather like Horatio arriving at the end of Hamlet, to tell the truth about all that has transpired; the young son stands in for Hamlet’s Fortinbras, the one who will transform a ruin into renewed glory. Delio’s invitation to those present to rise above the evil and help the boy become a good leader brings the play full circle, back to Antonio’s shining optimism about the nobility and integrity of true men.


Antonio Bologna

Antonio is the steward, or the manager, of the Duchess of Malfi’s palace. He is good with a horse and a lance, and he is widely known to be honest—so honest that the Cardinal rejects a suggestion that Antonio be hired to spy on the Duchess. He is also a good judge of character, delivering to his friend, Delio, insightful descriptions of the others as they appear. He is in awe of the Duchess, because of her beauty and her disposition, and humbly accepts her proposal of marriage without regard for the wealth he will obtain by marrying her. In fact, he agrees to keep the marriage secret, and so he gains no power or prestige from it. After he is married, Antonio is less sharply drawn, but the glimpses given of him do not fulfil the promise of act 1. He loses the paper on which he has calculated the baby’s future. He follows the Duchess’s plans for avoiding capture, making no suggestions himself. Finally, he is killed as he walks to the Cardinal’s door to ask for a reconciliation. Still, he is a good man, and the Duchess clearly loves and trusts him until the end.

Daniel de Bosola

Bosola is the Duchess’s Provisor of Horse. As the play opens, he has just been released from imprisonment because of “a notorious murder” the Cardinal hired him to commit. Now, he is employed by Ferdinand, who arranges his position with the Duchess so he can spy on her and prevent her from marrying. In many ways, Bosola is the most complex character in the play, and the only one whose thinking and personality change from beginning to end. Antonio predicts this change at the beginning when he comments that Bosola is “very valiant,” but worries that his melancholy will “poison all his goodness.” In fact, Bosola is capable of great evil. He spies on the Duchess (though he is unable in three years to discover that Antonio is the Duchess’s husband), supervises her murder and the murder of her children and of Cariola, accidentally kills Antonio, and deliberately kills the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and a servant. As he observes the nobility of the Duchess and Antonio in facing death and also sees that committing heinous acts for the Cardinal and Ferdinand does not win him gratitude or financial reward, he begins to question his belief that it is better “To appear a true servant, than an honest man.” But, when the “stars” drive Bosola to kill Antonio, whom he has resolved to protect, he concludes that all human endeavour and human goodness are meaningless.

The Cardinal

The Cardinal is the brother of the Duchess and Ferdinand, as cold and calculating as Ferdinand is excitable. He is a high-ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church, but he does not live the life of a Christian saint: he has a mistress; he hires spies and murderers; and, he does not seem to have any religious duties or religious thought. As Antonio explains to Delio, “where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters.”

The Cardinal is the quiet force behind the plotting against the Duchess. It is his idea to hire Bosola to spy on her, but even Bosola does not know of the Cardinal’s involvement. When Bosola has killed the Duchess, the Cardinal pretends to have no knowledge of the crime. He shares Ferdinand’s desire that the Duchess not marry, and Ferdinand’s anger when she bears a child, but he “can be angry / Without this rupture” of “intemperate noise.” He demonstrates no love or loyalty, treating with startling coldness Bosola, who killed and was punished in his employment, and Julia, who is his mistress, and the Duchess and Ferdinand, who are his siblings. His motives for tormenting his sister are not clear. He does not want her money or her love, and he is incapable of feeling humiliation or shame. He does not care for his reputation or legacy; his final words are “now, I pray, let me / Be laid by, and never thought of.”


Cariola is the trustworthy servant of the Duchess, privy to all of the Duchess’s secrets. Cariola witnesses the marriage between the Duchess and Antonio helps deliver the Duchess’s children and is with the Duchess when the Duchess dies. In her own death, she is not as noble as the Duchess, but kicks and screams and tries to escape. Throughout the play, she is more cautious than the Duchess, thinking that marrying Antonio is “madness,” and fearing that the trick of a false pilgrimage will prove unlucky.


Delio is a courtier and a friend of Antonio. His main role in the story is to provide a sounding board for Antonio. Delio’s curiosity about the court gives Antonio the opportunity to speak aloud about the characters of the Duchess, her brothers, and Bosola in the way an omniscient narrator might in a novel. Delio is also the friend in whom Antonio confides the secrets of his marriage and the births of his children; like Cariola, Delio guards the secrets carefully. Delio has no direct connection with any of the siblings, and he does not directly participate in their plots and deaths. He is a faithful friend, always standing by to help Antonio when he is needed. In a scene in act 2, Delio comes to Rome and makes advances to Julia, who rebuffs him. Their interaction affects nothing else in the play, and the two never meet again. Delio speaks the last words in the play when he enters “too late” with Antonio’s oldest son after his parents have been killed. He urges the survivors to help the young man gain his inheritance and proclaims, “Integrity of life is fame’s best friend, / Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.” The Duchess of Malfi.

The Duchess of Malfi is the sister of the Cardinal and the twin sister of Ferdinand. She is never referred to by name throughout the play, but only by the labels that describe her roles as sister, duchess, and wife. As the play opens, she is a widow, but still in the bloom of youth. (According to Webster’s source materials, the real duchess was a girl of twelve years old when she was married to a much older man; she became a widow when she was twenty.) Although her brothers forbid her to marry again, and she promises to obey them, she longs for a husband. Secretly, she asks her steward Antonio to marry her, and they perform a private marriage ceremony. Afraid of her brothers’ anger, the Duchess manages to keep her marriage a secret for years, even though the birth of three children. When the brothers do learn of the children, she flees with Antonio but is captured and murdered.

Early in the play, Antonio describes her as a woman whose speech is “full of rapture,” who has
a “sweet countenance,” who lives a life of “noble virtue.” Although her sweet nobility casts no spell over her brothers, her every word and action support Antonio’s judgment of her, and her subjects love and respect her. She is clever, able to match her brothers’ wit in her exchanges with them, and able to quickly craft intricate plots for escape. She is affectionate with her husband, children, and servant, showing a tenderness that is far beyond the capabilities of the Cardinal and Ferdinand. And she is dignified in the face of her brothers’ torments, stating even at the worst of it, “I am Duchess of Malfi still.”

Some critics have commented that the Duchess deserves death because of her rashness in marrying beneath her station, but most reject that notion, agreeing that there is nothing in the play to indicate that Webster found fault with the marriage of Antonio and the Duchess. What happens to her is not her fault, but the result of living in a “gloomy world.”


Ferdinand, the Duke of Calbria, is the twin brother of the Duchess, younger than her by a few minutes. He is as emotional as his brother the Cardinal is icy, and his response to the idea of his sister marrying is beyond all bounds. Ferdinand’s motivation has always been a central question for critics of this play, and many critics have seen incestuous feelings in his rage. Whatever the cause, when he learns that his sister has given birth to a child, he declares her a whore and “a sister damn’d,” creates a mental picture of her “in the shameful act of sin,” and imagines burning her and her lover in a coal pit with no vent, so that “their curs’d smoke might not ascend to heaven,” or boiling her child into a soup and serving it to the father.

As with other characters, Antonio’s early description of Ferdinand proves insightful. Antonio tells Delio that Ferdinand has “a most perverse, and turbulent nature.” Even the Cardinal wonders whether Ferdinand is “stark mad,” and after brooding over his sister’s betrayal for a time, Ferdinand does approach insanity. After he has had the Duchess killed and sees her lying dead, he regrets that he ordered Bosola, “when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend,” but there has been no hint previously that he and the Duchess shared any closeness.

The realization of what he has done pushes Ferdinand over the edge into insanity, perhaps even to the point of imagining that he is a werewolf. He is found in the graveyard digging up dead bodies and is seen “with the leg of a man / Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfull, / Said he was a wolf.” Ferdinand is not seen again until the last scene, when he charges in on the Cardinal and Bosola, and stabs them both. Bosola stabs him in return, and just before Ferdinand dies, he “seems to come to himself,” saying, “Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.”


Julia is the wife of an old nobleman and is the Cardinal’s mistress. While she is staying with the Cardinal, she is propositioned by Delio, whom she refuses; she also tries to seduce Bosola. Ironically, the Cardinal kills her by tricking her into kissing a poisoned book, while she is swearing to keep his secret.

Important Questions and Answers

Q. What attracted you to the play?

I like the gore and the immediacy, the work does not apologise for the brutality. I also like that it has a heroine, who has such a big journey.

Q. What are your initial thoughts about the play?
I think it’s the most exciting of Jacobean plays. It feels very modern; even though it’s written in verse the dialogue is snappy. I think it’s kind of the original Game of Thrones; high stakes, passion, fear, blood loyalty, murder and sex. As much as I love Shakespeare, I think of this as the heavy metal of Jacobean theatre, it has real strength and guts.

Q. What are your initial thoughts about the Duchess?

I like that she is human and has flaws.
The hard part for me is finding her faith, I (not the character) am not religious but the world of the play is one driven by faith and it can be hard to relate to her in this way.

I like her strength, she is relatable and I think the audience can understand her choices. I admire her ability to see the good in everyone and to be hopeful. I also think she is fairly lonely at court, she only has Antonio and Cariola, which she can only be herself with in private.

Q. How is her relationship with Cariola and Antonio?

Cariola is like a sister, a best friend, whom she has no secrets. They are very close and to lose her is a massive loss.

In Antonio, she has found what true love is. She loves him for who he is. He is a good person, although he has his flaws. She always takes the lead in their relationship, she makes all the decisions. It is not an arranged marriage, she loves him totally and always has.

Q. What do you think is the Cardinal’s motivation for controlling the Duchess?

My main motivation is family loyalty and power. If he can have control over who the Duchess marries, he maintains control of the family, being the oldest brother. He is the controlling male figure in the family.

Q. What is the Cardinal’s relationship with Ferdinand?

He is the older brother of Ferdinand and in some ways is like a father. He has given up his right to the Dukedom and passed this to his younger sibling mainly because he believes there is more power to be had by being a Cardinal, or even a Pope as early on in the play it states how he tried to bribe his way to this position. He feels by placing Ferdinand as Duke and himself as Cardinal, his power stretches further, he is keeping it in the family and they have influence in more places. That’s also the main reason he does not want the Duchess to remarry without his consent, he does not want his power, control and wealth being dissolved by another family.

Q. What are the differences between the Cardinal and Ferdinand?

The Cardinal thinks before he acts, whilst he has strong emotions, he does not like to display them and prefers non-demonstrative reactions. He controls under pressure rather than the hot headed instinct that motivates Ferdinand. Ferdinand is definitely impulsive, unlike the Cardinal.

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