Webster's The Duchess of Malfi was written in 1613 or 1614 and had at least two successful productions in London before it was published in 1623 under the title The Tragedy of the Duchesse of Malfy. Generally considered to be Webster's masterpiece, it tells the story of a young widow who marries against the wishes of her powerful brothers, setting off a storm of revenge. The startling violence, the unbelievable plot twists, the mysterious motives of the brothers, and the calm strength of the Duchess have made The Duchess of Malfi a subject for fierce debate for hundreds of years. Critics and reviewers have loved or hated the play, with equal fervor.
The Duchess's 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, including William Painter's popular collection of stories, The Palace of Pleasure (1566-1567), and Sir Philip Sidney's romance, Arcadia (1590), and also borrowed dramatic elements from the Revenge Tragedy tradition, but he adapted the source materials to suit his own themes and dramatic purpose. The Duchess of Malfi is widely available in high school and college anthologies. It is also available separately as a Dover Thrift edition and collected in The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays (1998), part of the Oxford World Classics series.