Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Duchess of Malfi is a young widow whose two brothers, a cardinal and Ferdinand, the duke of Calabria, are desperately anxious lest she marry again, for they want to inherit her title and her estates. Their spy in her household is Bosola, her master of horse.
The duchess falls in love with her steward, Antonio, and marries him secretly. Later, she secretly bears a son. When the happy father writes out the child’s horoscope according to the rules of astrology and then loses the paper, Bosola finds the document and learns about the child. He dispatches a letter immediately to Rome to inform the brothers. The duke swears that only her blood can quench his anger, and he threatens that once he knows the identity of the duchess’s lover, he will ruin her completely.
The years pass and the duchess bears Antonio two more children, a second son and a daughter. Antonio tells his friend Delio that he is worried because Duke Ferdinand is too quiet about the matter and because the people of Malfi, not aware of their duchess’s marriage, are calling her a common strumpet.
Duke Ferdinand comes to the court to propose Count Malateste as a second husband for the duchess. She refuses. Bosola is not able to discover the father of the duchess’s children. Impatient with his informer, the duke decides on a bolder course of action. He determines to gain entrance to the duchess’s private chamber and there to wring a confession from her. That night, using a key Bosola gives him, the duke goes to her bedroom. Under his threats, she confesses to her second marriage, but she refuses to reveal Antonio’s name. After the duke leaves, she calls Antonio and her loyal servant Cariola to her chamber. They plan Antonio’s escape from Malfi before his identity can become known to the duchess’s brothers.
The duchess calls Bosola and tells him that Antonio falsified some accounts. As soon as Bosola leaves, she recalls Antonio and tells him of the feigned crime of which she accused him to shield both their honors, and then bids him flee to the town of Ancona, where they will meet...
(The entire section is 862 words.)
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Summary and Analysis
Act 1, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Bosola: an ex-convict and keeper of the Duchess’s horse who also serves as a spy for Ferdinand
Cardinal: Ferdinand and the Duchess’s brother, as well as Julia’s lover
Antonio: the steward of the Duchess’s household who is also secretly married to her
Delio: a friend of Antonio
The action opens in the court of Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, with Antonio, the steward of the Duchess of Malfi, and his friend, Delio, in conversation. Antonio gives his favorable impression of the French court, from which he has recently returned. However, he also warns that poison near the head of government makes “[d]eath, and diseases through the whole land spread,” making honest council to the ruler crucial for “blessed government.” Antonio describes Bosola as “the only court-gall” in Ferdinand’s court. Bosola, whose current occupation in the court is not described, arrives shortly before the Cardinal, and Bosola rails against both the Cardinal and his brother Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. The Cardinal asks Bosola to “become honest,” but Bosola continues his diatribe by saying the brothers never reward those who serve them—namely, himself. He leaves, and Delio notes that Bosola is an ex-convict who spent seven years in jail for a murder possibly instigated by the Cardinal, but “was releas’d by the French general, Gaston de Foix.” Antonio closes the scene by commenting on Bosola’s great valor and bemoaning that his “foul melancholy will poison all his goodness.”
As part of the preface to the play John Webster published a letter dedicated to Baron Berkeley, an English aristocrat who had supported Webster and his colleagues, claiming the play will grant immortality to Berkeley. Webster further claimed that “the ancientest nobility, being but...
(The entire section is 701 words.)
Act 1, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Ferdinand: the Duke of Calabria, and brother to the Cardinal and the Duchess
Silvio: a Lord who leaves for Milan in act 1; he later gives counsel to the Cardinal
Roderigo: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court
Grisolan: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court
The Duchess: the Duchess of Malfi, a widow who is the sister of Ferdinand and the Cardinal
Cariola: the Duchess’s servant who is the sole witness to the marriage of the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio
Julia: Castruchio’s wife and the Cardinal’s mistress
Castruchio: a Lord who is married to Julia
Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as the Lords Castruchio, Silvio, Roderigo, and Grisolan reveal through their jocular conversation that Antonio has won the court’s jousting competition. Castruchio advises Ferdinand not to become a soldier because whenever a ruler becomes a soldier, his realm becomes unsettled. Ferdinand answers by making jibes against Castruchio’s wife, Julia. Ferdinand promises to visit Lord Silvio in Milan shortly, and the Duchess, the Cardinal, Cariola, and Julia enter. In a lengthy aside, Antonio tells Delio that the Cardinal is “a melancholy churchman” full of schemes and jealousy, who threw away a possible Papacy by bestowing bribes, and calls Ferdinand a similarly evasive and lying hypocrite. However, Antonio says their sister, the Duchess of Malfi, is meek, very beautiful, and virtuous, and he adds that she “lights the time to come.”
Ferdinand assigns Bosola to keep the Duchess’s horse, and after Silvio and all the others leave, he comments that the Cardinal “could never abide you” because, Bosola says, he “was in my debt.” Ferdinand, remarking that Bosola’s “inclination to shed blood rides post” as a predictor of his performance in the role he is about to assume, tells Bosola to serve as an intelligencer and spy on the Duchess to keep her, “a young widow,” from marrying again. Fearing that he will be forced to do evil in that role, Bosola agrees to it only because he has already been assigned to keep her horse. Ferdinand advises Bosola, in his new role, to “keep your old garb of melancholy” in order to “gain access to private lodgings.” Bosola leaves after vowing “I am your creature,” and the Cardinal and Ferdinand then tell the Duchess not to marry. Though the Duchess calls it “terrible good counsel,” the Cardinal fears she may “privately be married under the eaves of night.”
The Cardinal leaves after warning the Duchess that “the marriage night is the entrance into some prison,” but she suspects the brothers’ “speech,” as she calls it, was so smoothly done only because they had practiced it. After giving the Duchess a warning of his own, Ferdinand leaves, and the Duchess, promptly proving their fears are well-grounded, sets forth on her “dangerous venture” of marriage. Antonio comes forth, and after...
(The entire section is 1236 words.)
Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
Old Lady: speaks with Bosola about her makeup and the Duchess’s pregnancy
Forobosco: the keeper of the key to the park gate
Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as Bosola and Castruchio briefly talk about the qualifications to be a courtier just prior to the Old Lady entering. Bosola comments on her foul makeup before giving his meditation on the deformed nature of man. He goes on to reveal his suspicion of the Duchess’s pregnancy in a brief monologue before Antonio and Delio arrive. Bosola tells Antonio that Antonio’s ancestry is worth nothing before presenting the Duchess with some “apricocks.” Upon eating one of the...
(The entire section is 653 words.)
Act 2, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
Bosola hears a shriek “from the Duchess’ lodging.” In his position as intelligencer, he feels obligated to investigate. He encounters Antonio armed with a sword, and in their questioning of what each other is doing out, Antonio says he was setting the Duchess’s jewels, and Bosola says he was saying his prayers. They exchange bitter words, and after Antonio leaves, Bosola sees a note dropped by Antonio indicating that the Duchess has been “deliver’d of a son, ‘tween the hours twelve and one” of the night. He wonders who the father is and resolves to send a letter to her brothers, who are in Rome, to notify them of his discovery.
Scene 4 begins with the Cardinal and Julia in...
(The entire section is 830 words.)
Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
Malateste: a count who the Duchess refuses to marry
After a considerable length of time, Delio has returned to the court, along with Ferdinand. In the meantime, Antonio has informed him that the Duchess has given birth to a son and a daughter. Antonio adds that the common people think of her as a “strumpet,” and they think Antonio has become wealthy through fraudulent means. Ferdinand arrives to assure the Duchess that he does not suspect her, and even if she were a strumpet, “my fix’d love would strongly excuse” her faults. Bosola reports to Ferdinand the rumor that the Duchess has three children, and tells him that he has “a false key...
(The entire section is 1191 words.)
Act 3, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
Pilgrims: two pilgrims to the shrine at Loretto who witness the Cardinal’s investiture as a soldier and Antonio and the Duchess’s banishment
The Marquis of Pescara: converses with Silvio and Delio, and later seizes Antonio’s lands
The Cardinal and Ferdinand, together with Malateste, Pescara, Silvio, and Delio, open scene three by planning to join a military coalition with the Marquis of Pescara and Lannoy. Bosola enters, and Ferdinand, questioning the truth of the Duchess’s alleged pilgrimage, wonders if her children “were ever christ’ned.” The Cardinal sets off for Loretto, and Ferdinand tells Bosola to get together 150 of...
(The entire section is 820 words.)
Act 4, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Bosola tells Ferdinand that the Duchess is bearing the ordeal of her imprisonment “nobly.” Ferdinand leaves, and the traverse is drawn to show the Duchess. Bosola offers her comfort and says Ferdinand means to reconcile with her. Ferdinand returns and, speaking accusatory words, gives her a dead man’s hand to kiss. Ferdinand leaves before she is given a show of “the artificial figures of Antonio and his children; appearing as if they were dead.” Bosola falsely confirms their death to the Duchess, and she vows to die. Bosola offers encouraging words, and after she leaves unconsoled, Ferdinand and Bosola talk. Ferdinand repeats his vitriol against the Duchess, tells Bosola to see her again,...
(The entire section is 347 words.)
Act 4, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Mad Men: these men, including an astrologer, doctor, priest, and lawyer, are sent to the Duchess by Ferdinand
The Duchess and Cariola are hounded by “the wild consort of madmen” put in the Duchess’s lodging by Ferdinand. The Duchess remarks that “the robin red-breast and the nightingale never live long in cages,” and she too is likely to die soon. A servant arrives to tell the Duchess that Ferdinand means to have the madmen cure her melancholy, and they enter to speak several lines apiece. Bosola, made up like an old man, arrives as the madmen dance. He observes that the Duchess is aging prematurely because of the distress caused her by...
(The entire section is 785 words.)
Act 5, Scene 1: Summay and Analysis
Antonio and Delio, who had opened the play, open the fifth act as well, but they are now in Milan, which serves as the setting for the entire act. Delio informs Antonio that the Marquis of Pescara has seized Antonio’s lands and distributed them to the Marquis’ own relatives. Delio sees the Marquis and asks to be given some of Antonio’s land, but his request is rejected. The Marquis instead gives Julia some of the land and the citadel of Saint Bennet, to Antonio’s dismay. The Marquis justifies his actions by saying since the Cardinal has told him to seize Antonio’s lands, they are “a gratification only due to a strumpet: for it is injustice.” The Marquis leaves after noting that a sick...
(The entire section is 249 words.)
Act 5, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
The Doctor: treats Ferdinand for his madness
Pescara returns to talk with a doctor about Ferdinand’s “lycanthropia.” The Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste, and, in the background, Bosola, enter. Ferdinand promptly tries to attack his shadow, fails to identify his doctor, and “tries to take off his gown.” Ferdinand beats the doctor before leaving, and the Cardinal explains that Ferdinand’s madness comes from seeing the nocturnal apparition of a murdered ghost. As the others leave, Bosola steps forward, and the Cardinal, before briefly promising to greatly reward him for doing “one thing for me,” vows not to let Bosola know that the Cardinal...
(The entire section is 740 words.)
Act 5, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
Echo: an echo heard near the Duchess’s grave by Antonio and Delio
The characters of scene 3 are Antonio and Delio, who are at a fortification built on “the ruins of an ancient abbey,” as well as “an Echo from the Duchess’s grave.” The Echo is thought by Antonio to resemble the Duchess’s voice, and both Delio and the Echo advise him to stay away from the Cardinal’s rooms. Antonio protests that necessity compels him to visit the Cardinal and settle his fate, and Delio promises to fetch Antonio’s oldest son.
The Cardinal, Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan open scene 4. The Cardinal tells his four guests not to...
(The entire section is 1001 words.)